The Hoop of my People
In 1930, an American poet and historian named John Neihart obtained the necessary permission to gain entry into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a Native American reservation, home to the indigenous Lakota people. Dr. John Neihart was intrigued by that period in American history, of settlement across the great American plains, the European migrants who arrived on the scene, and the Indigenous American people, who were there before, and subsequently displaced. To further his research into that rich period of history, and particularly into the cultural and religious practices of the Native American people in danger of being lost to time, John sought an audience with a particular individual - a holy man of the Lakota people, an elderly medicine man named ‘Black Elk’.
John Neihart sits down with Black Elk. They smoke red willow bark together, using Black Elk’s sacred pipe, or peace pipe, in so doing giving a symbolic offering to the Great Spirit. And then, Black Elk begins to recount his life story. He talks about encountering the white man for the first time when he was ten years old. They represented to him something evil and malevolent. He would play with his friends, games in which they would imagine killing white men. His earliest memories include fleeing west with his people to escape US soldiers. Much of his story is about the tribesmen’s actions and fears concerning the encroachment onto their lands. As time passes they are contained more and more, moved from the freedom of the Great Plains to the reservations on which they still reside. A dread of what was to come fills the mind of the young Black Elk. His people encounter geopolitical boundaries, and the white man’s concept of land ownership - concepts alien to the Native American people. The white men would make deals, and then break their deals.
Black Elk expresses his belief in an idyllic past, a golden age, when no one starved, and all his people lived in harmony with the land, before the white man came and corrupted their ways. He talks about white man’s greed, how it drove off and alienated animals and humans into separate worlds. He talks about his spirituality. From an early age he says he heard supernatural voices; the birds of the air spoke to him, and once he saw two flying men in the sky singing a sacred song. When he was nine, he found himself sick and lying helpless in his parents’ tepee. He saw those two flying men again through the opening. He is then transported, he has a vision, he ascends on a cloud to a cloud world. He stands before his ancestors. It’s a highly symbolic vision. Before him are six of his grandfathers, and each of them in turn gives him a special object with which they convey a message, a calling for his life: a cup of water, which is the power to live; a bow, which is the power to destroy; a peace pipe, to make well what is sick. And so on. In this vision Black Elk is given his purpose in life. He is told that he will destroy his people’s foes, and that the future will be unsettled and chaotic, for the white man will bring great calamity.
It was common practice amongst the Native American people to induce visions, by fasting or sweating, to mark one’s transition from childhood to adulthood. This vision is endowed with more significance therefore because in this case, it is not induced, it happens of its own accord. He is therefore being singled out to receive something extraordinary, as far as his people are concerned. And this points to the role he grows into, being a medicine man, a sage, endowed with wisdom for his people. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that almost all cultures have rituals of one kind or another to mark this transition from childhood to adulthood. We can compare it for example to the Australian Aboriginal practice of ‘walkabout’, that period in which children enter the wilderness, experience visions, and return as adults. Or the symbolism within Christian baptism – when the child reaches an age when she can choose for herself, she enters the water, and dies to her old ways, to be reborn into the new.
This vision then that Black Elk has at age nine shapes the rest of his life. The rest of the story that he recounts to John Neihart refers back to this vision often. It comes to represent for him his own failure; he wrestles with what this vision now means in the context of his own life and people. As the Nietzsche quote puts it, “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.” And so, he is conflicted, in his own eyes he had failed to live up to the expectations of his ancestors. Black Elk is telling his story because he is afraid that his culture, customs, and the wisdom of his people will be otherwise lost. In a way, he’s not even telling his own personal story, rather he is embodying the collective experience of the Lakota people. He’s embodying an archetype, if you like.
