Wisdom of Black Elk

Mending the Sacred Hoop

Over a hundred years ago Black Elk had a vision of the time when people of the First Nations would heal from the devastating effects of European migration. In his vision the Sacred Hoop which had been broken, would be mended in seven generations. People living now are in the seventh generation.

“You have noticed that everything an Indian does in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything and everything tries to be round.

Wild sunflowers in South Dakota

In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”

Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota Sovereign Nation 1863-1950

On my first trip to North America, in the late 1980s, I was very privileged to stay with friends from the First Nations, namely  from the Nations of the Hopi, Dine and Mohawk .  At the time, I met a couple of people from the Lakota Nation but it wasn’t until after I’d met my husband and returned in the mid 90s, that  I was introduced to his relatives up in the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Spearfish Canyon Black Hills

I’d read and heard about Black Elk before then, but it was only on visiting and feeling connected with his people, that I fully understood the importance of his words. If you want to know more, the book “Black Elk Speaks “ by John G. Neihardt, written in 1932, is his life story full of wisdom and insight.

 I am very aware that people from the First Nations get fed up of others taking from them. For the Oglala Lakota and many other Nations, it is a terrible never-ending saga, starting with the land, then the buffalo, then their lives, then their children to Carlisle Schools, then more land, then their health, then more lives, then more land, then their identity, then their children, (this time by non-indigenous religious families ‘adopting’ them off the reservation), then their language, then their culture, then what is under their land and finally their spirituality. Initially it was overt harm but over the centuries it has become more hidden and disguised, but no less insidious. These horrors have been perpetuated by many different agencies, all supported and encouraged (openly and not so openly) by the government of  ‘The Land of the Free’. Some of the many culprits include Hollywood, a multitude of Christian churches, the army, the FBI, the National Guard, the CIA, local State governors, prospectors, mining companies, oil companies, state education, railway constructors, ranchers and a multitude of other ‘do-gooders’…the list is endless. Most of all these things have been done for monetary profit by the people involved.  I’ve given a very brief outline, which feels wrong when there is so much suffering involved, but you can discover more by looking into it yourself. A classic book that explains some of this terrible injustice is called ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown.

So what  is the reality of this? It broke my heart when my much loved mother-in-law, who originated from Red Shirt Table, told me that she remembered as a child being brought up to think that ‘Indians’ were bad. She recalled going on a school trip  and there was a statue of an ‘Indian’ on the hill. She looked up and saw it and felt a shiver of fear. Then she stopped. ‘Hang on a minute,’ she reasoned. ‘Why am I feeling frightened? He is one of my own people.’ The brainwashing at her state school had been so intense that she had been taught to fear her own.  I felt like crying when she relayed that memory to me. She then went on to tell me that at that point, she decided to learn about her own culture and identity. Later on in her life,  she became one of the first to teach Lakota in her local college.

Oglala Lakota women protesting against Trump rally in Black Hills 2020

Amazingly, despite the endless and continuing onslaught, the spirit of the Oglala Lakota Nation has never given up. They are proud to be the only Nation that has successfully  defeated the U.S. army twice. Many inspirational young (and older) people are working to change things for the better, standing up for their rights (against all odds) and holding on to a belief in their own culture and identity.

Badlands South Dakota

Two generations later, her grandson (and our nephew), inspired by her example, is continuing to mend the Sacred Hoop. He has learnt Lakota and is teaching it to young people in the tribe. He’s a brilliant teacher and the children love his lessons.  Now, he is trying to get the local state schools to allow him to teach this subject in the mainstream, particularly where the schools are majority Lakota pupils, but as usual, he is being side-lined and blocked. Language is so important, as cultural identity is held within it. This has been acknowledged for centuries otherwise why would the teachers in the Carlisle Schools have beaten the children so cruelly just for speaking in their own tongue? It would be brilliant if he could achieve his goal. There seems to be a long way to go yet, but the shoots are beginning. With everything in this world, it is the wisdom of the Elders and the acceptance of the younger generations to listen and act  that will make the eventual difference.  

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