Jul 22 2012

Black Elk Prays

A friend at church, knowing my interest in Native American history and religion, recently suggested I read Black Elk Speaks.   According to the book’s back cover, this work “is widely hailed as a religious classic, one of the best spiritual books of the modern era and the bestselling book of all time by an American Indian.”  I enjoyed reading Black Elk’s story and certainly learned a lot from it.  I’m not convinced, however, it should be called a “religious classic” nor “one of the best spiritual books of the modern era.”  Still, one can learn a good bit about Native American spirituality by reading it.  I was especially touched by two prayers offered by Black Elk.

One is found in the early pages of the book and says, “Grandfather, Great Spirit, you have been always, and before you no one has been.  There is no other one to pray to but you.  You yourself, everything that you see, everything has been made by you.  The star nation all over the universe you have finished.  The four quarters of the earth you have finished.  Grandfather, Great Spirit, lean close to the earth that you may hear the voice I send. You towards where the sun goes down, behold me; Thunder Beings, behold me!  You where the White Giant lives in power, behold me!  You where the sun shines continually, whence come the daybreak star and the day, behold me!  You where the summer lives, behold me!  You in the depths of the heavens, an eagle of power, behold!  And you, Mother Earth, the only Mother, you who have shown mercy to your children!  Hear me, four quarters of the world—a relative I am!  Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!  Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand, that I may be like you.  With your power only can I face the winds.”

The second prayer comes at the very end of the book.  In this one Black Elk prays: “Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice.  You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer.  All things belong to you—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the wings of the air and all green things that live.  You have set the powers of the four quarters to cross each other.  The good road and the road of difficulties you have made to cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.  Day in and day out, forever, you are the life of things.  Therefore I am sending a voice, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, forgetting nothing you have made, the stars of the universe and the grasses of the earth.”

I appreciate the way that Black Elk incorporated the earth into his prayers.  I fear that this is not very common in Christian prayer.  You would think that those who acknowledge God as the “Maker of heaven and earth,” and whose Lord encouraged them to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” would be more prone to remember the earth in their prayers.  I think we might all benefit from following Black Elk’s lead by including the earth and its creatures in our prayers, by being more conscious of the spiritual nature of all of Creation. This is a vital part of Native American spirituality and should be of ours as well.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the middle image at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Montana, and the bottom image at the National Bison Range in Wyoming.)