Black Elk (1863–1950) was a renowned medicine man, heyoka and holy man of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Native American tribe. When he was nine years old, he became ill and lost consciousness. As he lay dying, his face and limbs swelled up severely and he was unresponsive for several days. During this time he had a near-death experience in which he was visited by two men, known as “Thunder Beings”, coming from the clouds. These beings then took Black Elk to a council of “the six Grandfathers” who are spiritual representatives of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above, and below – known to the Lakotas as the “Powers of the World.” Black Elk found himself at the “axis” of these six sacred directions. Mythologist Joseph Campbell described it as the “axis mundi, the central point, the pole around which all revolves … the point where stillness and movement are together.” Campbell viewed Black Elk’s vision as key to understanding Native American myth and symbols. Black Elk’s worldview shaped his near-death experience using sacred Native American cultural symbols such as rainbows, clouds, mandalas and light. During his NDE, the Grandfathers each gave Black Elk special powers not unlike Platonic forms or Jungian archetypes: life, death, healing, awakening, peace, renewal, transcendent vision, Black Elk stated:
“And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and 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. 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. And I saw that it was holy.”
1. Introduction to Black Elk’s Life and NDEs
Black Elk’s profound NDE occurred during a time of great Native American loss, when the white man stole their land and destroyed their food supply and way of life. Living between 1863 and 1950, Black Elk witnessed the clash of two different cultures when the indigenous people of America was being taken over by the Industrial Revolution. He also witnessed the epic ending era of the Old West. Black Elk was the second cousin of Crazy Horse, the notable Lakota chief who led a war party to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against General Armstrong Custer in June 1876. Black Elk was thirteen years old when he too took part in this battle. Black Elk was also there when he survived the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. While on horseback, Black Elk charged the opposing soldiers and helped to rescue some of the wounded. Stated Black Elk:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. 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 … the nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Black Elk’s described his NDE as an encounter with the sacred spiritual powers present in all the world. He used the symbolism of his ancient Native American language to describe it: in thunder, fire, water, blood, horses, birds, and buffalo. This symbolism is remarkably similar to some of the symbolism found in John the Revelator’s vision in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. The worldview of the Lakota Sioux also involves a “Great Mystery” – the sacred spirit behind all creation – the Wakan Tanka – the Great Spirit.
When Black Elk revived from his NDE, he was told that he “had been sick twelve days, lying like dead all the while.” His friend Standing Bear, then thirteen years old, said that Black Elk was unconscious twelve days, “dying and just breathing barely.” But Black Elk was fearful to relate his NDE to anyone and became a shy, withdrawn boy for eight years. When he was seventeen, he finally told a medicine man about the vision in detail. Other medicine men of the village were “astonished by the greatness of the vision.” The medicine man helped Black Elk to develop his near-death vision into a spiritual ritual to reenact and remember; but especially to heal his people with the powers he was given. This resulted in him becoming a powerful medicine man and shaman. He healed many people of illnesses through his healing rituals until the reservation missionary priests stopped him. But Black Elk came come from a long line of medicine men and healers in his family including his father and uncles. Black Elk was also a leader in the revival of the “Sun Dance” — an important religious ritual among several Indian tribes — and the reinstatement this ritual among the Lakotas which is practiced even today.
Toward the end of his life as an aging elder, Black Elk revealed his NDE testimony, the story of his life, and a number of sacred Sioux rituals for publication. In the summer of 1930, as part of his research into the Native American “Ghost Dance movement,” John G. Neihardt (1881-1973) (www.neihardt.com), an American writer, went to meet Black Elk who had participated in the Ghost Dance. The Lakota elder chose Neihardt to share his sacred visions and life with the rest of the world. Neihardt recorded it all in minute detail for preservation and published his book, Black Elk Speaks, in 1932. Since the ’70s, Black Elk Speaks has become an important source for studying Native American spirituality and sparked a renewal of interest in Native American religions. Through Neihardt’s book, Black Elk’s testimony has won wide interest and acclaim. Black Elk Speaks is widely hailed as a religious classic, one of the best spiritual books of the modern era and the bestselling book of all time by an American Indian. It is the epic history of a brave and proud Native nation. Black Elk’s revelations are an important spiritual message and vision of the sacred wholeness of the earth, her creatures, and all of humanity. The famous psychologist Carl Jung read Neihardt’s book in the 1930s and urged its translation into German in 1955.
2. Black Elk Begins to Hear Voices Calling Out to Him
The following is Black Elk’s testimony in his own words from Black Elk Speaks:
I was four years old then, and I think it must have been the next summer that I first heard the voices. It was a happy summer and nothing was afraid, because in the Moon When the Ponies Shed (month of May) word came from the Wasichus (white men) that there would be peace and that they would not use the road any more and that all the soldiers would go away. The soldiers did go away and their towns were torn down; and in the Moon of Falling Leaves (month of November), they made a treaty with Red Cloud that said our country would be ours as long as grass should grow and water flow. You can see that it is not the grass and the water that have forgotten.
