Advent with Black Elk: The Bear Society


Chapters 8 and 9: The Fight with Three Stars and The Rubbing Out of Long Hair

In these two chapters, Black Elk recounts the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. As I mentioned in a previous post, 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, whom Black Elk calls “the greatest medicine man of the nation at that time” (59)

What interests me in these chapters is Black Elk’s willingness to die and the courage and inspiration that he garnered from his own visions.

He says, “I made up my mind that, small as I was, I might as well die there, and if I did, maybe I’d be known. I told Jumping Horse, a boy about my age, that I was going along to die, and he said he would too” (58). Also a common war cry that is repeated throughout the book is “Take courage! This is a good day to die!” (62, 74)

Black Elk says that remembering his vision helped empower him to fight: “I kept thinking of my vision, and maybe that helped” (58) and “[I] thought of my vision. It made me feel stronger, and it seemed that my people were all thunder beings and that the soldiers would be rubbed out” (68).

A Hunkpapa medicine man named Hairy Chin requested young Black Elk’s assistance in curing a man named Rattling Hawk, “who was shot through the hip in the fight on the Rosebud, and people thought he could not get well” (66). Hairy Chin, who “had his power from a dream of the bear,” asked Black Elk to participate in the curing ceremony in Rattling Hawk’s teepee.

In The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie adds that Black Elk said to Neihardt, “Maybe this medicine man knew that I had this power, so this is why he brought me over” (Sixth Grandfather, 178). “Lakotas,” DeMallie explains, “believed that the power to heal wounds was given to men in visions by the Bear spirit. Those who had such visions, as well as others who were healed by Bear medicine men, formed the Bear Society.” (312, n. 3).

I like the idea of this Bear Society. I’d like to form one…

…This morning I read a chapter from a manuscript of a forthcoming book on the Buddha and the Ba’al Shem Tov (Jewish mystic) by Rabbi Burt Jacobson. In it, he describes a vision of a meeting between the Buddha and the Ba’al Shem Tov. He writes,

“I recall a powerful vision or fantasy that I had in 1974, soon after I had completed my first reading of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s portrait of the Besht. I sensed the Buddha and the Besht encountering one another in some mysterious place outside of time and space. They were enjoying one another’s company immensely. At one point they each agreed to share with one another something of their respective paths toward enlightenment.

“The Buddha taught the Besht how to sit simply and quietly in meditation, following his breath. The Jewish master, usually so entranced by words, entered a place of wordless silence deeper than anything he had ever experienced. And in this silence his ego dissolved and he became one with Ein Sof, infinite mystery. When he opened his eyes hours later, he smiled at his new friend and the Buddha smiled back.

“And then, in his delight, the Ba’al Shem broke out into a joyous niggun. After a few minutes, the Buddha joined in the repetitive, ecstatic melody. The Besht began to clap and the Buddha followed suit. Soon the Besht stood up and took the hand of the Buddha, who also rose. The Besht began his dance, inviting his friends to join him. Their bodies moved to the wild rhythm of the niggun they were chanting. Their hands flew in the air, their torsos swayed in all directions. Their faces were radiant, filled with joy.”

Several years ago, my previous spiritual director (Karen Kuchan) led me in a guided visual meditation called “Visio Divina.” In this meditation, I found myself sitting under a tree. (Black Elk mentions the waga chun—the cottonwood tree—“the holy tree that should stand in the middle of the dancing circle” (59). Sitting under the tree, beside me, is the Buddha. On my other side is a Jewish mystic. And behind the tree is a Celtic Christian Saint. I previously have not been able to identify the Jewish mystic and Celtic saint in the vision, but I now have a feeling that the Jew is the Ba’al Shem Tov and the saint is Brigid. In my vision/fantasy, I sit under the tree with these teachers, eat Fig Newtons, pray, and discuss the nature of reality. The Buddha often seems to die peacefully in these visions/fantasies. (“Today is a good day to die”). This vision inspired me to pursue a PhD at GTU in Spirituality and to sometimes refer to myself now as an Episcobujew (:

I mention this vision because it resonates very much with Rabbi Burt Jacobson’s vision of the Buddha and the Baal Shem Tov. Perhaps Rabbi Burt and I should together form a kind of “Bear Society,” a Society of the Buddha, St. Brigid and the Ba’al Shem Tov….


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