Chapter 2: Early Boyhood
In this chapter, Black Elk identifies as a Lakota of the Ogalala band. “Lakota” means “Allies” and it is the self-designation for the Western Sioux, which are comprised of seven tribes: Ogalala (“They Scatter Their Own”), Brule (Burned Thighs), Minneconjnu (Planters by the Water), Hunkpapa (End Village), Two Kettles, No Bows, and Blackfoot. (See DeMallie, “Sioux Until 1850,” 718 – 760). I imagine this is why the camp where I stayed at Standing Rock is called Oceti Sakowin, which means “Seven Councils.” Apparently, the resistance to DAPL prompted the first gathering of the seven Lakota tribes since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. This Battle is also known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Lakota and as Custer’s Last Stand. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry suffered a major defeat in this battle and Custer himself was killed. The Lakota’s victory was propelled by the bravery of Crazy Horse and the visions of Sitting Bull. Black Elk explains that his father was a cousin of the great Crazy Horse.
Black Elk was born in the Moon of the Popping Trees, which is the name of the moon that I believe I am now in: the moon of December. The Popping Trees refers to the loud cracking of trees during the coldest part of the winter. Some tribes refer to this moon as simply the Cold Moon. Black Elk was born in 1863, in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed.
Black Elk refers to people of European descent as “Wasichu,” which means “spirit” or “holy” or “something incomprehensible.” It does not necessarily mean “white people” because he also refers to “black wasichu,” people of African descent: primarily African Americans.
He also refers to gold as “yellow metal” that the wasichu “worship and that makes them crazy” (6). This “yellow metal” drove the wasichu to make a road through Lakota land to connect the gold rush territory with the Oregon Trail. This road became known as Bozeman Trail and the Lakota did not want this road at all because “it would scare the bison and make them go away, and also it would let other Wasichus come in like a river.” The Wasichus did indeed come in like a river and divided the Lakota and the bison up into separate “little islands” which are always becoming smaller and smaller (6).
March is called the “Moon of the Snowblind” because many Lakota suffered from temporary blindness from overexposure to the sunlight reflecting off the snow-covered land. The medical term for this is photokeratitis; it is essentially a sunburned cornea. Black Elk describes a medicine man named Creeping who would cure the snowblind by putting snow on their eyes and singing a certain song that he heard in a dream. He would then blow on the backs of their heads and they would see again. The song “was about the dragonfly. . . for that was where he got his power, they say.” This account reminds me of Jesus’s healing of the man born blind in John 9 in which he uses mud and saliva and the water of the pool of Siloam to give him sight. What dream song was Jesus singing when he anointed the man with mud?
Black Elk concludes his chapter on early boyhood with a vision: “I looked up at the clouds, and two men were coming there, headfirst like arrows slanting down; and as they came, they sang a sacred song and the thunder was drumming. I will sing it for you. The song and the drumming were like this:
‘Behold, a sacred voice is calling you; All over the sky a sacred voice is calling.’
I sat there gazing at them, and they were coming from the place where the giant lives (north). But when they were very close to me, they wheeled about toward where the sun goes down, and they were geese. Then they were gone, and the rain came with a big wind and a roaring.” (12)
For the Lakota, the geese are akichita, which means “messengers” and “enforcers” of the power of the North. The poet Mary Oliver seemed to understand the sacred power of the geese when she wrote this poem:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.