Maybe it was not this summer when I first heard the voices, but I think it was, because I know it was before I played with bows and arrows or rode a horse, and I was out playing alone when I heard them. It was like somebody calling me, and I thought it was my mother, but there was nobody there. This happened more than once, and always made me afraid, so that I ran home.
It was when I was five years old that my Grandfather made me a bow and some arrows. The grass was young and I was horseback. A thunder storm was coming from where the sun goes down, and just as I was riding into the woods along a creek, there was a kingbird sitting on a limb. This was not a dream, it happened. And I was going to shoot at the kingbird with the bow my Grandfather made, when the bird spoke and said: “The clouds all over are one-sided” (implies success, such as victory in battle, the clouds are promising Black Elk success in the future. Perhaps it meant that all the clouds were looking at me. And then it said: “Listen! A voice is calling you!” Then I looked up at the clouds, and two men were coming there, headfirst like arrows slanting down; and as they came, they sang a sacred song and the thunder was like drumming. I will sing it for you. The song and the drumming were like this: “Behold, a sacred voice is calling you; All over the sky a sacred voice is calling.”
I sat there gazing at them, and they were coming from the place where the giant lives (north). But when they were very close to me, they wheeled about toward where the sun goes down, and suddenly they were geese (symbolic messengers). Then they were gone, and the rain came with a big wind and a roaring. I did not tell this vision to any one. I liked to think about it, but I was afraid to tell it.
3. The Voices Get Louder and Black Elk Gets Sick
What happened after that until the summer I was nine years old is not a story. There were winters and summers, and they were good; for the Wasichus had made their iron road (the Union Pacific Railway) along the Platte and traveled there. This had cut the bison herd in two, but those that stayed in our country with us were more than could be counted, and we wandered without trouble in our land.
Now and then the voices would come back when I was out alone, like someone calling me, but what they wanted me to do I did not know. This did not happen very often, and when it did not happen, I forgot about it; for I was growing taller and was riding horses now and could shoot prairie chickens and rabbits with my bow. The boys of my people began very young to learn the ways of men, and no one taught us; we just learned by doing what we saw, and we were warriors at a time when boys now are like girls.
It was the summer when I was nine years old, and our people were moving slowly towards the Rocky Mountains. We camped one evening in a valley beside a little creek just before it ran into the Greasy Grass (the Little Bighorn River in Montana), and there was a man by the name of Man Hip who liked me and asked me to eat with him in his tepee.
While I was eating, a voice came and said: “It is time; now they are calling you.” The voice was so loud and clear that I believed it, and I thought I would just go where it wanted me to go. So I got right up and started. As I came out of the tepee, both my thighs began to hurt me, and suddenly it was like waking from a dream, and there wasn’t any voice. So I went back into the tepee, but I didn’t want to eat. Man Hip looked at me in a strange way and asked me what was wrong. I told him that my legs were hurting me.
The next morning the camp moved again, and I was riding with some boys. We stopped to get a drink from a creek, and when I got off my horse, my legs crumpled under me and I could not walk. So the boys helped me up and put me on my horse; and when we camped again that evening, I was sick. The next day the camp moved on to where the different bands of our people were coming together, and I rode in a pony drag, for I was very sick. Both my legs and both my arms were swollen badly and my face was all puffed up.
4. Black Elk’s First Near-Death Experience
When we had camped again, I was lying in our tepee and my mother and father were sitting beside me. I could see out through the opening, and there two men were coming from the clouds, headfirst like arrows slanting down, and I knew they were the same that I had seen before (the two messengers are geese transformed into men). Each now carried a long spear, and from the points of these a jagged lightning flashed. They came clear down to the ground this time and stood a little way off and looked at me and said, “Hurry! Come! Your Grandfathers are calling you!” Then they turned and left the ground like arrows slanting upward from the bow. When I got up to follow, my legs did not hurt me any more and I was very light. I went outside the tepee, and yonder where the men with flaming spears were going, a little cloud was coming very fast. It came and stopped and took me and turned back to where it came from, flying fast. And when I looked down I could see my mother and my father yonder, and I felt sorry to be leaving them.
Then there was nothing but the air and the swiftness of the little cloud that bore me and those two men still leading up to where white clouds were piled like mountains on a wide blue plain, and in them thunder beings lived and leaped and flashed.
Now suddenly there was nothing but a world of cloud, and we three were there alone in the middle of a great white plain with snowy hills and mountains staring at us; and it was very still; but there were whispers. Then the two men spoke together and they said, “Behold him, the being with four legs!”
I looked and saw a bay horse standing there, and he began to speak, “Behold me!” he said, “My life-history you shall see.” Then he wheeled about to where the sun goes down, and said, “Behold them! Their history you shall know.” I looked, and there were twelve black horses yonder all abreast with necklaces of bison hoofs, and they were beautiful, but I was frightened, because their manes were lightning and there was thunder in their nostrils.
