Thursday, March 25, 2010


I would like to know more about the context of Black Elk Speaks. Is there a continuous narrative going on, organized in a coherent manner? I know it is supposed to be the narration of Black Elk’s life, but so much is missing from the selection that I find it easy to miss the point. Perhaps at the time it was just meant as a cultural expose to introduce people to a then unknown way of life. But now, Native American culture has been so popularized by movies such as Pocahontas and Avatar that reading something like this is not especially striking to me. I know both movies are complete facsimiles of the true culture and struggles of Native Americans, but from what I’ve read here, they give me the same main ideas.

Pocahontas may not accurately illustrate Native American culture.

Native Americans have a profound respect for place, akin to that of many eastern religions. I wonder what it is that makes these ancient religions so focused on unity, on worldly power and divine knowledge. I do not get the same feeling from western religion, that divinity exists all around us, that it is a natural power source to be tapped into. What do Native American and eastern cultures have in common? When Black Elk describes himself “standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being (x),” I am reminded of Siddhartha’s enlightened state, and the oft mentioned state of higher awareness of spatial realities in eastern culture.

Another similarity I see with eastern spirituality is the emphasis on compassion for all creatures, and on the maintenance of a balance between man and animal, almost a karmic responsibility to give as much as one takes. When Black Elk says, “I felt sorry that we had killed these animals and thought that we ought to do something in return (xi),” he is showing his appreciation of all life and of the subtleties of human/animal interaction. He believes in atonement. And that is exactly what his father offers him when he says, “To all the wild things that eat flesh, this I have offered that my people may live and the children grow up with plenty (xi).” They understand that existing in the natural world requires a reciprocal relationship with the environment. If you take, you must give back. If you want to survive, you must not over-consume.

Native American tribes created no waste in building teepees.

I believe this to be the greatest lesson we could glean from Native American culture. They are extremely wise in the art of sustainability. Their craft is based on recycling and the creative use of materials, their community structure based on sharing and conservation. This attitude stems from a greater understanding of the unity of all life on earth, an understanding shared by Siddhartha. When we become aware of this interconnectedness, we can see the implications of our actions far into the future and thus structure them to better mitigate destruction.

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