#023 Black Elk


This is the preface to The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux.

Black Elk first became known to a wide range of readers in 1932 through John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks: The Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Neihardt’s poetic and sympathetic treatment of this unusual man’s life and mission raises the question as to who in fact Black Elk really was. For if the account is faithful to at least the essential qualities of the man, then it is clear that even among a people noted for their large share of great personalities, here was an unusual man of vision. A holy man in the full sense of the term, and a man upon whom destiny in a time of cultural crisis had placed a heavy burden of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his people. Here, too, could also be an important message for the larger world.

I went to find Black Elk in the fall of 1947. After following his traces across many of the western states, we finally met in an old canvas wall tent on a Nebraska farm where his family and members of their band were employed in harvesting potatoes. During that first encounter, we simply sat side by side on a sheepskin and silently smoked the red stone pipe I had brought with me as an offering in the traditional manner. Partly crippled, almost completely blind, he seemed a pitiful old man as he sat there hunched over, dressed in poor cast off clothing. But through the beauty of his face and the reverent quality of his movements as he smoked the pipe, it was clear that Neihardt had given to us the essence of the man. An initial impression confirmed by the subsequent years I spent with Black Elk. Knowing that Black Elk had usually refused to talk with many outsiders, it was with relief and wonder that I heard his first words. He had anticipated my coming, and he wished me to spend that winter with him, for he had much to tell of the sacred things before they all passed away.

I spent that very cold winter with Black Elk and his generous family in their little hewn log house under the pine-covered bluffs near Manderson, S.D. Everything the old man told me, I recorded during the time that was available when we were not hunting for game, hauling water from the nearest hand pump eight miles away, or cutting hardwood in the valley bottom for the iron stove. I profited from this rigorous life, which his family and my many new relatives shared with me.

I am fortunate in having met at least some of those men of the old days who possessed great human and spiritual qualities, but Black Elk had a special quality of power and kindliness and a sense of mission that was unique, and which I am sure was recognized by all who had the opportunity to know him.

According to his own account, he was born in 1862. He had therefore known the old days when his people still had the freedom of the plains and hunted the bison. He had fought against the white men at the Little Big Horn and at Wounded Knee Creek. He was a cousin to the famous chief and holy man Crazy Horse, and had known Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and American Horse. Although Black Elk spoke no English, he had observed much of the white man’s world having traveled with Buffalo Bill to Italy, France, and also England, where he danced for Queen Victoria–“Grandmother England.” But whether hunting, traveling, or fighting, Black Elk was not as other men were. During his youth, he had been instructed in the sacred lore of his people by such great men as Whirlwind Chaser, Black Road, and the sage Elk Head, Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, from whom he had learned the history and deep meanings of his people’s spiritual heritage. Through prayer, fasting, and a deepening understanding of this heritage, Black Elk himself eventually became one of the wise men. Receiving many visions, he acquired special powers to be used for the good of his nation.

This responsibility to “bring to life the flowering tree of his people” haunted Black Elk all his life and caused him much suffering. Although he had been given the power to lead his people in the ways of his grandfathers, he did not understand how the vision could be brought to life. It was certainly because of his pervasive sense of mission that Black Elk wished to set forth this book explaining the major rites of the Oglala Sioux, for he hoped that in this manner his own people would gain a better understanding of the truths of their own Indian traditions. So too, perhaps, would the whites.

It has now been over 20 years since Black Elk last spoke. Many changes have taken place in these years, and they require that Black Elk’s message, like the similar messages of other tradition-oriented people, be placed in new perspective and in a new light. At the time Black Elk was lamenting the broken hoop of his nation, it was generally believed, even by the specialists, to be only a matter of time (very little time in fact) before the Indians with their seemingly archaic and anachronistic cultures would be completely assimilated into a larger American society convinced of its own superiority and the validity of its goals.

We are still very far from being aware of the dimensions and ramifications of our ethnocentric illusions. Nevertheless, by the very nature of things, we are now forced to undergo a process of intense self-examination and to engage in a serious reevaluation of the premises and orientations of our society. For example, the inescapable reality of the ecological crisis has for many people shattered a kind of a dreamworld. It has forced us not only to seek immediate solutions to the kinds of problems fostered by a highly developed technology, but also in above all to look to our basic values concerning life and the nature and destiny of man. An increasing number of people today, especially those of the younger generations, may not yet be sure about the most effective means of furthering this process of reevaluation, but they are looking to the kinds of models represented by the American Indians.