Then the bay horse wheeled to where the great white giant lives (the north) and said, “Behold!” And yonder there were twelve white horses all abreast. Their manes were flowing like a blizzard wind and from their noses came a roaring, and all about them white geese soared and circled. Then the bay wheeled round to where the sun shines continually (the east) and bade me look; and there twelve sorrel horses, with necklaces of elk’s teeth, stood abreast with eyes that glimmered like the daybreak star and manes of morning light. Then the bay wheeled once again to look upon the place where you are always facing (the south), and yonder stood twelve buckskins all abreast with horns upon their heads and manes that lived and grew like trees and grasses. And when I had seen all these, the bay horse said, “Your Grandfathers are having a council. These shall take you; so have courage.”
Then all the horses went into formation, four abreast (Note: Four is an important ritual number for the Lakotas) — the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins — and stood behind the bay, who turned now to the west and neighed; and yonder suddenly the sky was terrible with a storm of plunging horses in all colors that shook the world with thunder, neighing back.
Now turning to the north the bay horse whinnied, and yonder all the sky roared with a mighty wind of running horses in all colors, neighing back. And when he whinnied to the east, there too the sky was filled with glowing clouds of manes and tails of horses in all colors singing back. Then to the south he called, and it was crowded with many colored, happy horses, nickering. Then the bay horse spoke to me again and said, “See how your horses all come dancing!” I looked, and there were horses, horses everywhere — a whole skyful of horses dancing round me. “Make haste!” the bay horse said; and we walked together side by side, while the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins followed, marching four by four. I looked about me once again, and suddenly the dancing horses without number changed into animals of every kind and into all the fowls that are, and these fled back to the four quarters of the world from whence the horses came, and vanished.
a. Black Elk Appears Before the Six Heavenly Grandfathers
Then as we walked, there was a heaped up cloud ahead that changed into a tepee, and a rainbow was the open door of it; (Note: A tepee formed of storm clouds is a frequent motif in the Lakotas visions. The rainbow is called “wigmuke” or “trap” because it is believed to hold back the rain. This explains its function as the doorway to the cloud tepee.) and through the door I saw six old men sitting in a row.
The two men with the spears now stood beside me, one on either hand, and the horses took their places in their quarters, looking inward, four by four. And the oldest of the Grandfathers spoke with a kind voice and said, “Come right in and do not fear.” And as he spoke, all the horses of the four quarters neighed to cheer me. So I went in and stood before the six, and they looked older than men can ever be — old like hills, like stars.
b. The First Heavenly Grandfather Reveals the Council to Black Elk
The oldest spoke again, “Your Grandfathers all over the world are having a council, and they have called you here to teach you.” His voice was very kind, but I shook all over with fear now, for I knew that these were not old men, but the Powers of the World. And the first was the Power of the West; the second, of the North; the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the fifth, of the Sky; the sixth, of the Earth. I knew this, and was afraid, until the first Grandfather spoke again, “Behold them yonder where the sun goes down, the thunder beings! You shall see, and have from them my power; and they shall take you to the high and lonely center of the earth that you may see; even to the place where the sun continually shines, they shall take you there to understand.”
And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames of many colors over me.
Now there was a wooden cup in his hand and it was full of water and in the water was the sky. “Take this,” he said. “It is the power to make live, and it is yours.”
Now he had a bow in his hands. “Take this,” he said. “It is the power to destroy, and it is yours.” Then he pointed to himself and said, “Look close at him who is your spirit now, for you are his body and his name is Eagle Wing Stretches.” And saying this, he got up very tall and started running toward where the sun goes down; and suddenly he was a black horse that stopped and turned and looked at me, and the horse was very poor and sick; his ribs stood out.
c. The Second Heavenly Grandfather Reveals a Nation to Black Elk
Then the second Grandfather, he of the North, arose with a herb of power in his hand, and said, “Take this and hurry.” I took and held it toward the black horse yonder. He was fattened and was happy and came prancing to his place again and was the first Grandfather sitting there.
The second Grandfather, he of the North, spoke again, “Take courage, younger brother,” he said; “on earth a nation you shall make live, for yours shall be the power of the white giant’s wind, the cleansing wind.” Then he got up very tall and started running toward the north; and when he turned toward me, it was a white goose wheeling. I looked about me now, and the horses in the west were thunders and the horses of the north were geese. And the first and second Grandfathers sang two songs that were like this:
“They are appearing, may you behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
The thunder nation is appearing, behold!
d. The Third Heavenly Grandfather Gives Black Elk a Peace Pipe
And now it was the third Grandfather who spoke, he of where the sun shines continually. “Take courage, younger brother,” he said, “for across the earth they shall take you!”
Then he pointed to where the daybreak star was shining, and beneath the star two men were flying. “From them you shall have power,” he said, “from them who have awakened all the beings of the earth with roots and legs and wings.” And as he said this, he held in his hand a peace pipe which had a spotted eagle outstretched upon the stem; and this eagle seemed alive, for it was poised there, fluttering, and its eyes were looking at me.