As most of you know, last week I was doing a course at Essex University on the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and there is a little Jung connection. After John Neihart heard this story from Black Elk in 1930, it appeared as a book in 1932 called, ‘Black Elk Speaks’. Soon after, Carl Jung read the book, and he thought it was profound work, capturing as it does an embodied wisdom of nature, and deep spiritual insight. And so, to expand the book’s readership, Jung arranged for the book to be translated from English into German. And Jung’s interest probably cemented the book’s reputation as a spiritual classic. Spiritually in tune with the rhythms of Nature. This Nature in-tunement is apparent simply in the way Black Elk refers to time. He doesn’t refer to months - October, November, December - rather he talks of moons: ‘the Moon of Popping Cherries’, or ‘the Moon when the Ponies Get Fat’. Their language reflects, as you would expect, the centrality of nature. Unlike the white civilization as Black Elk perceives them, full of greed and lies, the Lakota people were capable of living in harmony with nature. They had a deep respect for the cycles in nature, the cycle of life, the cycle of the seasons, and so herein we find the centrality of circles or hoops to the Native American people.
Adam read out Black Elk’s reflection on circles. It was circles which allowed them to both appreciate and live in harmony with Nature. It’s interesting to note that despite the centrality of circles in their culture, they never discovered the technology of the wheel. Just as they lived in hoops, in their tepees, so their tepees were arranged in a circle; they perceive themselves collectively as a people to be a hoop. And it's out from the symbolism of the hoop that the pinnacle of Black Elk’s spiritual insight finds expression.
If we look back into past religious customs, you have the recurring theme of sacred space. The sacred space, divided from the non-sacred-space, the profane space, normal space. If you think of European pre-Christian animistic type religions, although everything - stones, creeks, animals - are infused with spirit, there is a particularity of spiritual presence in certain places. At the edge of the settlement there is a tree, or a clearing, a grove, or a cave, or river, and there the people gather, for in such places the space between this world and next seems thinner. And as these places are the sacred places, so they are the most important places. It is these places in which you enmesh your own identity; you become the people of that tree, or that river, or that cave. And so, when the enemy comes and raids your village, takes the women, and steals the food, they also make sure they desecrate your sacred grove, for therein lies the people’s meaning, purpose, and resolve.
As religions became more complex, and were able to evolve into broader systems of belief, not just the cult of the tribe or the village, but of the whole state or the whole people group, this focus upon the particularity of place remained integral. If we think of Islam, we think of Mecca: Muslims throughout the world literally turning their bodies in prayer to the focal point of their religion, and once in their lives taking the time to go on pilgrimage there, on Hajj to that sacred place, to the Great Mosque of Mecca where the celestial black stone of Abraham is housed. Or in Judaism we think of the Temple in Jerusalem, or today, all that is left, the Wailing Wall, where Jewish people gather in prayer. And so to each of these religions, there is a centre. For the Native Americans, for the Lakota people, that centre is located less in a particular place. It was more embodied than that. Being a nomadic people who lived in their circles, their tepees, they were the hoop people, and so their sacred centre was not so much over there, but here. Here embodied within Nature. So if we think of these sacred centres, these hoops, within all religions and cultures, we identify with ours, and protect and defend ours when it is threatened, or under attack. Our identity within the sacred drama of our people is paramount over all others.
But Black Elk, in a vision, recognises that his own hoop is in fact just one hoop in a world of many hoops. He describes it like this - ‘Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy… but anywhere is the centre of the world.’
So where is the centre? It is not in the grove, or on the highest mountain, it's not in Mecca or Jerusalem, it not even here. This is the great sacred revelation of Black Elk - anywhere is the centre of the world. The hub of the universe is not the place your cult says it is, it is everywhere. And so, even as Black Elk’s religious ways and culture are being desecrated by the white man, he recognises that the Great spirit, the transcendent locale that joins heaven and earth, is not of my own people, but of all people, and of all places. This is a revelation that is difficult enough to arrive at when all is well, and there is peace in the land. But to arrive at such a profound understanding when your ways are under threat? All can experience the eternal in the now. There is no spiritual monopoly. And so, these places that people claim as the sacred centre, the seat of God on earth: Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome, and even more localised places, one’s parish church, our Unitarian Meeting House, are not actually the sacred centre, but a symbol of the sacred centre, which helps us recognise afresh that the sacred centre is everywhere. That the shining point where all lines intersect, God, is everywhere, whose centre is in me, whose centre is in you, and as such each of us is a manifestation of that mystery.