Advent with Black Elk: Jesus (and) the Wanekia


Chapters 21 and 22: The Messiah and Visions of the Other World

In these chapters, Black Elk describes the Messiah or Wanekia whom he heard about among the Paiute. The Paiute are indigenous peoples of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Arizona. The Wanekia in Black Elk Speaks was named Wovoka or Jack Wilson and was of the Northern Paiute in Nevada. According to Black Elk, there was news that “yonder in the west…there was a sacred man among Paiutes who had talked to the Great Spirit in a vision, and the Great Spirit had told him how to save the Indian peoples and make the Wasichus disappear and bring back all the bison and the people who were dead and how there would be a new earth” (145).

Initially, Black Elk did not jump on the Wanekia band wagon. He said, “I did not yet believe […]  I thought maybe it was only the despair that made people believe, just as a man who is starving may dream of plenty of everything good to eat” (145).

Wanekia means the “One Who Makes Live” and Black Elk later calls him “the son of the Great Spirit” (146). The Wasichus called him Jack Wilson, but his Paiute name was Wovoka, which means “wood cutter,” which I find especially fascinating since the Great Wanekia of Western culture was also a wood cutter (a carpenter), who likely said, “Split a piece of wood, and I am there.” (Gospel of Thomas Saying 77b).

Wovoka the Wanekia spoke of another world coming just as Jesus the Wanekia spoke of the kingdom of God and the olam haba (the world that is to come).

Black Elk says, “I heard many wonderful things about the Wanekia that these men had seen and heard, and they were good men. He could make animals talk…” (147).

I don’t know of any accounts in which Jesus the Wanekia makes animals talk; however, I am reminded of an Islamic account of Jesus told by Malik Deenar (d. 748 CE): One day, while Jesus was out walking with his disciples, they passed by the carcass of a dog. “Whew!” exclaimed the disciples. “What a stench!” Jesus then paused to remark upon the shining whiteness of the creature’s teeth. As the account goes, Jesus then proceeded to chastise his disciples, telling them not to speak ill of the poor dog and declaring, “Say nothing about God’s creatures except that which is in praise.”

I always appreciate stories like this about Jesus from outside faith traditions. They help me to see and appreciate my own tradition and understanding of Christ in a new light. For this reason, my curiosity is also piqued when I read of Black Elk’s vision of a man with “wounds in the palm of his hands”

Black Elk describes his vision when he says, “Against the tree there was a man standing with arms held wide in front of him. I looked hard at him, and I could not tell what people he came from. He was not a Wasichu and he was not an Indian. His hair was long and hanging loose, and on the left side of his head he wore an eagle feather. His body was strong and good to see, and it was painted red. I tried to recognize him, but I could not make him out. He was a very fine-looking man. While I was staring hard at him, his body began to change and became very beautiful with all colors of light, and around him there was light. He spoke like singing: ‘My life is such that all earthly beings and growing things belong to me. Your father, the Great Spirit, has said this. You too must say this.’ Then he went out like a light in a wind.” (153 – 154).

DeMallie explains that much of this was edited and altered by Neihardt. The original transcript reads: “As I looked at him, his body began to transform. His body changed into all colors and it was very beautiful. All around him there was light. Then he disappeared all at once. It seemed as though there were wounds in the palms of his hands […] It seems to me on thinking it over that I have seen the son of the Great Spirit himself” (Sixth Grandfather, 263, 266).


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