“With this pipe,” the Grandfather said, “you shall walk upon the earth, and whatever sickens there you shall make well.” Then he pointed to a man who was bright red all over, the color of good and of plenty, and as he pointed, the red man lay down and rolled and changed into a bison that got up and galloped toward the sorrel horses of the east, and they too turned to bison, fat and many.
e. The Fourth Heavenly Grandfather Gives Black Elk the Red Stick of His People
And now the fourth Grandfather spoke, he of the place where you are always facing (Denotes the south. After death the soul travels south across the sky, following the Milky Way or “ghost’s road” to the land of the dead. Thus, throughout life, one is always “facing south.”), whence comes the power to grow. “Younger brother,” he said, “with the powers of the four quarters you shall walk, a relative. Behold, the living center of a nation I shall give you, and with it many you shall save.”
And I saw that he was holding in his hand a bright red stick (The stick is a symbol of the flowering tree which represents the Lakotas as a people.) that was alive, and as I looked it sprouted at the top and sent forth branches, and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured and in the leaves the birds began to sing. And then for just a little while I thought I saw beneath it in the shade the circled villages of people and every living thing with roots or legs or wings, and all were happy. “It shall stand in the center of the nation’s circle,” said the Grandfather, “a cane to walk with and a people’s heart; and by your powers you shall make it blossom” (The “cane” is likewise symbolic of the flowering tree, something on which the people can lean in times of adversity.)
Then when he had been still a little while to hear the birds sing, he spoke again: “Behold the earth!” So I looked down and saw it lying yonder like a hoop of peoples, and in the center bloomed the holy stick that was a tree, and where it stood there crossed two roads, a red one and a black (The two roads that cross in the center, where the sacred tree is to bloom, foretell the people’s future and they also represent the powers given to Black Elk personally, both to do good and to defend the people from their enemies.) “From where the giant lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road goes, the road of good”‘ the Grandfather said, “and on it shall your nation walk. The black road goes from where the thunder beings live (the west) to where the sun continually shines (the east), a fearful road, a road of troubles and of war. On this also you shall walk, and from it you shall have the power to destroy a people’s foes. In four ascents you shall walk the earth with power.”
Note: Concerning the “red road”, Black Elk said he had an obligation to “help to bring my people back into the sacred hoop, that they might again walk the red road in a sacred manner pleasing to the powers of the universe that are one power.” The red road symbolizes the right path of life.
I think he meant that I should see four generations, counting me, and now I am seeing the third. Then he rose very tall and started running toward the south, and was an elk; and as he stood among the buckskins yonder, they too were elks.
f. The Fifth Heavenly Grandfather Gives Black Elk the Spirit of the Sky
Now the fifth Grandfather spoke, the oldest of them all, the Spirit of the Sky. “My boy,” he said, “I have sent for you and you have come. My power you shall see!”
He stretched his arms and turned into a spotted eagle hovering. “Behold,” he said, “all the wings of the air shall come to you, and they and the winds and the stars shall be like relatives. You shall go across the earth with my power.”
g. The Sixth Heavenly Grandfather Reveals Black Elk’s Higher Self
Now I knew the sixth Grandfather was about to speak, he who was the Spirit of the Earth, and I saw that he was very old, but more as men are old. His hair was long and white, his face was all in wrinkles and his eyes were deep and dim. I stared at him, for it seemed I knew him somehow; and as I stared, he slowly changed, for he was growing backwards into youth, and when he had become a boy, I knew that he was myself with all the years that would be mine at last. When he was old again, he said: “My boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it, for your nation on the earth will have great troubles. Come.”
He rose and tottered out through the rainbow door, and as I followed I was riding on the bay horse who had talked to me at first and led me to that place.
Then the bay horse stopped and faced the black horses of the west, and a voice said: “They have given you the cup of water to make live the greening day, and also the bow and arrow to destroy.” The bay neighed, and the twelve black horses came and stood behind me, four abreast. The bay faced the sorrels of the east, and I saw that they had morning stars upon their foreheads and they were very bright. And the voice said: “They have given you the sacred pipe and the power that is peace, and the good red day.” The bay neighed, and the twelve sorrels stood behind me, four abreast.
My horse now faced the buckskins of the south, and a voice said: “They have given you the sacred stick and your nation’s hoop, and the yellow day; and in the center of the hoop you shall set the stick and make it grow into a shielding tree, and bloom.” The bay neighed, and the twelve buckskins came and stood behind me, four abreast.
Then I knew that there were riders on all the horses there behind me, and a voice said: “Now you shall walk the black road with these; and as you walk, all the nations that have roots or legs or wings shall fear you.” So I started, riding toward the east down the fearful road, and behind me came the horsebacks four abreast — the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins — and far away above the fearful road the daybreak star was rising very dim.
h. Black Elk Receives a Vision of His Future as a Healer
I looked below me where the earth was silent in a sick green light, and saw the hills look up afraid and the grasses on the hills and all the animals; and everywhere about me were the cries of frightened birds and sounds of fleeing wings. I was the chief of all the heavens riding there, and when I looked behind me, all the twelve black horses reared and plunged and thundered and their manes and tails were whirling hail and their nostrils snorted lightning. And when I looked below again, I saw the slant hail falling and the long, sharp rain, and where we passed, the trees bowed low and all the hills were dim.
