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Black Elk Speaks


U.S. flag - Freedom Series"This, then, is not the tale of a great hunter or of a great warrior, or of a great traveler, although I have made much meat in my time and fought for my people both as boy and man, and have gone far and seen strange lands and men. So also have many others done, and better than I. These things I shall remember by the way, and often they may seem to be the very tale itself, as when I was living them in happiness and sorrow. But now that I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know that it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people's heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people's dream that died in bloody snow.

"But if the vision was true and mighty, as I know, it is true and mighty yet; for such things are of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost."

I have whiled away most of the afternoon reading about Black Elk and his stories of the Ogalala and Crow and the other dying Sioux nations, and about the coming of the white man, and the long-hair Custer, and the reservations of the Hang-Around-The-Fort people. I was most interested in Black Elk's healing visions during the time of the death of the Indian nations, for, in the long run, we are all Indians. But it is very rare for any of us to have visions of any sort, let alone lasting ones which we can share or which have the power to heal others. I cannot remember most of the thoughts I had about my own past while reading Black Elk. It was like being able to share the dreams you once had a long time ago, as if old friends have come back to visit but we are too busy sharing our experiences to remember that it was a long time ago. It was like being able to walk alone in the High Sierras again, comfortably aware of the serenity of our aloneness and the majesty of the mountains and the winds all around us which cool us and run through our hair with a hush that whispers that something new is always here. These are not the things that lend themselves easily to casual or even believable socializing, or the ten o'clock news.

The thought occurs that it would be a bad thing to try to needlessly integrate the vision of Black Elk with my own, or into our present circumstances in the United States. There is a certain value and dignity in keeping these things separate from each other in understanding, for they are different experiences and have their meaning in different worlds. The Western rush to explain everything in terms of other things which are also not truly grasped leaves a vacuum, the filling of which is only approximated by art. Black Elk said that he did not ever tell any one person all of his vision, until the very end, but only little pieces of it to any one person, because if you did, it would lose its power and would not work for you. Missing from this are the ideas of growth and change, but even these come to us unevenly, and we can mark these periods like rings on a tree. We do not live in a spiritual world today, and so must invent our own oases along the way, having for the most part institutionalized and trivialized our cultural heritages into distilled wisdoms almost everybody understands, like the San Francisco Giants, Parade magazine, and Homer Simpson. This is sad, for visions have lost their power of emboldenment. Vision has become an act of posture not spoken from the heart, nor from lived experience, and, outside the intensely personal private lives we scarcely believe in and dare not share, any distinction between vision and hallucination, insight and hallucinogen, has lost all but the most fleeting credibility. Vision has become an act of faith divested of the power of knowledge and conviction.

People are uncomfortable with the simplest of pleasures and are constantly caught trying to justify these by reference to a more highly contrived standard. I would like to weed the garden, not because I find pleasure sitting outdoors on the cool green lawn in the sun pulling some plants with my own bare hands out of the dirt so that others I enjoy more may better live, but because the garden "wants" weeding, and because the neighborhood takes pride in certain standards of landscape maintenance.

People understand that when the Puritans spread their European "work ethic", the justification was that productivity was an end unto itself, and thus its own reward, and people understand that this is partly right, but partly a mistake, too, because it allowed people to hide from themselves through their own work, which is a form of suicide.

To ameliorate this, we adopted the ethic that work should be "practical" so that everyone can benefit from it instantly, meaning, without spiritual effort, and at a profit. This went a great way toward providing for one's old age with the full realization that enormous expenditures of life's energy, in the long run, went for nothing except the means of sitting upon our retirements to contemplate emptiness and discontent.

"I can remember when the bison were so many that they could not be counted, but more and more the Wasichus (white men) came to kill them until there were only heaps of bones scattered where they used to be. The Wasichus did not kill them to eat; they killed them for the metal that makes them crazy, and they took only the hides to sell. Sometimes they did not even take the hides, only the tongues; and I have heard that fire-boats (steamboats) came down the Missouri River loaded with dried Bison tongues. You can see that the men who did this were crazy. Sometimes they did not even take the tongues; they just killed and killed because they liked to do that."

I see that I am still working up to comparing Black Elk's dying nation to our own concerns. I wrote that we are all Indians in the long run, though it is not given to us to know how long this run is. This is what has troubled me all along and I see no solution for it. I am not so concerned with the nuts and bolts of how we run our businesses as how we run our souls. It is one thing to say that it is none of our business how other people run their lives and businesses, and yet another to say that we should not need others to talk to with whom we can share and plan our deepest fears and joys.

