In his youth, Black Elk was an Oglala, Lakota healer. Later in his life, he was a practicing Roman Catholic. When Black Elk was 67, he collaborated with John Neihardt to write his biography. His biography captures the essence of Lakota life during the pre reservation and the Native American Sioux religion that was the beginning of Lakota life experience. Black Elks quote “the Circle of life” is a description of how the circle or sacred hoop held significant power and protection for the Lakota people. The following paragraphs well show how Black Elks Primal religious worldview and later his Christian worldview have guided him through his life.
The unity of the Lakota people was evident in their use of circle formation. The circle is a symbolic of unity and social solidarity, as in the formation of their teepees and Lakota camp. The camp circle or sacred hoop is a place where everything is safe, knowledgeable, and Oglala. Outside the circle, it is a world filled with enemies, evil spirits and the white man. Just as then, as it is today, communities have the same unity and social solidarity as the Lakota people did. They feel safe knowing the people of their community, but some still fear the outside boundaries.
The traditional Oglala Sioux way of life conceived mutuality between man and nature. Honor for the circle of seasons and all living things life was necessary in order to obtain food, clothing, and shelter. When the Indians lived in partnership with nature, those necessities were available to them in such abundance that their sheer existence seemed evidence of the concern of the Great Spirit, which had taken guardianship of them for so long. Along these lines, in the Lakota, religion is Wakan Tanka or Grandfather referred to as mother or father.
The four supreme gods of the Lakota created both thunderstorms and wind. Inyan is the god of mountains, rocks, and hills, he created thunderstorms, and his messenger is Wakinyan. Skan is the source of all power and all spirit, and he created wind. Wakinyan created the stars to provide Tate with light during the night. Like in Christianity, the one true God is triune. He is the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Late eighteen hundred the Ghost Dance movement increased westerly across the United States as the Indian tribes clasped at a last hope of a better world.
The Ghost Dance was a religion, and its ideology united many Indian tribes that had already been antagonistic or unsympathetic to one another in a traditional rite that expressed deep longing for a normal life of the ways of the Indian. The primary principle of the Ghost Dance was “that time will come when the whole Indian race, living and dead, will reunite upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of happiness, forever free from death, disease, and misery” (Holler, 1984, p. 32). The rituals and tradition of the Indians displayed their beliefs in spirits an afterlife.
Indians believed that there would be a righteous way of life for them after they die. The primal religion of the Oglala Sioux is not much different from other modern religion as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity all believe in an afterlife and higher being. After the incident at Wounded Knee, the Ghost Dance religion died out along with hope and spirit of the Lakota nation. In 1904, Black Elk change to Christianity, in the belief that the white man’s God was all-powerful and better able to take guardianship of his people.
Black Elk’s belief with reverence to Christianity was that Christianity and ancestral Lakota belief are essentially the same, and his conversation of ancestral Lakota ceremony, which directed toward demonstrating this claim (Holler, 1984, p. 30). Black Elk was no nominal Christian, and he found communion to be a sacred ritual. As a beginner, Black Elk took a forceful role in converting and preaching to Indians on the reservations. He committed to memory the scripture and the teachings of the Church, and in time, became selected to the position of a Catechist (DeMallie).
Black Elk was still a righteous man, only now it was for the Roman Catholic Church. One priest reported that Black Elk was responsible for about 400 Native American Indian conversions. Black elk the Oglala Lakota medicine man tells us of the circle of life, how it is all around us from birth to death. The sacred hoop protects the Sioux nation form its enemies and evil spirits. The message Black Elk gives us concern the circle of life is it strong unity and its religion of the Oglala Sioux. The Lakota nation has a strong kingship system at its social structure and respect for elders and tribe members.
Like Wakan Tanka the Great Spirit that watches of the Sioux, so it is in Christianity at the beginning of the Bible that God fashioned the universe, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water” (Gen. 1:2). Black Elk left a unique legacy of Native American history, ritual, and spirituality that is with us today.
DeMallie, R. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teaching Given to John G. Holler, C. (1984). Lakota Religion and tragedy: The theology of Black Elk Speaks. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 52(1), 19-45, 32.