Now the earth was bright again as we rode. I could see the hills and valleys and the creeks and rivers passing under. We came above a place where three streams made a big one – a source of mighty waters – and something terrible was there (The three forks of the Missouri River). Flames were rising from the waters and in the flames a blue man lived
Note: In Lakota mythology, the “blue man” symbolizes illness, suffering and the destruction on our planet due to greed and lack of respect for it. In the following vision, Black Elk overcomes the blue man by striking him with lightning, after which the man transforms into a turtle (the symbol of fertility and long life). By this victory Black Elk gains power over the blue man. Toward the end of the vision the second grandfather (of the North) presents Black Elk with a cup of water in which there was a small man painted blue; Black Elk drinks the water and swallows the man, who thereafter resides within his body and gives him the power to cure. In later life, Black Elk would doctor individuals who were sick by reenacting on earth the cosmic cure that he accomplished in the vision when he rid the world of drought.
The dust was floating all about him in the air, the grass was short and withered, the trees were wilting, two-legged and four-legged beings lay there thin and panting, and wings too weak to fly.
Then the black horse riders shouted “Hoka hey!” and charged down upon the blue man, but were driven back. And the white troop shouted, charging, and was beaten; then the red troop and the yellow.
And when each had failed, they all cried together: “Eagle Wing Stretches, hurry!” And all the world was filled with voices of all kinds that cheered me, so I charged. I had the cup of water in one hand and in the other was the bow that turned into a spear as the bay and I swooped down, and the spear’s head was sharp lightning. It stabbed the blue man’s heart, and as it struck I could hear the thunder rolling and many voices that cried “Huhe!,” (an expression of surprise) meaning I had killed. The flames died. The trees and grasses were not withered any more and murmured happily together, and every living being cried in gladness with whatever voice it had. Then the four troops of horsemen charged down and struck the dead body of the blue man, counting coup; and suddenly it was only a harmless turtle.
You see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had come to earth as rain, and it was drought that I had killed with the power that the Six Grandfathers gave me. So we were riding on the earth now down along the river flowing full from the source of waters, and soon I saw ahead the circled village of a people in the valley. And a Voice said: “Behold a nation; it is yours. Make haste, Eagle Wing Stretches!”
i. Black Elk is Shown Leading His People Through the Struggles to Come
I entered the village, riding, with the four horse troops behind me — the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins; and the place was filled with moaning and with mourning for the dead. The wind was blowing from the south like fever, and when I looked around I saw that in nearly every tepee the women and the children and the men lay dying with the dead. So I rode around the circle of the village, looking in upon the sick and dead, and I felt like crying as I rode. But when I looked behind me, all the women and the children and the men were getting up and coming forth with happy faces. And a Voice said: “Behold, they have given you the center of the nation’s hoop to make it live.”
So I rode to the center of the village, with the horse troops in their quarters round about me, and there the people gathered. And the Voice said: “Give them now the flowering stick that they may flourish, and the sacred pipe that they may know the power that is peace, and the wind of the white giant that they may have endurance and face all winds with courage.”
So I took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation’s hoop I thrust it in the earth. As it touched the earth it leaped mightily in my hand and was a waga chun, the rustling tree (i.e., a Cottonwood tree), very tall and full of leafy branches and of all birds singing. And beneath it all the animals were mingling with the people like relatives and making happy cries. The women raised their tremolo of joy, and the men shouted all together: “Here we shall raise our children and be as little chickens under the mother sheo’s (i.e., prairie hen) wing.”
Then I heard the white wind blowing gently through the tree and singing there, and from the east the sacred pipe came flying on its eagle wings, and stopped before me there beneath the tree, spreading deep peace around it.
j. Black Elk’s People is Seen Walking on the “Red Road” in the Future
Then the daybreak star was rising, and a Voice said: “It shall be a relative to them; and who shall see it, shall see much more, for thence comes wisdom; and those who do not see it shall be dark.” And all the people raised their faces to the east, and the star’s light fell upon them, and all the dogs barked loudly and the horses whinnied.
Note: The “daybreak star” symbolizes wisdom; intrinsic to that wisdom is the understanding that the life forms of the entire universe comprise a system of relationships with humans. Thus kinship is the central trope of the Lakotas’ world. Black Elk said to Neihardt: “The buffalo, elk, and birds in the air — they are just like relatives to us and we get along fine with them, for we get our power from them and from them we live” Prayer is the invocation of relationship between humans and spirit beings; “wachekiya” means both “to pray” and “to address a relative.”