I see that I did not want to go to the Gay Day Parade tomorrow because I fear we have not yet won that which we need to celebrate, and I wanted to justify this by not doing today everything that I will need to do tomorrow while everybody else is at the parade. I needed to be alone to see if I could really believe that Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day could be a touchstone of liberty for all of us in America. I am on record as viewing us all, minorities and elitists alike, as prisoners on so many scattered reservations, at each others' throats instead of asking hard questions of our elected wardens. That is a hard thing to admit in this, the freest nation on Earth, and so, by coincidence too random to dignify, I found that I needed to be alone with "Black Elk Speaks."

Black Elk spoke of a different world than the one we live in, but if you put us all in teepees and forced us to kill our own meat and give our visions reality in medicine men instead of television sets and huckster evangelists, I am sure you could not tell us apart, and I am sure we would kill each other as coldly and ritually with knives and six-shooters and arrows as we do today with the artifice of courts and the law whenever we discover another tribe has something that we want too badly to barter for in good faith.

By the time of the rude awakening of uninvolved America, men and women who style themselves after the fashion of that which we call a "majority", we all will see that the minorities were telling the truth all along but that we are all in the same boat, we are all minorities now, and it is probably no longer worth the effort to bail it out. I see us fighting over the bucket while the boat sinks. I see a continuing decline and dis-integration in whatever common sense of community and purpose we once had, which is not a sad thing because this sense was poorly defined to begin with, and based on manipulative dreams which could not be lived in actual practice anyway. We argue in court over spotted owls, zoning laws, taxation of human labor and discrimination cases when the law of the land is that individual human lives are expendable, infinitely divisible, replenishable resources. No one likes a Cassandra, and I am not comfortable in the role. I am not comfortable with a vision which is unpleasant if we can only work to forestall it in our own time. I want to dare to hope that people will see goodness in other women and men struggling to be free. The question of the day, for the here-and-now: what will it take to convince each of us it's in our own best interests to leave each other's own interests alone?

Out of the oldest and most enduring mythos of mankind comes the universal observation that new life constantly springs from the ashes of the old.

Out of tomorrow's parade and the growth of the gay community is coming a scarcely believable respect for the sanctity of the individual. It would be a monstrous trivialization of this sanctity to call it a respect for "rights" in a day and age when the thinking processes needed to define, respect and sanction rights to life on this earth scarcely exist even in the universities. While almost everyone can see there is a difference between what works and what one can get away with, for a real understanding of whether rights are based on our makeup as thinking beings, or on the trendy fabric of social conventions, one would be better off heading for the hills or a Tibetan monastery. We would better appreciate what we give up when electing to return to civilization.

I know this much: the here and now is beautiful, inviolable, and forever as long as we carry its vision with us wherever we actually go. It is inside me, but it is evidently everywhere if you know how to look. I can not fathom how men could forget what it is to be in love with this earth and the life on it.

"I kept on curing the sick for three years more, and many came to me and were made over; but when I thought of my great vision, which was to save the nation's hoop and make the holy tree to bloom in the center of it, I felt like crying, for the sacred hoop was broken and scattered. The life of the people was in the hoop, and what are many little lives if the life of those lives be gone?"

You see that the "hoop" device in Black Elk's metaphor is real to him, though you can see that Black Elk understood the power was in what the hoops represented, not in what they were. We call these things "symbols", concrete things which represent the actually important abstractions. When these things no longer seemed real, Black Elk's people died. If it pleases us to think of the "life of the people" - the hoop - as a primitive icon or totem, it was, for a nomadic people whose symbology revolved around nature and the idea of the circle, at least a portable symbol one could paint on any teepee, for there the spirit of the people lived. People should choose their totems carefully.

Rainbow FlagThe spirit of the people lives today, among other places, in the Rainbow flag, because we believe in what it represents. This spirit represents much more to all America than the sense of solidarity and liberty communicated and felt by the men and women who carry the banners and walk the good walk. This spirit is our "hoop" -- so it is promised, for as long as the waters run, and the grasses grow. Tomorrow, all this great nation will see a good many Rainbow flags, and there is more power in those flags than this nation has ever seen in them before. On such a day, it is inconceivable to say that this power could ever be taken away, broken and scattered to the four winds.

Outside, a songbird chirps loudly and brightly in the darkness, happy to greet the new day. It is only a quarter to one Sunday morning. Perhaps Black Elk would have seen some good sign in this. Perhaps I should have chosen to go to the parade this year. There is still time, but then I would not have made that time to see all this from the lonely hilltop of which Black Elk spoke, and still have the fortune to hear the songbird chirp. There was a time, you know, when I would have resented the songbirds who make it their business to announce the coming day at one o'clock in the morning. But now I finally see again that it is given to each of us to see things in our own way and time, and it brings to me a special pleasure to realize it is just as important to be happy in being sure that the dawn is actually coming, as it is to be right about its exact time of arrival.


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© Alex Forbes , La Parola July 1993


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