In the 1930’s a Nebraska poet named John Neihardt travelled to the Oglala Sioux reservation on the Southern border of South Dakota. He was searching for material for his classic poetic work ‘Cycle of the West’, a 5 part epic written and published over a span of almost 30 years. What he found in the Pine Ridge region of South Dakota were American Indians whose traditional way of life was being lost in the history of the West. He met a Lakota elder who would give the world an expansive account of American Indian theology; a man named Nicholas Black Elk.
Black Elk (Heȟáka Sápa) was a wičháša wakȟáŋ, a holy man, from Pine Ridge. Then in his late 60’s, Black Elk was well travelled and experienced in the world abroad. He had travelled to England in 1887 working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He stayed in Europe for 2 years travelling France, Italy and Germany before his homecoming to Pine Ridge in 1889. Black Elk returned to South Dakota with a deeper understanding of the world of white culture, a grasp of the English language and a strong desire to educate white Americans about American Indian traditions.
John Neihardts book ‘Black Elk Speaks’ is based on conversations had with Black Elk beginning in the summer of 1930. It’s one of several books Neihardt published on the life of the famous holy man. First printed in 1932, it’s been called the only western religious classic to emerge in the 21st Century(1), and is widely regarded as a bible of North American Native theology. The volume contains descriptions of Oglala-Sioux rituals as well as vivid accounts of Black Elks personal visions. While Neihardt undoubtedly exercised his influence in crafting the narrative from translated interviews with Black Elk, the penetrating power of Black Elks world view shines through the tome, echoing truths common to many spiritual traditions.
One of the most engaging accounts from ‘Black Elk Speaks’ is the chapter titled ‘Heyoka Ceremony’. Black Elk himself was Heyoka, a role common in his family lineage. He communicated to Neihardt the depth and social importance involved with his responsibility. Heyoka are the sacred clowns, the clever contrarians of traditional Native American sociological structure. They bring psychological balance to communities through satirical, comedic and ironic performances that challenge and question traditional beliefs. Skilfully employing paradox and juxtaposition they illuminate the underlying truths that others take for granted. Heyoka are frequently represented as riding backwards on horseback, wearing backwards clothing and speaking in backward language. They act in an opposite and peculiar manner, dramatizing the reversal of social norms. The ‘Straighten-Outer’ was one such sacred clown.
“He was always running around with a hammer trying to flatten curvy things (soup bowls, eggs, wagon wheels, etc.), thus making them straight.” – John Fire Lame Deer (2)
Heyoka are, in essence, the only community members able to openly ask ‘Why?’ about otherwise unconsciously accepted phenomena. Why is the world like this? Why do we have these beliefs? Why do we think of ourselves as we do? These types of questions are posed indirectly through allusion and play acting, encouraging onlookers to self reflect. The answers lie hidden between the lines of their performance, transmitted implicitly and realized at the personal level. Their approach is incredibly effective at creating and maintaining social cohesion, since it relies on a shared interpersonal experience of events. Beginning at the level of the individual and radiating out to the phenomenal world gives community members a sense of ownership of their beliefs, maintaining group boundaries in an impressively democratic style.
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” – Black Elk (3)
Heyoka cultivate sensitivity to an ever shifting landscape of relationships and social dynamics, responding intuitively to maintain balance when the community strays from centeredness. Appreciating the importance of social balance is crucial to understanding the function of Heyoka in society. Heyoka break rules, wilfully dabble in taboos and publicly dramatize the reversal of social norms to achieve their purpose of maintaining balance. Paradoxically, it’s their ability to violate boundaries that helps to define the very cultural norms they seemingly disregard. Where ordinary citizens fear to tread, Heyoka dance freely. They bring sacred awareness to the mundane and conjure the ordinary in sacred spaces. When people act more serious, such as during ceremony or in times of hardship the Heyoka diverts attention by bringing humour.
