Friday, October 30, 2015

mini book review: black elk speaks

I listened to the audiobook, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (ed. by John G. Neihardt), for the last couple of days. This is a really powerful text, a transcript of Black Elk's story as he told it to Neihardt around 1930. Apparently, Neihardt went to listen to Black Elk, who said he wanted to tell him his story, and wanted Neihardt to write it down and share it. Black Elk lived from 1863-1950, so he witnessed pretty much the whole scope of transition from his Lakota people's traditional way of life to their consignment to reservations.

The story is a sad one, of course, since we all know the trajectory forced on his people in that century. Some of the sadness for me personally comes from white guilt, I suppose — what were my ancestors thinking?! What were the Quakers doing and why weren't they helping? Oh yeah, some of them were working on abolition and women's rights. And some of them were thinking about moving west and establishing a Quaker community out in Oregon Territory. About the time of Black Elk's first vision, William Hobson visited the Chehalem Valley and decided it was a perfect place for his "garden of the Lord." In other words, Quakers were expanding into lands accessible because of the native people being forced onto reservations.

Some of my sadness comes from the loss of knowledge of the land, how to live on it, and how to connect with God here in this place. I don't hear anything in Black Elk's visions that seems different from how I can imagine the God of the Bible speaking. Many people in the Bible have visions, with symbols, animals, weather phenomena, knowledge of the future, and intuitive understanding being received or experienced through their visions for the community. We have these recorded throughout the Bible, especially by Ezekiel, Daniel, and John. Our own Quaker John, John Woolman, went to spend time with Native Americans and realized they already knew the same God. I want to use this as a badge of honor, that my people were not completely to blame for what happened to the Native Americans, but I think sometimes I use the highlights of Quaker heritage as a defensive shield so I don't have to feel all the weight of a history of oppression and violence.

My intense sadness comes from loss of the kind of connection to God in this place that Black Elk knew. I mean, he wasn't here in the Pacific Northwest, but he knew his own land in that way, and his spirituality was tied intensely to his place. Probably there were people here on my land who knew this place and how to recognize when God speaks here. This is not to say that Black Elk didn't understand a universal God, because it sounds like he did. It sounds like he knew a universal Creator God who spoke to him through his particular place: the creatures and the land that formed his world. God spoke to him in visions, but they were for the people. They weren't for some far off land of heaven or for personal edification, or mystical oneness for the ecstatic feeling of the mystic. They were for the people's happiness, the people's right relationship with God and the land.

I don't want to overly romanticize this time, because it sounds like it wasn't exactly egalitarian for women, and I'm sure life wasn't easy for his people. Looking back on his childhood after 60 years, he probably remembered it with a bit of nostalgia, and mainly thought of the good times, comparing an idyllic childhood with the complete brokenness his people experienced during the course of his adult years. But the visions he shares and the way he shares them speak from the same wellspring of Truth that I recognize in other spiritual writers. He knew God. God spoke to him in unusual ways, even for his people, but his people had a context and a language for that way of knowing. It was a mystical way of knowing, but it was intimately connected and tied to the physical reality of the land, the very herbs, the health of individuals and the community.

As Quakers, I so appreciate our mystical bent, our ability to listen well and to try to discern together what God is saying. But we are a very disembodied religion. We don't have anything tying us to a certain place, and sometimes we are criticized for being too intellectual. I think this criticism is probably pretty accurate. We are too much in our heads and we don't know (as a community, though I'm sure there are individuals who do) how to connect this to our place. What would it look like to be Friends of our watershed, Friends of our land, in ways that were wholly and specifically idiosyncratic to our bioregion and our even more particular places?


Marshall Massey said...

I wanted to applaud when I finished reading this, Cherice. Your estimation of Black Elk’s spirituality is close to my own. And your last paragraph matches thoughts I have been thinking for a long time, thoughts I am always glad to hear another Friend express.

Cherice Bock said...

Thanks, Marshall! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Good to hear from you!