Monday, March 29, 2010


Black Elk introduces us to the Native American idea of power, an internal force that comes with specific instructions and limitations for its use. I thought this was an interesting aspect of their culture that is not often discussed. Because tribes operate as communal systems, although there is a hierarchical order, power is not connected with material wealth, but rather a force of spirit. Power, in this sense, is a quality of being, an aura so to speak. The ritualistic way Black Elk taps into this power reaffirms the importance of community and heritage to the native Americans, as it is his six grandfathers that guide him to his new spiritual knowledge.

A Native American circle of power.

Another interesting source of power, and the recognition of power, is the imagery of the vision itself. Black Elk says, “a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see (p. 28).” This means that the inner journey is not enough to command the kind of spirit strength it provides. Rather power is only begotten by public display and approval. This is somewhat similar to the American political race, which I find ironic, in that politicians must prove themselves as charismatic leaders with a patriotic and dramatic background, not unlike the vision quests Black Elk must relate to his people.

But what is the substance of this power? Black Elk regarded it as a calling, a tool to be used to help his people. But how far can spiritual confidence and affirmation through hallucinations really get you? I feel like Black Elk overhyped his initial gift of power and used it too frivolously. He was able to rally his people around him for a time, but when the memory of his vision faded, when the new generations looked for substance and action, he could not deliver. I think perhaps this made his defeat even more bitter. A power he built upon his spiritual belief was not sufficient to save his people. I know he says, “It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it (21),” but I think what he realizes is that the vision was never sufficient, despite how he used it. The reality was that a leadership based on messages from an alternate, spiritual reality could not guide the native American people through their hardship. But as a true spiritual messenger, Black Elk blames himself for his failure, instead of questioning the belief system that was unable to empower its people to the point of survival.

What I don’t understand is why exactly this power was so easily diluted. Black Elk makes a strong statement when he says, “everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished (26).” I feel like this is a very empowering attitude, and if the Native Americans were truly attuned to it, I don’t understand why he would be so quick to proclaim the “sacred hoop” broken. I realize they faced extreme hardship, but this is generally when a culture reaffirms their faith in the power of their spirituality and rituals.

Native Americans experienced unsurmountable suffering.


The end of this selection brought home the tragedy that occurred among the native American people. When Black Elk says, “And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, - you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer (p. 35),” you can feel his defeat, his shame, and his sorrow. The native American people will never be able to forget this injustice, and that sense of sorrow will continue to define their tradition no matter its positive roots. Their power has shifted to become more morose. The visual tradition remains and the importance of oral story telling and the relating of spiritual quests. But it is scarred by a lost sovereignty, a lost power that can never be regained. I think Black Elk’s words, “You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see (p. 25),” are very poignant considering the fate of his people. It is a stoic power they still posses, that Black Elk’s words posses, that maintains the beauty and majesty of native American culture.

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