Black Elk (1863-1950)

Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist's Narrative:
When he was nine years old, Black Elk, the great Oglala holy man, was shown a magnificent vision by the sacred Thunder-beings of the West, which changed his life. He was taken up into the heavens and given powers to heal and protect his people. He was also shown glimpses of their future. He was charged with their welfare and given a symbolic red staff to plant in their midst and bring to life. The vision took on universal qualities. "And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father."

Several years later he was present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1886 he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show so that he could learn more about white people and their ways. His travels with Buffalo Bill in Europe had a lasting impression on him. In 1889, he returned to his tribe and the following year survived the slaughter at Wounded Knee.

Although he became a Roman Catholic and even worked with the Jesuit missionaries as a lay catechist, his vision and its responsibilities continued to haunt him. The missionaries insisted that he abandon the traditional religion of his people, but in his old age he collaborated with two Anglo-American writers to record the sacred rites of the Lakota, and his own life and shamanic vision. He grieved that he had never been able to care for his people as he had been charged -- to bring the sacred red staff to life -- and asked to be taken to Harney Peak in the Black Hills so that he could pray for this once more.

In this icon, the Thunder-beings, are depicted as flaming eyes, for they have no bodies, but only eyes from which bolts of lightning flash. They are spirits who purify the earth. Black Elk is praying for the earth and its people with his sacred pipe. The red staff, planted in the great hoop which is our planet, has brought forth its first leaf as a symbol of life and hope.


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