Then when the many little voices ceased, the great Voice said: “Behold the circle of the nation’s hoop, for it is holy, being endless, and thus all powers shall be one power in the people without end. Now they shall break camp and go forth upon the red road, and your Grandfathers shall walk with them.” So the people broke camp and took the good road with the white wind on their faces, and the order of their going was like this:
First, the black horse riders with the cup of water; and the white horse riders with the white wind and the sacred herb; and the sorrel riders with the holy pipe; and the buckskins with the flowering stick. And after these the little children and the youths and maidens followed in a band. Second, came the tribe’s four chieftains, and their band was all young men and women. Third, the nation’s four advisers leading men and women neither young nor old (The “advisors” are appointed to oversee moving the camp from place top place). Fourth, the old men hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth. Fifth, old women hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth. Sixth, myself all alone upon the bay with the bow and arrows that the First Grandfather gave me. But I was not the last; for when I looked behind me there were ghosts of people like a trailing fog as far as I could see — grandfathers of grandfathers and grandmothers of grandmothers without number. And over these a great Voice — the Voice that was the South — lived, and I could feel it silent. And as we went the Voice behind me said: “Behold a good nation walking in a sacred manner in a good land!”
Then I looked up and saw that there were four ascents ahead, and these were generations I should know. Now we were on the first ascent, and all the land was green. And as the long line climbed, all the old men and women raised their hands, palms forward, to the far sky yonder and began to croon a song together, and the sky ahead was filled with clouds of baby faces. When we came to the end of the first ascent we camped in the sacred circle as before, and in the center stood the holy tree, and still the land about us was all green.
Then we started on the second ascent, marching as before, and still the land was green, but it was getting steeper. And as I looked ahead, the people changed into elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls, all walking in a sacred manner on the good red road together. And I myself was a spotted eagle soaring over them.
k. Black Elk’s People Will Undergo Even Worse Suffering in the Future
But just before we stopped to camp at the end of that ascent, all the marching animals grew restless and afraid that they were not what they had been, and began sending forth voices of trouble, calling to their chiefs. And when they camped at the end of that ascent, I looked down and saw that leaves were falling from the holy tree. And the Voice said: “Behold your nation, and remember what your Six Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties.”
Then the people broke camp again, and saw the black road before them towards where the sun goes down, and black clouds coming yonder; and they did not want to go but could not stay. And as they walked the third ascent, all the animals and fowls that were the people ran here and there, for each one seemed to have his own little vision that he followed and his own rules; and all over the universe I could hear the winds at war like wild beasts fighting.
(At this point Black Elk remarked: “I think we are near that place now, and I am afraid something very bad is going to happen all over the world.” He cannot read and knows nothing of world affairs; and is, apparently, referring to the World Wars)
And when we reached the summit of the third ascent and camped, the nation’s hoop was broken like a ring of smoke that spreads and scatters and the holy tree seemed dying and all its birds were gone. And when I looked ahead I saw that the fourth ascent would be terrible.
Then when the people were getting ready to begin the fourth ascent, the Voice spoke like some one weeping, and it said: “Look there upon your nation.” And when I looked down, the people were all changed back to human, and they were thin, their faces sharp, for they were starving. Their ponies were only hide and bones, and the holy tree was gone.
And as I looked and wept, I saw that there stood on the north side of the starving camp a sacred man who was painted red all over his body, and he held a spear as he walked into the center of the people, and there he lay down and rolled. And when he got up, it was a fat bison standing there, and where the bison stood a sacred herb sprang up right where the tree had been in the center of the nation’s hoop. The herb grew and bore four blossoms on a single stem while I was looking — a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow — and the bright rays of these flashed to the heavens (Note: The blue or black road symbolically runs east to west and is the path of error and destruction. He who travels on this path is, Black Elk has said, “one who is distracted, who is ruled by his senses, and who lives for himself rather than for his people.”).
I know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit we must find another strength. For the people all seemed better when the herb had grown and bloomed, and the horses raised their tails and neighed and pranced around, and I could see a light breeze going from the north among the people like a ghost; and suddenly the flowering tree was there again at the center of the nation’s hoop where the four-rayed herb had blossomed.
I was still the spotted eagle floating, and I could see that I was already in the fourth ascent and the people were camping yonder at the top of the third long rise. It was dark and terrible about me, for all the winds of the world were fighting. It was like rapid gun-fire and like whirling smoke, and like women and children wailing and like horses screaming all over the world. I could see my people yonder running about, setting the smoke-flap poles and fastening down their tepees against the wind, for the storm cloud was coming on them very fast and black, and there were frightened swallows without number fleeing before the cloud. Then a song of power came to me and I sang it there in the midst of that terrible place where I was. It went like this:
A good nation I will make live.
This the nation above has said.
They have given me the power to make over.
