Last updated on 2014.03.30
Lakota holy man Black Elk claimed to have had a vision when he was nine years old. It was 1872 or '73. He dreamed/imagined/saw himself standing on Harney Peak, the center of the world. He saw the "hoop" of his nation strong and healthy, with "the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."
As he grew from boy to man, he saw that hoop broken. He saw the Europeans take the Black Hills, the hunting grounds, and his people's freedom.
Sixty years later, at the beginning of the Great Depression, a White occupier, John Neihardt, honored a request from Black Elk and helped the Lakota holy man, now also Catholic catechist, hike to Harney Peak. As documented in Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk prayed to his Great Spirit to restore the sacred tree at the center of his nation's hoop:
You have said to me, when I was still young and could hope, that in difficulty I should send a voice four times, once for each quarter of the earth, and you would hear me.
Today I send a voice for a people in despair.
You have given me a sacred pipe, and through this I should make my offering. You see it now.
From the west, you have given me the cup of living water and the sacred bow, the power to make live and to destroy. You have given me a sacred wind and the herb from where the white giant lives—the cleansing power and the healing. The daybreak star and the pipe, you have given from the east; and from the south, the nation's sacred hoop and the tree that was to bloom. To the center of the world you have taken me and showed the goodness and the beauty and the strangeness of the greening earth, the only mother—and there the spirit shapes of things, as they should be, you have shown to me and I have seen. At the center of this sacred hoop you have said that I should make the tree to bloom.
With tears running, O Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather—with running tears I must say now that the tree has never bloomed. A pitiful old man, you see me here, and I have fallen away and have done nothing. Here at the center of the world, where you took me when I was young and taught me; here, old, I stand, and the tree is withered, Grandfather, my Grandfather!
Again, and maybe the last time on this earth, I recall the great vision you sent me. 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. Hear me, not for myself, but for my people; I am old. Hear me that they may once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road, the shielding tree.
In sorrow I am sending a feeble voice, O Six Powers of the World. Hear me in my sorrow, for I may never call again. O make my people live! [Black Elk, quoted by John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, originally published in 1932]
Seventy years later, on what South Dakota deems Native American Day, another White occupier hiked to the top of Harney Peak:
She is three years younger than Black Elk when he had his vision before the European invasion of this place. She saw many brown and withered trees. Where dead trees had fallen, by wind or blade, she saw many grand views of Black Elk's four directions that her parents did not remember from their last, greener hike up the mountain before she had eyes to see.
Amid the brown and deadfall, she saw close canyons of green ("like Narnia!" she exclaimed, leaving footprints in the early snow). She saw her mother's favorite, the aspens, clinging to their snow-sodden leaves. And she saw pine saplings springing forth to retake their parents' land.
She knows nothing of the good red road. She knows the muddy Trail 9 from Sylvan Lake glitters with mica. She stopped often to look at the sparkling soles of her shoes and wonders why her parents break into strange song. (She also knows nothing of cultural incongruity... though her parents hope she will someday wonder about it.)
She had no visions. She had fun. She wants to go back.
But now she sleeps. Rest, rest. Tomorrow (whisper with me, friends), hoka hey—onward.