Chapter 17 and 18: The First Cure and the Powers of the Bison and the Elk
“You have noticed,” Black Elk says, “everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round […] The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children” (121).
“But,” Black Elk continues, “the Wasichus have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying […] When we were living by the power of the circle in a way we should, boys were men at twelve or thirteen years of ago. But now it takes them very much longer to mature” (122).
As Jewish singer-songwriter and UC Berkeley alum Malvina Reynolds put it: “Little boxes on the hillsides, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one and pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”
I grew up in suburban “little boxes” and I can’t say I ever felt limited or oppressed by my squared living conditions. I honestly find it difficult to understand Black Elk’s complaint. However, I will say that one symbol from which I have drawn power over the last decade or so is the circular prayer labyrinth. My wife and I got married on the prayer labyrinth at Grace cathedral in SF and our little box apartment is full of prayer labyrinths. In fact, just yesterday, someone gave us a prayer labyrinth Christmas tree decoration.
Black Elk continues to reference the power of circles when he discusses the sharing of “the pipe to the Six Powers” and the “rumbling thunder sound on the drum” (123). He says, “The voice of the drum is an offering to the Spirit of the World. Its sound arouses the mind and makes men feel the mystery and power of things.” I felt the mystery and power of things while dancing to the rumbling thunder sound of drums by the sacred fire at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock. My body felt compelled to move to the sound of the thundering drums. In Black Elk’s words, “my legs seemed to be full of ants” (151). We organically formed a dance circle around the fire and I remember watching the smoke rise to the bright Dakota stars while my body moved naturally (and yet sometimes clumsily) to what felt like the earth’s heartbeat.
I remember leaving that circle dance and thinking, “This is exactly where I am called to be and what I am called to do right now as a priest.” For some reason, I felt like I was fulfilling my call as a priest at that circle dance more than anywhere else. Maybe it was a somewhat patronizing and condescending sentiment in which I felt like I was representing the church’s affirmation of Native American spirituality, but I think it was something deeper than that. I felt connected to the Lakota Sioux through the sharing of this primal and earthy heartbeat. There is something very powerful about being part of a prayerful and playful circle dance. It is no surprise that the Cappadocian Fathers used this image (perichoresis) to describe the Trinity. Early Christian theologians did not put the Triune God in a box. Instead, they put Him in a Circle. (:
It was by tapping into the power of the round earth’s heartbeat and by literally stamping the earth four times (and performing some other shamanic rituals) that a 19-year-old Black Elk was able to activate the healing powers given to him in his vision and heal a seriously ill young boy.