On the American Indian

On the American Indian

            Important native cultures with their special kind of beauty and majesty once existed on the North and South American continents at a time when the Europeans by accident found these shores - On the American Indian introduction. The Native People were referred to as “Indians”, a term which has led to endless complications, including a lack of recognition of who these people were and are. The occupation of these lands by an alien people is a relatively recent occurrence. Descendants of the conquering Europeans live on occupied Indian land which their forebears acquired in ways altogether too barbaric and too heartbreaking for analysis. It is in fact easier to forget it. An alien people sought to superimpose its own ways upon a strong, enduring native culture, still alive, even though every attempt possible has been devised to destroy it.

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            The culture of these Native People has a strong spiritual base. It is in harmony with nature, and it is old, 15,000 to 20,000 years, perhaps even older, before the white man’s arrival. Alien occupation has been brief [400 to 500 years], and devastating for the Native People. Ecologically, is has become a disaster. It was the total arrogance of the transplanted European that caused him to force his culture upon a Native People while systematically attempting to destroy the people, the culture, and the land. The European’s philosophy, his sense of destiny, his life style, and his religious practices were assumed to be superior to those of the Native People. He consistently, possibly through ignorance, stupidity and complete selfishness, confiscated and desecrated the holy and sacred places of the Native People. When the Native People defended their rights with the spoken word, or when they took up arms to defend their land for survival in their own country, they were moved, removed, imprisoned or massacred, and their land was taken from them. The Indian speaks about these and other matters in Virginia Armstrong’s compilations I Have Spoken.

            The speeches are chronologically arranged, from the 17th century to and including the 20th century. Older speeches are recordings through Indian interpreters. Indians spoke to white leaders and the speeches are powerful statements, offering a historical record as to what has transpired throughout four centuries through the spoken words of the American Indian. Turner, for example, refers to the Bering Strait theory to explain the origin of the Native American. It is only one theory. Compilers and editors should look into others. Turner sees Indian speech as little understood and little valued by the white conqueror. Armstrong refers to the Indian’s “thoroughly oral culture” and his “extraordinary gift of speech”. To illustrate, the Iroquois Constitution directs that council shall be opened with these words:

The Onondaga lords shall open each council by expressing their gratitude to their cousin lords, and greeting them, and they shall make an address and offer thanks to the earth where men dwell, to the streams of water, the pools, the springs, the lakes, to the maize and the fruits, to the medicinal herbs and the trees, to the forest trees for their usefulness, to the animals that serve as food and who offer their pelts as clothing, to the great winds and the lesser winds, to the Thunderers, and the Sun, the mighty warrior, to the moon, to the messengers of the Great Spirit who dwells in the skies above, who gives all things useful to men, who is the source and the ruler of health and life. (Turner 13)

Some sampling of statements made by the great Indian leaders is in order: Teedyuscung said in 1756 that “The kings of France and England have settled this land so as to coop us up in a pen. This very ground under me was my land and my inheritance, and is taken from me by fraud” (21-22). A Delaware chief said in reference to the Gnadenhutten Massacre, 1782, “They killed those who believed in their Book as well as those who did not” (38). Black Hawk said in 1832, “The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse-they poison the heart; it is not pure with them” (76-77). Charlot, Flathead, said in 1876 of the white man, “To take and to lie should be burned on his forehead . . .” (115). Washakie, Shoshone, 1878, spoke after removal of his people that “every foot of what you proudly call America, not very long ago belonged to the Red Man” (137).

            In 1891 an order issued from Washington to the Pine Ridge Agency stating, “that Indians must cease their drumming, because it was a waste of time and unnecessary” (182). Strange, indeed, since drumming was and is a sacred activity with the Sioux. Ben Black Elk, Sioux, in the 1960’s, criticized schools for Indians and their programs saying, “And when the Indian history and the Indian culture is ignored, it makes our children ashamed they are Indians” (182). Black Elk Speaks, recorded through an interpreter by John G. Neihardt, Nebraska poet, is a statement by a holy man of the Oglala Sioux with illustrations by Standing Bear. Black Elk relates his great vision as a boy of nine in the 1860’s, a time of great unrest. The Sioux were under constant harassment and attack by the U.S. militia, and the whites were trying to gain access to the Black hills for the gold reserves in the earth. These hills are sacred to the Sioux. Black Elk explains his offering and voice to the Great Spirit before he tells his story. The pipe is filled with the bark of the sacred red willow, as he speaks

These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four quarters of the universe. The black one is for the west where the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind: the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow. (2)

The eagle feather is for the Great Spirit. The sky is the father; the earth, mother; and the hide on the mouthpiece of the pipe is for the earth. The pipe is holy and figures prominently in all Sioux ceremonials.

