The Wisdom of Black Elk and Slow Turtle; Native American Spirituality and Culture (Pt. 2)

(15 minute read)

In part one of this introduction to Native American spirituality and culture, which you can read here, we explored some of the foundational ways of life and spiritual practices – sacred dance, the shaman, and how life and spirit was infused and shown in every act. Now, we will explore indigenous intimacy with the Divine, and folk soul through writings of Black Elk, the great Lakota Sioux holy man. Last, I will share some thoughts on the myth of Thanksgiving, and a core, universal teaching given to me by Slow Turtle of the Wampanoag tribe, whose ancestors occupied New England before the Pilgrims, Puritans, and violent colonization.

Intimacy with the Divine

The various names given to God among the Native Americans reveals an insightful consideration for us. It depicts their understanding and their intimacy with the Divine and the inspired aspects of life. Among the Algonquin, the name given to God was Orenda; for the Iroquois, it was Mantious; Among the Sioux, it was Tanka or more commonly, Tankshiela. These words share a universal definition: Cosmic Grandfather.

According to the Delaware natives, “It is the great Spirit that dwells above the clouds, and is over all; His eyes are the Sun, his breath is the wind, and his mind is beyond knowing.” According to the various traditions, this Grandfather is accompanied by the earth and all of her life forms called the Great Grandmother, Nokomis, or Mother Nature. Together, in harmony and balance, they rule the worlds above, and below; the worlds within and without.

As I read much of the available literature about Native American spirituality, I learned there is a panoply of spirits which constitute an extended family, which include everything that lives on earth. Their names for various natural phenomena became part of their relational Theology. For example, the majestic Thunderbird in prayer became Brother Thunder Spirit. The rushing, rippling river became Sister Flowing Stream, and so on… Much like how St. Francis regarded nature, the Native Americans befriended and adopted themselves into the entire family of life.

Folk Soul

In an attempt to authentically explain the Native American folk soul, I have supplied a few words from the great Lakota Sioux holy man, waskaska wokan, Black Elk. Recorded and translated in 1932, his words represent generations of wisdom derived from the vision quest and the insights he received during his lifetime:

“[My life is the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it all; a vision of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart, of a people’s dream that died in the bloody snow at Wounded Knee….

But if the vision is true and mighty, it might come real yet, for such visions are of the spirit and only in the darkness of the human mind and heart are they ever lost.

I will now make a pipe offering… I offer that the four winds are but one power, and I will send forth its smoke and my voice:

Heya Hey, Heya, Hey, Heya Hey!

I am a Lakota Sioux of the Oglala band. My father, and my father’s father and his father’s father all share my name. I am the fourth Black Elk. We have all been medicine men, cousins to Crazy Horse’s clan. When I was 13, I learned what all the fighting was about…Up, by the river’s fork, the white men found a yellow metal which they worship and it makes them crazy. They wanted to build a road to the river, but my people did not want a road because it would scare the bison away… The whites say they only want a little of the land, but my people knew better… And now, and now…

Look around, you can see what has happened!

A Lakota holy man dreamed about what would happen to us, all of us… That a strange race would come, and weave a web around us, put us out of our villages, onto little gray square houses, on barren land, where we would starve physically and spiritually. He died of sorrow soon after his dream- Sometimes dreams are wiser than the waking self. …

Later, I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and all round below me was the sacred hoop of the world…. I saw more than I could say, or tell, for I was now seeing in the sacred manner, all the things of the Spirit… That all must learn to live together, like one being.”

“And I saw the hoop of my people as being just one hoop of the many; and from the center of all the hoops, grows a sacred tree, whose branches connected and sheltered all of us as children of 1 mother, and 1 father, and I saw this as holy.

… When the singing stopped, I walked quickly toward my home in the distance. When I got there my father and mother were bending over a sick boy, who was me. Then I sat up, and I was sad. My father and mother did not seem to know that I had gone far away.

Later, I was ready to dance in the sacred manner… I thought of all my ancestors who have left us now, and I could not hold back my tears… I cried with my whole heart. As I began to dance, I remembered the sacred tree in my vision. I had been shown all the beauty of the creation, living in a grand circle of peace.

Maybe, this is the land of my vision where all my people go… Then as the whole group began to dance, some fell down, some wailed, some lay dead in a vision… I danced with my eyes closed and feelings arose from my legs and were in my heart now…

But there was no fear… Just a growing sense of hope and happiness. I had experienced another vision. The spotted eagle was dancing above me, and I could hear his song. From out of my people’s pain, may we all learn to live….]”

The Talking Circle; Sharing the Heart

Early in my ministry, I was introduced to Slow Turtle and some of the members of the Wampanoag tribe- the tribe that occupied much of New England before the Pilgrims and Puritans and the rest of the Colonization began. I heard the story of their people. Their displacement and suffering, the myths about Thanksgiving and the real story they relayed to me. I tried to listen compassionately, and tears came to my eyes… often.

The story of their survival, their persistence, and their courage under persecution, was nothing less than remarkable and inspiring… tragic and yet, hopeful. I became convinced that their heart-rendering story could be told by many Native American tribes across our nation, as I had heard similar stories while in Arizona.

Despite the distortions of the national skewed renditions of their story in our history books, and the shallow and hollow Hollywood versions we have been given, there is still more to admire and to learn from the Native Americans and their particular and remarkable enduring wisdom.

Here is a copy of a core or universal teaching given to me by Slow Turtle.

“Kalpulli Teocalli Ollin. It is a native tradition to sit in a circle and talk-to share what is in your heart.” – John Peters (Slow Turtle), Wampanoag

“The talking circle is also a listening circle. The talking circle allows one person to talk at a time for as long as they need to talk. So much can be gained by listening. Is it a coincidence that the Creator gave us one mouth and two ears? The power of the circle allows the heart to be shared with each other. What we share with each other also heals each other. When we talk about our pain in the circle, it is distributed to the circle, and we are free of the pain. The talking circle works because when the people form a circle, the Great Mystery is in the centre.” -Via White Bison.

“My Creator, give me the courage to share, and the courage to listen.

Thank you for sharing your day with us, for coming together as the day ends in this sacred circle around the fire and sharing your story with us. May you always find comfort in this circle.

It has been a very painful [time] for many of our relations across the world. Please take some time to release, for self care, for unplugging from so much media and most importantly surround yourself with people that bring you love, light and yes even laughter.

Don’t give in to the violence, negativity, sadness and spiral into a deep hole. Know this circle of humble servants are here if you need support.

Sweet dreams, may your heart be at peace and your spirit filled with fire for a new tomorrow.” – Slow Turtle

Closing Words:

From the Pawnee tribe and popularized in modern song:

” May the long time Sun shine upon you, All love surround you,

and the pure light within you, guide your way on”…. Ah Ho….


Dr. Peter Lanzillotta



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