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Wallace Black Elk Speaks

An Interview with a Lakota Elder

Copyright © 1994 by Bert H. Hoff

This story appeared in the May, 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

A recent Whole Life Festival in Seattle offered a wonderful opportunity to hear men like Michael Meade, John Lee and Malidoma Somé. And the inspiring wisdom of Wallace Black Elk. Bert took the opportunity to sit for a minute with Mr. Black Elk after his talk, and talk about the use of Lakota rituals and traditions in Men's Work.


Bert: A lot of men seem to feel there's something missing in our lives. So what we seem to be doing is to draw on a lot of Native American traditions. We run sweat lodges. We say "Ho!" at Wisdom Council. People are going on vision quests. From your perspective, how can we do this in a manner that is sacred and respectful of your traditions?

Black Elk: The word "tradition" doesn't belong to us. That is a Christian word. The Spirit told us that that word does not belong to us. It cannot be applied to me and my people, because it can be used a hundred different ways. The lawyers say the same thing. The word "traditional" cannot be applied to this way of life. It cannot be.

For example, every organized group has traditions. The Navy has their own traditions. If they go to sea and one of them kicks the buckets, they put weights on his body and drape a colored cloth over him, say a wake for him, then they slide his body into the water. So the word cannot be applied to our way of life.

The word "tradition" causes separation. "That is your way." "This is my way." It separates us. The Spirit doesn't talk that way. For what I described in my talk here today [contrasting a world view in harmony with nature to a materialistic world view], you have to listen, and not try and twist it into "my way," "your way," "their way." That separates us.

So we really have to understand what we say. It's good to ask the Spirit. We bring our agenda back to the Spirit, and let the Spirit interpret for us and set our minds straight, so we won't be separate.

I think I can say that much for you, and I thank you for it, because there are a lot of concerns about not knowing how to regroup, reorganize, reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to walk together. So I thank you for your generosity in wanting to understand. That's giving, you see, that's generous. Instead of saying, "Hey, that's not the way. That's not the law." Or starting to bicker and holler about who's in command, who is the authority, and that kind of thing. That is not the way.

Bert: I think I'm hearing you saying that in doing these ceremonies, the important thing is to be approaching it in a sacred manner, and being open and humble, and open to spirit.

Black Elk: Yes. Exactly. If you take a photograph of the symbol, say, on this box, that's like a kindergarten class. So we just expose it, in reading lines and symbols. Symbols and signs.

In my talk today I mentioned Egypt. With all the information we have, we don't know who had the bright idea of cutting the stones and building the monuments. Some of those stones weigh 12 or 20 tons, and are 30 or 40 feet wide. So who cut them? Modern machines, cranes, cannot lift some of them. So who used what, to cut and lift those big rocks?

But the Spirit comes in. There's a whistle we carry, that the Star People gave us. If you hit the right note, it will lift the stone aloft, and leave it in mid-air. Or you could roll it, or cut it.

Bert: Would that be like an eagle-bone whistle that someone would use in a sundance?

Black Elk: Yes. Even in the Bible they talk about Jerico, and how the walls fell down when they blew their trumpets. They mentioned the sound. It seems like they lost their covenant, their powers, since then.

Bert: I read a book, Gift of Power, by a friend of yours, Archie Lame Deer. I thought it was very good.

Black Elk: He is my brother. My friend.

Bert: He went into the caves in France, and saw the drawings the Stone people had made on the wall. He went all over Ireland and England, seeing the megaliths, seeing the stone power, It struck me that he saw a really deep connection between the Lakota and all of those civilizations.

Black Elk: Before reading and writing. Those people had great powers, and performed powerful ceremonies. Then the Christians came along and killed all those people.

I met one of the grandsons of those people, when I was in Czechoslovakia. I had his name, but it was spelled a little differently. My forefathers. They had that spirit, that stone power that we were talking about.

So like you and me, sitting under this tree, if I say we're part of this tree and part of the river, today they would take me out into the courtyard and shoot me. But if you say it, it's logical.

So when these people came and started to attack the people with stone power, with Spirit power, he took his spear and said, "Hey, cut it out!" "Hey, hey, come here!" So they called him Shakespear. The English translation is Shakespeare. So it's fame for us when we reconnect all the Spirit in communication. Most of them [people who connect with Spirit] use animals, plants. Some still use fairy tales.

Bert: A lot of us are studying fairy tales. Studying is the wrong word. We're feeling the Spirit in these fairy tales, getting into our hearts.

Black Elk: So they're not cartoons. They're not Mickey Mouse stuff. They're real. But we sort of shy away from it, and try to base everything on material things. Technology. Figures on a piece of paper. We have to have proof.

Bert: But the proof is in the heart, in the Spirit, and in the feeling.

Black Elk: Yes, it's here. I was really happy to meet some of you people here. You know it. You feel it. Something is telling you. Something brought us together. But we don't know why. Maybe out of curiosity, or something.

Related stories:

 Native American Traditions: Honoring or Exploitation?, by Ron Knobbe

 A Response to Ron Knobbe, by Halim Dunsky

 Becoming Native to Your Place, by Jed Diamond

 Reviews of a sampling of books by Native Americans, and authors respected by Native Americans, in order to promote respect for, and a deeper understanding of, Native American traditions, by Bert H. Hoff

 And on The Microsoft Network:

Be sure to check out our Native American Traditions Bulletin Board on the Men's Forum. What do you think of men's use of these traditions? Come and share your thoughts!

More interviews

Men, Spirit, Soul and Shadow

Audio Cassette Tapes with Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade, John Lee, Malidoma Somé,Marion Hillman, Clarissa Ponkola Estés and many others

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