            At nine years old Black Elk has his great vision. Later, as a young man, the vision is reenacted upon the earth to give it power. While ill, he is carried up out of bed on a cloud and meets two men out of the clouds, “like arrows slanting down”. He sees a bay horse, the spokesman, twelve black horses [the west], twelve white horses [the north], twelve sorrel horses [the east] and twelve buckskin horses [the south], who take him to a council of the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World: west, north, east, south, Sky and Earth. They give him the Grandfathers’ power from the thunder beings, a cup of water [the power to make live], the bow [the power to destroy], and the herb of healing power. He receives a sacred pipe for healing, a live bright red stick to make blossom, the power from the winged of the air, and Earth power. With his new name, “Eagle Wing Stretches”, he exercises his power with the cup of water, the flowering stick, the sacred pipe, and the white wing and sacred herb (19-30).

            When leaves fall from the holy tree, a great voice says that his “people walk in difficulties”, that they will be dispersed and there will be war (31). The nation’s hoop will be broken and the holy tree will seem to die. Hearing the people call for spirit power, he holds the “four-rayed herb” in his hand, and power is assembled from virgins’ holding the cup of water, the white wing, the sacred pipe, and the nation’s hoop. The herb is the “herb of understanding” to be dropped to earth, to root, grow and flower (33-37).

            The boy returns to his parents. His sickness lasts twelve days. Afterwards, the medicine men regard him in a sacred manner. As Black Elk grows up he sees the desecration of holy places by the white man, the Indians scattered, some to agencies, others elsewhere, always hunted down by the Wasichu. At seventeen, Black Elk knows that he must act for his people with his power and tells an old medicine man, Black Road, about his vision. Black Road urges him to perform the vision upon the earth. Thus the purification ceremony in the sweat lodge with sage on the floor and sage rubbed on the body. Black Elk teaches the songs of his vision to Black Road and Bear Sings. During the healing ceremony, Black Elk prays for his people.

Grandfather, the flowering stick you gave me and the nation’s sacred hoop I have given to the people. Hear me, you who have the power to make grow! Guide the people that they may be as blossoms on your holy tree, and make it flourish deep in Mother Earth and make it full of leaves and singing birds. (145)

After the reenactment of the vision, the Oglalas are rounded up and are told their land has been sold. Black Elk explains the hoop or the concept of the circle, the flowering tree, the four quarters, the drum, and healing:

You have noticed that 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. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. 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 nests 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 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, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children. (164-172)

After the performance of the dog vision on earth, Black Elk has the power to heal. At the close of the book, as Black Elk looks back at the Wounded Knee massacre, he despondently says:

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 still 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. (230)

Black Elk at Harey Peak prays and weeps:

With tears running, O Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather-with running tears I must say now that the tree has never bloomed . . . It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds. … O make my people live! (233)

            Most impressive are the prayers to the Great Spirit Wakan-Tanka: “You who have always been and who are above all things: everything belongs to You because it is You who have created the universe”. Such belief in a supreme deity appears more clear-cut than in most writings about the Sioux. When the priest “sends his voice” to such a being, asking that the people shall walk the path of life without ignorance, we receive a far different picture than that of the warrior. One inclines to the proposition that, among Indians as among other races, there is a gulf between the thinker or the religious man and the man of action or the nonreligious. Probably we know too little about the thinkers, since their intellectual property is usually reserved for initiates. We should be glad that Black Elk felt the time had come to record his rituals for posterity. What ritual could be more appropriate in the present age than the one for making peace with an enemy tribe:

The first peace, the most important, is that which comes within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe . . . and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Virginia. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.

Brown, Joseph. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Neinhardt, John. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. New York: Pocket Book, 1972.

 

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