(“to make over” means “to heal”)
l. Black Elk is Shown How He Will Heal His People
Now I was on my bay horse again, because the horse is of the earth, and it was there my power would be used (Black Elk returns to earth. In the Lakotas’ conception, horses are associated as much with the sky as with the earth.). And as I obeyed the Voice and looked, there was a horse all skin and bones yonder in the west, a faded brownish black. And a Voice there said: “Take this and make him over”; and it was the four-rayed herb that I was holding in my hand. So I rode above the poor horse in a circle, and as I did this I could hear the people yonder calling for spirit power, “A-hey! a-hey! a-hey! a-hey!” (an interjection used by men in prayer and ritual to call the attention of spirit beings). Then the poor horse neighed and rolled and got up, and he was a big, shiny, black stallion with dapples all over him and his mane about him like a cloud. He was the chief of all the horses; and when he snorted, it was a flash of lightning and his eyes were like the sunset star. He dashed to the west and neighed, and the west was filled with a dust of hoofs, and horses without number, shiny black, came plunging from the dust. Then he dashed toward the north and neighed, and to the east and to the south, and the dust clouds answered, giving forth their plunging horses without number — whites and sorrels and buckskins, fat, shiny, rejoicing in their fleetness and their strength. It was beautiful, but it was also terrible.
Then they all stopped short, rearing, and were standing in a great hoop about their black chief at the center, and were still. And as they stood, four virgins, more beautiful than women of the earth can be, came through the circle, dressed in scarlet, one from each of the four quarters, and stood about the great black stallion in their places; and one held the wooden cup of water, and one the white wind, and one the pipe, and one the nation’s hoop. All the universe was silent, listening; and then the great black stallion raised his voice and sang. The song he sang was this:
“My horses, prancing they are coming.
My horses, neighing they are coming;
Prancing, they are coming.
All over the universe they come.
They will dance; may you behold them.
A horse nation, they will dance.
May you behold them.”
His voice was not loud, but it went all over the universe and filled it (Black Elk commented to Neihardt, “The horse’s voice went all over the universe like a radio and everyone heard it. It was more beautiful than anything could be”). It was so beautiful that nothing anywhere could keep from dancing. The virgins danced, and all the circled horses. The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the hills and in the valleys, the waters in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air — all danced together to the music of the stallion’s song.
m. Black Elk is Shown the Future Unity of All Humanity
Then all the horses went singing back to their places beyond the summit of the fourth ascent, and all things sang along with them as they walked. And a Voice said, “All over the universe they have finished a day of happiness.” And looking down I saw that the whole wide circle of the day was beautiful and green, with all fruits growing and all things kind and happy. Then a Voice said, “Behold this day, for it is yours to make. Now you shall stand upon the center of the earth to see, for there they are taking you.”
I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the north, the east, the south, behind me in formation, as before, and we were going east. I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. (Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills of The Dakotas. “But anywhere is the center of the world,” he added.) 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. 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. And I saw that it was holy (Black Elk near-death vision, which is related specifically to the Lakota people, now becomes a universalistic vision for the future of all humankind. Black Elk says, “The sacred hoop means the continents of the world and the people shall stand as one”).
Then as I stood there, two men were coming from the east, head first like arrows flying, and between them rose the daybreak star. They came and gave a herb to me and said: “With this on earth you shall undertake anything and do it.” It was the daybreak-star herb, the herb of understanding, and they told me to drop it on the earth. I saw it falling far, and when it struck the earth it rooted and grew and flowered, four blossoms on one stem, a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow; and the rays from these streamed upward to the heavens so that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness. Then the Voice said, “Your Six Grandfathers — now you shall go back to them.”
I had not noticed how I was dressed until now, and I saw that I was painted red all over, and my joints were painted black, with white stripes between the joints (Painting of the joints — wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles — with narrow bands of contrasting color was a standard Lakota war ritual practice). My bay had lightning stripes all over him, and his mane was cloud. And when I breathed, my breath was lightning.
Now two men were leading me, head first like arrows slanting upward — the two that brought me from the earth. And as I followed on the bay, they turned into four flocks of geese that flew in circles, one above each quarter, sending forth a sacred voice as they flew: Br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p!
n. Black Elk Returns to the Grandfathers and Then to Life
Then I saw ahead the rainbow flaming above the tepee of the Six Grandfathers, built and roofed with cloud and sewed with thongs of lightning; and underneath it were all the wings of the air and under them the animals and men. All these were rejoicing, and thunder was like happy laughter.
As I rode in through the rainbow door, there were cheering voices from all over the universe, and I saw the Six Grandfathers sitting in a row, with their arms held toward me and their hands, palms out; and behind them in the cloud were faces thronging, without number, of the people yet to be.
“He has triumphed!” cried the six together, making thunder. And as I passed before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before — the cup of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy; the white wind of cleansing and the healing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering stick. And each one spoke in turn from west to south, explaining what he gave as he had done before, and as each one spoke he melted down into the earth and rose again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth.
Then the oldest of them all said, “Grandson, all over the universe you have seen. Now you shall go back with power to the place from whence you came, and it shall happen yonder that hundreds shall be sacred, hundreds shall be flames! Behold!” (The phrase “hundreds shall be sacred, hundreds shall be flames” refers to the powers given to Black Elk to do good and to destroy).
I looked below and saw my people there, and all were well and happy except one, and he was lying like the dead — and that one was myself. Then the oldest Grandfather sang, and his song was like this:
“There is someone lying on earth in a sacred manner.
There is someone – on earth he lies.
