When Black Elk Spoke

It’s Columbus Day, a really stupid holiday if you ask me. There’s no banks open, no mail, and government offices are closed, all in honor of the arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492 of Christopher Columbus, a guy who didn’t know where he was going and didn’t know where he was when he got there. He thought he landed in India, that’s why Native Americans were called Indians.

It seems this year there are more voices than ever calling for the abolition of Columbus Day and the establishment of an Indigenous People’s Day. It’s not a bad idea.

I think there are interesting correlations between Native American wisdom and Eastern philosophy, and it’s probably more than a coincidence.  I believe recent DNA studies have revealed Native Americans are descended from Asian ancestors.

Much of Native American wisdom reminds me of Taoism.  Both involve the healing arts and mental discipline, and they have tremendous respect for the earth and knowledge of natural laws.

The great symbol of Taoism is the Yin-Yang or Taiji, a circle divided into two halves, one white and the other black. In Taoist philosophy, reality is cyclical. Nature is like a circle, and the circle represents wholeness and the harmony between forces that appear to be opposites. Understanding cyclical nature is the key to living a full life. Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.), considered the founder of Taoism, wrote: “Just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their natural course.”

An important chronicler of Native American wisdom was a Nebraskan named John G. Neihardt (1881-1973). He was a writer, poet and historian. In 1930, Neihardt interviewed an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) medicine man named Black Elk, who at age 13 witnessed the massacre of Custer and his troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and later toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Black Elk shared with Neihardt the story of his people, the destruction of the buffalo, Little Big Horn and the Battle of Wounded Knee, and talked about his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and another Lakota holy man, the great chief Sitting Bull.

Neihardt put Black Elk’s word into a book, Black Elk Speaks. In this excerpt, Black Elk shares the Native American vision of the circle of life:

black-elk3[The] Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round . . . 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 nest 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 tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop.”

The Medicine Wheel and the Sacred Hoop are other important symbols found in Native American wisdom, and the circle, of course, is an essential element of other cultures and philosophies.

Nature does not proceed in a straight line, nor does the universe. Space is curved. If we follow the circular course of nature – such as the sequence of the seasons, the orbits of planets and stars – we place ourselves in rhythm with life, touching wholeness and wellness.

 

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