“For people who are as poor as us, who have lost everything, who had to endure so much death and sadness, laughter is a precious gift. When we were dying like flies from white man’s disease, when we were driven into reservations, when the government rations did not arrive and we were starving, watching the pranks and capers of Heyoka were a blessing.” – John Fire Lame Deer (3)
Heyoka behaviour may seem childish or insensitive to the uninitiated, but a closer look reveals a profound social relevance and importance to maintaining stability. The key to understanding Heyoka behaviour is in its intention; Heyoka always act for the benefit of the group. Without their sensitive socio-psychological check and balance system people would experience extreme fluctuations in thought and feeling without a predictable return to stability. Heyoka show a way back to centeredness through negative example and the performance of opposite extremes. Where there is dark they will bring light, where there is sadness they will bring joy. Black Elk explains the perspective that underlies their responsibility:
“You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see.” -Black Elk (4)
The path to becoming Heyoka is unique for everyone, though some similar determining circumstances occur. As with many spiritual traditions, the experience of awakening intuition and personal perspective to a more holistic view can arise early in life through trauma or a near death experience. For Black Elk the initiation came as a result of debilitating sickness at age nine. Slipping in and out of consciousness he was taken to see the Six Grandfathers (individuals representing South, West, North, East, Above and Below) and received a vision in which he heard the voice of Thunder Beings. Becoming Heyoka hinges heavily on the experience of hearing and responding to the voice of the Thunder Beings (the Wakinyan). Heyoka power derives directly from these spiritual messengers.
Thunder beings, or Thunderbirds are supernatural creatures common to many West Coast and midwest American Native mythologies. In legend they are responsible for the sound of distant thunder and the presence of hail, rain or flash lightning. Their power comes from the cardinal West, traditionally understood as a place of death and chaos, the place of the setting sun. The mid Western American Native view of human progression through life’s stages moves counterclockwise around the cardinal points, with the West playing an integral role. Black Elk explained this mystical transit to Neihardt:
“You want to know why we always go from left to right like that. I can tell you something of the reason, but not all. Think of this: Is not the south the source of life, and does not the flowering stick truly come from there? And does not man advance from there toward the setting sun of his life? Then does not he approach the colder north where the white hairs are? And does he not then arrive, if he lives, at the source of light and understanding, which is the east? Then does he not return to where he began, to his second childhood, there to give back his life to all life, and his flesh to the earth whence it came? The more you think about this, the more meaning you will see in it.” – Black Elk (5)
In Oglala-Sioux understanding, the West embodies incomprehensible and often terrifying natural power; that power is something to appreciate from a distance but avoid contacting closely. Thunderbirds transmit the will of Wakan Tanka to Earth by means of natural phenomena. Hearing messages from them is akin to hearing the voice of Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit) which functions primarily through Heyokas sensitively tuned intuition. The sound and fury of awe inspiring natural events is echoed in the play of Heyoka initiates performances. They shock, frighten and encourage wonder in their audience through drama, just as the power of nature can wake us up and reminds us of our true place in the cosmos.
Heyoka often paint themselves and their horses with streaks of stylized lightning. It’s a powerful metaphor that speaks directly to their function in society: They bring the energy and power of the sky down to Earth, just as lightning does. They act fast, creating flashes of awareness and illuminating what was previously unseen. They sense what social situations need to achieve balance then act on behalf of the Great Spirit to promote order in their community. Interpreting the voice of Wakan Tanka is one half of the Heyoka equation, the other half is putting that voice into action for the benefit of others. In this sense they are some of the most responsible members of North American Indian society. ‘Responsible’ in this context means exactly that – their practice of responding to the needs of a group, giving its members what is most beneficial regardless of rational understanding. This receiving and giving requires incredible sensitivity and sustained subtle awareness of events to be effective. It relies heavily on trust in intuition and an immediate response to events in the environment. Heyoka reveal a dimension of truth hidden at the core of human experience, and awaken it by any means necessary.
Recent decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in Native American myth and theology. Spiritual seekers, theologians and academics have come to appreciate ‘Black Elk Speaks’ for the contribution it makes in understanding American Indian worldview, though broad cultural appreciation has been slow to mature. John Neihardt respected that worldview, and its importance in understanding the ‘Cycle of the West’. How long will it take North Americans to acknowledge and integrate the wisdom of the land they call home? It’s a question that’s intimately tied to the Wests own path to healing; a backwards walk through history to ask questions that were previously taboo. Why is the world like this? Why do we have these beliefs? Why do we think of ourselves as we do? Maybe in that transit they’ll come to appreciate the true power of the West, where awareness is half the heart of responsibility and the rest is pure action.
- Neihardt, John. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press, 2014. XV. Print.
- Lame Deer, John. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. New York; Simon and Schuster, 1972. 250. Print
- Neihardt, John. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press, 2014. XV. Print.
- Brown, Joseph Epes. The Sacred Pipe. Norman; University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. 115. Print
- Neihardt, John. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 153. Print.