In a sacred manner I have made him to walk.”
Now the tepee, built and roofed with cloud, began to sway back and forth as in a wind, and the flaming rainbow door was growing dimmer. I could hear voices of all kinds crying from outside: “Eagle Wing Stretches is coming forth! Behold him!”
When I went through the door, the face of the day of earth was appearing with the daybreak star upon its forehead; and the sun leaped up and looked upon me, and I was going forth alone. And as I walked alone, I heard the sun singing as it arose, and it sang like this:
“With visible face I am appearing.
In a sacred manner I appear.
For the greening earth a pleasantness I make.
The center of the nation’s hoop I have made pleasant.
With visible face, behold me!
The four-leggeds and two-leggeds, I have made them to walk;
The wings of the air, I have made them to fly.
With visible face I appear.
My day, I have made it holy.”
When the singing stopped, I was feeling lost and very lonely. Then a Voice above me said, “Look back!” It was a spotted eagle that was hovering over me and spoke. I looked, and where the flaming rainbow tepee, built and roofed with cloud, had been, I saw only the tall rock mountain at the center of the world. I was all alone on a broad plain now with my feet upon the earth, alone but for the spotted eagle guarding me. I could see my people’s village far ahead, and I walked very fast, for I was homesick now. Then I saw my own tepee, and inside I saw my mother and my father bending over a sick boy that was myself. And as I entered the tepee, some one was saying: “The boy is coming to; you had better give him some water.”
5. Black Elk’s Second Near-Death Experience
In 1889, Black Elk was 26 years old when he had a second NDE while traveling through Europe. While in Paris, he suddenly fell out of his chair dead. He then left his body and took a Spirit Journey across the ocean and back to his home in the Black Hills and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. There, he saw his parents outside their tepee and some of the people he knew. He then traveled back in reverse to his body in Paris. Black Elk described it this way in his own words:
I looked up at the roof and it seemed to be moving. The house was going around up at the top, and stretching upward as it went around. I could see that we were all rising fast with the whole house, and it was turning around as it rose. Then a cloud was coming down as we rose, and suddenly I was on it and the other people and the house were falling back away from me.
Them I was alone on this cloud, and it was going fast. I clung to it hard, because I was afraid I might fall off. Far down below I could see houses and towns and green land and streams, and it all looked flat. Then I was right over the big water. I was not afraid any more, because, by now, I knew I was going home. It was dark, and then it was light again, and I could see a big town below me, and I knew it was the one where we first got on the big fire-boat, and that I was in my own country again. I was very happy now. The cloud and I kept on going very fast, and I could see towns and streams and towns and green land. Then I began to recognize the country below me. I saw the Missouri River. Then I saw far off the Black Hills and the center of the world where the spirits had taken me in my great vision.
Then I was right over Pine Ridge, and the cloud stopped. I looked down and could not understand what I saw, because it seemed that nearly all of my people of the different bands were gathered together there in a big camp. I saw my father’s and mother’s tepee. They were outside, and she was cooking. I wanted to jump off the cloud and be with them, but I was afraid it would kill me. While I was looking down, my mother looked up, and I felt sure she saw me. But just then the cloud started back, going very fast. I was very sad, but I could not get off. There were streams and green land and towns going backward very fast below me. Soon the cloud and I were going right over the very big town again. Then there was only water under me, and the night came without stars; and I was all alone in a black world and I was crying. But after awhile some light began to peep in far ahead of me. Then I saw earth beneath me and towns and green land and houses all flying backwards. Soon the cloud stopped over a big town, and a house began coming up toward me, turning around and around as it came. When it touched the cloud, it caught me and began to drop down, turning around and around with me. It touched the ground, and as it touched I heard the girl’s voice, and then other voices of frightened people.
Then I was lying on my back in bed and the girl and her father and her mother and her two sisters and a doctor were looking at me in a queer way, as though they were frightened. The English-talker came from the show and he told me how it was. While I was sitting at breakfast, they said I had looked up and smiled, and then I had fallen like dead out of my chair. I had been dead three days, except that once in awhile I would breathe just a little. Often they said they could not feel my heart at all. They were sure I would soon be really dead, and they were getting ready to buy my coffin. Maybe if I had not come back to life that time, they would have given me a good coffin; but as it is, I think it will be only a box. I did not tell the people where I had been, because I knew they could not believe me.
(Black Elk then returned home to South Dakota.)
When I got to Pine Ridge, everything was just as I had seen it from the cloud. All the Lakotas were there, as I had seen them, because that was the year of the treaty  when the Wasichus bought some more of our land — all that was between the Smoky Earth [the White] and Good River [the Cheyenne]. I had been away nearly three years and knew nothing about this foolish thing until then.
My mother’s tepee was right where I had seen it when I looked down from the cloud, and other people were camped exactly where I saw them. My parents were in great joy to see me and my mother cried because she was so happy. I cried too. I was supposed to be a man now, but the tears came out anyway. My mother told me she had dreamed one night in her sleep that I had come back on a cloud, but could not stay. So I told her about my vision.