As I recall, it was one of those hot, smoggy summer days in LA. We were sitting on a park bench in the shade. The park was one of those anonymous lttle collections of half-watered, half-dead grassy spots that dot the LA sprawl. Present were Manuel, his wife Vera chief of what was left of the Huhumonga tribe (Gabrielino, in Spanish), and several of us white activists. We were all working to preserve the remaining sage scrub beds (a sacred plant to Western tribes) from San Bernardino area developers. Now, Manuel, as long as I had known him, was a mild-mannered man, content to let Vera make decisions for those Gabrielinos still active in tribal affairs. Maybe, it was the summer heat or the unruly kids playing nearby, I don't know. But suddenly Manuel jumped from the bench, strode over to the several families with the kids, and in a stern and steady voice proceeded to remind them that all the land upon which they now walked and drove had once belonged to his people who had peaceably roamed the land. A moment later, he returned, and we resumed without comment. But I've never forgotten that moment, not because it was embarrassing for Manuel or for the bewildered families who had no idea who he was, but for what it demonstrated to me. That even in the middle of one of America's great cities, having long ago replaced the vast beds of coastal sage and peaceable people, there remain ghostly encounters with a very real pre-European past.
And that's the sort of glimpse Black Elk Speaks provides in wonderful detail. The past comes alive through the proverbial eyes of a revered man whose people have been overly villified or overly romanticized, but rarely portrayed in all their human complexity. Black Elk, I think, manages the complexity as he recounts experiences from boyhood through young adulthood. From the poetically practical names of people and months, eg. Moon of the Grass Appearing (April), to the migrations across traditional lands, to the historic battles with the Wasichus (white men), to the Ogalalas' end at Wounded Knee, the reader is immersed in a strange and vanished culture. It's said in the notes that the Indian Black Elk and the white man John Neihardt possessed something of a common spirit that communicated across racial and linguistic barriers. As it reads, the seamlessly flowing narrative demonstrates something of a communal overlap, a kind of deeper commonality. The book's centerpiece revolves around the nine year-old Black Elk's Great Vision, recounted here in all its colorful and lyrical detail. Whatever the prophetic value, the strength of Black Elk's Vision clearly guided and infused him for the remainder of his life, and provides a powerful potrait of another people's wishes and dreams.
Frankly, I've never put much stock in the metaphysics of visions, whether of the white man's Biblical variety or the Native American's pantheistc kind. But I have to confess that when I compare America's great national vision of Manifest Destiny with Black Elk's, I much prefer the latter. It's certainly more poetic and a lot less threatening to the planet. Something like that, I believe, is where the real value of looking at the world through the eyes of others lies. Perhaps it's the best way for a skeptic like me to expand his own consciousness, and share a vanished time and place as I did for a brief moment on that long ago park bench.