Advent with Black Elk

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In past years, I have blogged during the Advent season. Back in 2009, I blogged through my reading of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. Last year, I spent Advent reading and reflecting on William Temple. This year, I feel invited to spend Advent with the wisdom of a holy medicine man of the Lakota Sioux named Black Elk. I purchased the book Black Elk Speaks a night or so before I travelled to Standing Rock ND along with hundreds of other clergy to stand in solidarity with the water protectors in early November. I started reading the book on the plane to Bismarck and continued reading in my tent at Oceti Sakowin camp before going to bed and trying to sleep through the cold nights. This Advent, I plan to review and reflect on a chapter a day in light of my Christian spirituality and my recent experience at Standing Rock.

Chapter 1: The Offering of the Pipe
“May our prayers of thanksgiving come before you, O God, like the smoke of holy tobacco” (Psalm 141:2)

One of the minor concerns that I brought with me to Standing Rock was the slight apprehension that I would be offered a tobacco pipe. I have had an addictive relationship with tobacco for decades and have just recently celebrated my one year of abstinence from cigarettes and nicotine, with the help of Nicotine Addicts Anonymous. I didn’t want to offend any of the elders or water protectors of the Lakota Sioux by turning down a pipe but I also knew that a puff of tobacco could easily awaken my dormant addiction. However, when I was there, I learned that, for the Lakota Sioux, tobacco is indeed a holy herb but it is not meant to be smoked. They actually say that smoking cigarettes is abusing holy tobacco. (One of the sacred fire tenders would often say, “If you choose to abuse holy tobacco, make sure you do not litter the butts.”) Instead, they use tobacco to welcome the present moment, to appreciate the gifts of the earth, and primarily to pray and give thanks to the Creator. They pray by throwing pinches of tobacco (and other herbs) in the sacred fire (which has been tended since April) and every morning they perform a beautiful water ritual, led by the women, which involves prayerfully pouring pinches of tobacco and water into the river. These rituals of gratitude and hospitality provide a strong spiritual foundation for them as they risk their own health and safety in protecting the land and water, empowering them to nonviolently resist the violent police enforcers of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I learned from some others that not all Lakota Sioux consider the act of smoking tobacco an abuse of the holy herb. And according to the first chapter of Black Elk Speaks, smoking a pipe brings people together into right relationship.

Black Elk recounts the story of how the pipe first came to the Lakota. In fact, according to Raymond DeMallie’s essay “Kinship and Biology in Sioux Culture” in North American Indian Anthropology: Essays on Society and Culture (127-130), it was the bringing of the pipe that marked the beginning of the Lakota as a tribe.

The story begins with two men looking for bison. Instead of finding bison, however, they see a very beautiful woman in the distance. As the woman comes closer, one man has “bad thoughts” about her while the other says, “This is a sacred woman; throw all bad thoughts away.”

They see that she is young and beautiful with long hair, wearing a fine white buckskin dress. And when she speaks to them, she seems to be singing. To the man who was having impure thoughts about here, she says, “You do not know me, but if you want to do as you think, you may come.”

This foolish man eagerly approaches her, but a cloud swoops by so violently that he is reduced to a skeleton, covered with worms. The woman then speaks to the other man and says, “You shall go home and tell your people that I am coming and that a big teepee shall be built for me in the center of the nation.”

The man is terrified and then quickly does what she says. He tells his people about what happened, they build her a teepee, and then wait for her. After a while, she arrives, appearing as beautiful as before, singing these words:

“With visible breath I am walking

A voice I am sending as I walk

In a sacred manner I am walking

With visible tracks I am walking

In a sacred manner I walk”

As she sings, a fragrant, white cloud comes out of her mouth. Then she gives something to the chief. It is a pipe with a bison calf carved on one side to represent the earth that bears and feeds us. The pipe also has twelve eagle feathers hanging from the stem to represent the sky and the twelve moons. “Behold!” she says, “With this you shall multiply and be a good nation. Nothing but good shall come from it. Only the hands of the good shall take care of it and the bad shall not even see it.”

Then she resumes her singing and steps out of the teepee. As the people peer out to watch her leave, they instead see a white bison galloping away.

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