Hehaka Sapa, Nicholas Black Elk, Wichasha Wakan and Heyoka of the Oglala Lakota (1863 – 1950)
The profound teachings of Black Elk, Shaman of the Lakota, on the Power in Circles and the Power of the Worlds.
You have noticed that everything an Indian does is done 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 first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, 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.“
The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are 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 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 a 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.
I think that I have told you… that 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.
You remember that my great vision came to me when I was only nine years old, and you have seen that I was not much good for anything until after I had performed the horse dance near the mouth of the Tongue River during my eighteenth summer…
It was even then only after the heyoka ceremony, in which I performed my dog vision, that I had the power to practice as a medicine man, curing sick people; and many I cured with the power that came to me.
Of course it was not I who cured. It was the power from the outer world, and the visions and ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds.
If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could come through. Then everything I could do would be foolish.
It was during the next summer, when I was in my twentieth year (1883), that I performed the elk ceremony, as a duty to that part of my great vision. You will remember how the pipe and the bison were in the east and the elk in the south.
This ceremony of the elk was to represent the source of life and the mystery of growing.
I sent a pipe to Running Elk…a good and wise old man.
He was willing to help me.
We set up a sacred tepee at the center as before.
I had to use six elks and four virgins. The elks are of the south, but the power that they represented in my vision is nourished by the four quarters and from the sky and the earth; so there were six of them.
The four virgins represented the life of the nation’s hoop, which has four quarters.
Running Elk chose two of the elks, and I, who stood between the Power of the World and the nation’s hoop, chose the four others, for my duty was to the life of the hoop on earth.
The six elk men wore complete elk hides on their backs and over their heads. Their limbs were painted black from the knee and elbow down, and yellow from there up; for the growing power is rooted in mystery like the night, and reaches lightward. Seeds sprout in the darkness of the ground before they know the summer and the day. In the night of the womb the spirit quickens into flesh.
The four virgins wore scarlet dresses, and each had a single eagle feather in her braided hair; for out of the woman the people grow, and the eagle feather was for the people as in the bison ceremony.
The faces of the virgins were painted yellow, the color of the south, the source of life.
One had a daybreak star on her forehead.
One had a crescent moon… for the power of woman grows with the moon and comes and goes with it.
One had the sun upon her forehead;
and around the mouth and eyebrows of the fourth a big blue circle was painted to mean the nation’s hoop.
On the back of each of the elk men was painted the hoop, for upon the backs of men the nation is carried, and in the center of each hoop hung a single eagle feather for the people.
They had yellow masks on their faces, for behind woman’s power of life is hidden the power of man.
They carried flowering sticks of the sacred rustling tree (the cottonwood) with leaves left on top: the sticks were painted red. The woman is the life of the flowering tree, but the man must feed and care for it.
One of the virgins also carried the flowering stick, another carried the pipe which gives peace, a third bore the herb of healing and the fourth held the sacred hoop; for all these powers together are woman’s power.
Of course, before any of this was done, those who were to take part were purified in the sweat lodge as always.
This was the ceremony, and as I said before, the power of it was in the understanding of its meaning; for nothing can live well, except in a manner suited to the way the Power of the World lives and moves to do its work.