In their relationships to this troubled America, the Indians encompass a wide variety of possible positions. On one hand are the few traditional and conservative groups that, against enormous pressures, have miraculously remained very close to the essence of their ancient and still viable lifeways. On the other hand are the groups that have become completely assimilated into the larger American society. Nevertheless, almost all Indian groups that retain any degree of self identity are now re-evaluating and giving positive valuation to the fundamental premises of their own traditional cultures. They are also re-examining, through a wide range of means and expressions, their relationships to that larger society, which now tends to represent diminishing attractions.

If there is validity to the above statements, it seems clear that it is too early to say that Black Elk’s mission to bring his people back to “the good red road” has failed as he thought it had. Rather, his mission may be succeeding in ways he could not have anticipated.

Black Elk was a member of the Oglala Division of the Teton Sioux. These Western Teton were one of the seven bands, or “Council Fires,” of the Dakota (“Allied”) nation. This is one of the nations belonging to the large Siouan linguistic family, which also includes the Assiniboines, Crow, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kansa, Mandan, Missouri, Omaha, Osage, Oto, Ponca, and Quapaw.

According to their own historical account, the Dakota were established on the headwaters of the Mississippi River as late as the 16th century. In the 17th century, they were driven westward from Minnesota by their enemies, the Chippewa. In leaving the forests and lakes, the Dakota substituted the horse for the bark canoe with remarkable ease. In the 19th century, they became known and feared as one of the most powerful nations of the plains. Indeed, it was these Dakota Sioux who offered perhaps the strongest resistance of all the Indian groups to the westward movement of the whites.

This account of the sacred pipe and the rites of the Oglala Sioux was handed down orally to three men by the former Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, Elk Head (Hehaka Pa). Of these three, Black Elk was the only one still living at the time this history was written. Black Elk himself died in August, 1950. When Elk Head gave this account to Black Elk, he told him that it must be handed down, that their people will live for as long as the rites are known and the pipe is used, but as soon as the Sacred Pipe is forgotten, the people will be without a center and they will perish.

I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Benjamin Black Elk who acted as interpreter for this work, and who is the son of Black Elk. It is unusual to have an interpreter who understands both English and Lakota perfectly and who is also familiar with the wisdom and rites of his people. It is largely because of the absence of this dual understanding in interpreters, that many writings on the Indians have created unfortunate misunderstandings. I wish also to mention Benjamin’s wife, Ellen Black Elk, a remarkable person of strong faith and character who with quiet dignity always sought to it that everyone in her warm home was fed and cared for. Her death in September, 1970 was a loss for all who knew her.

I also acknowledge my gratitude to the Smithsonian Institution for the Barry photograph of Sitting Bull, and to the Illuminated Photo-Ad Service of Sioux Falls, South Dakota for having given me permission to use their photograph of seven Sioux who participated in the battle of the Little Big Horn, and who were all close friends of Black Elk.

~ Joseph Epes Brown, Indiana University, Bloomington, February, 1971.

Foreword by Black Elk.

In the great vision which came to me in my youth, when I had known only nine winters, there was something which has seemed to me to be of greater and greater importance as the moons have passed by. It is about our sacred pipe and its importance to our people.

We have been told by the white men, or at least by those who are Christian, that God sent to men His son who would restore order and peace upon the earth; and we have been told that Jesus the Christ was crucified, but that he shall come again at the Last Judgment, the end of this world or cycle. This I understand and know that it is true, but the white men should know that for the red people too, it was the will of Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit, that an animal turn itself into a two-legged person in order to bring the most holy pipe to his people; and we too were taught that this White Buffalo Cow Woman who brought our sacred pipe will appear again at the end of this “world,” a coming which we Indians know is now not very far off.

Most people call it a “peace pipe,” yet now there is no peace on earth or even between neighbors, and I have been told that it has been a long time since there has been peace in the world. There is much talk of peace among the Christians, yet this is just talk. Perhaps it may be, and this is my prayer that, through our sacred pipe and through this book in which I shall explain what our pipe really is, peace may come to those peoples who can understand. An understanding which must be of the heart and not of the head alone. Then they will realize that we Indians know the one true God, and that we pray to Him continually.

I have wished to make this book through no other desire than to help my people in understanding the greatness and truth of our own tradition, and also to help in bringing peace upon the earth, not only among men, but within men and between the whole of creation.

We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be, and act, and live as he intends.

~Black Elk, Manderson, South Dakota.


Excerpts from the preface and foreword to The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux by Joseph Epes Brown, read by steph.

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