Why do people love Black Elk? What’s not to like? He was a sweet, peaceful, spiritual man who tried always to do the right thing and welcomed Christianity without giving up his Sioux convictions and practices. He was archetypically Plains Indian: Sioux, present at both the Battle of the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee I, as well as participating in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as it toured Europe. I suppose part of my resistance comes from auditing a class taught by Joseph Epes Brown, who followed John Neihardt as an explicator of Black Elk.
Brown was teaching in Missoula and he was strangely resistant to me sitting in on the class. I couldn’t understand why until afterwards when I realized that he was starting a lecture on tricksters by “tricking” his students with a phony baloney story about coming-of-age ceremonies for women that involved them being painted red in recognition of cow buffaloes getting bloody noses and snuffling warm blood froth all over their calves as a kind of red flannel underwear to keep them cozy. He suspected that I would raise my hand and say, “What nonsense! What a great way to attract wolves!” But I didn’t. On the other hand, I thought, “Oh, another cheesy anthropologist inventing stories.”
Brown was wearing a pale blue silk knit turtleneck under a tweed jacket with the obligatory suede elbow patches, turquoise and silver jewelry, a pearl gray Stetson and well-polished cowboy boots. Right there, already, I was suspicious and I suppose I’ve carried those feelings over to Black Elk, whose sartorial elegance ran more to a black silk scarf around his neck and a blanket around his waist. No feathers or jewelry. In his most famous photo he looks quite a bit like Chewing Black Bone, an irreproachable and holy old man of the Blackfeet.
But I’m entirely unjust to Brown. Both he and Black Elk were gentlemen participants in an approach to religion that William E. Paden (see “Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion”) calls “universalism:” “It is the view that all religions essentially point toward the same reality but use different names for it. As water is the same everywhere, but is called by different names, so too with divinity or the spirit that is the same everywhere.” (p. 95) Produced by new and open-minded exposure to Asian religious ideas, such as Taoist, Hindu and Islamic concepts, universalism in this sense is the key (with variations) to the “perennial philosophy” as well as Unitarian Transcendentalism. Beyond scholarly inquiry, this attitude can easily become a framework for believers working towards peace and harmony on both a personal and international level. Plato had suggested something like it early on. Brown, like Neihardt, found it in Plains Indian systems. To Black Elk it was not a matter of rationality so much as emotional recognition. A survivor of massacres does not turn away from peace and transcendence.
Since that time and especially during the Aquarian Revolution of the Seventies, many have welcomed this thinking. I notice that Brown refers several times, approvingly, to a thinker named René Guénon, a French metaphysics thinker, rather like Eliade but less famous. Guénon ended up converting to Islam and living in Egypt, which suggests that he might be a pretty rewarding figure for a contemporary study. His attraction to the occult, which he ends in rejecting because of its corruption by persons seeking power over others, introduces the issue of using religion as “magic,” trying to turn the dogma of the ideal into a rationale for controlling others. (Fundamentalism.) Or hinting that one has supernatural powers amounting to miracles.
So there is a spectrum here from a reaching out for peace and harmony to a grasping at something like sorcery to try to dictate events. I see both trends here on the Blackfeet Reservation with the balance point a little too far over on the control end. Is anyone who understands the effect of poverty and oppression on people, let alone the destruction of their belief systems, very surprised by this? Today it’s strong in American politics. It’s tragically powerful throughout the planet.
Getting back to the specific issue of “The Sacred Pipe,” it is a follow-up to the earlier “Black Elk Speaks.” Brown recorded Black Elk in 1947 when the scars and deprivations of WWII were still everywhere. Meeting with the old man (1863 to 1950) in the walled tent where he lived as a migrant worker and then the log cabin in Manderson, S.D. where the family wintered, Brown taped what are described as Seven Sacred Rites of the Sioux. These are edited and annotated in footnotes to emphasize their universality. Brown says, “We are still very far from being aware of the dimensions and ramifications of our ethnocentric illusions. Nevertheless, by the very nature of things, we are now forced to undergo a process of self-examination and to engage in a serious reevaluation of the premises and orientations our society.” Thus, “we are looking to the kinds of models represented by the American Indians.”
The Seven Rites are:
INIPI: The Rite of Purification
HANBLECHEYAPI: Crying for a Vision
WIWANJAG WACHIPI: The Sun Dance
HUNKAPI: The Making of Relatives
ISHNA TA AWI CHA LOWAN: Preparing a Girl for Womanhood
TAPA WANKA YAP: The Throwing of the Ball
The very fact that each is titled formally, including the Sioux name, helps Christians see them in terms of the Roman Catholic seven sacraments with Latin names: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance and reconciliation (confession), anointing of the sick (last rites), holy orders, and matrimony. In fact, Black Elk formally converted to Catholicism, while keeping the Sioux understanding of the world.
If one were to look at Blackfeet liturgies, one might not divide the territory quite the same way that the Sioux did, but there’s no question that all Plains tribes (especially after the advent of the horse and calamities like epidemics and cavalry attacks) learned from each other in the same way that the early Christian communities learned from each other, an innovation or interpretation in one place traveling to the next.
The universalist understanding of what religion is all about, with or without the “magical” element, has as much appeal for us today as it did in the days immediately after the holocaust and the atomic bomb. The Dalai Lama does a good job of embodying in a personhood the same elements as Black Elk. There have been numbers of such figures in history and they are with us now. But there still aren’t enough of them. If there were ever a time to “cry out for a vision,” this is it.