Nature and Creation

The Challenge of Black Elk’s Visions

Black Elk on Harney Peak late in life

I first learned about Black Elk when asked to read the book, Black Elk Speaks, in a high school religion class. The book is the now well-known account of Black Elk’s spiritual experience as a Lakota youth, when at the age of nine he encountered life-changing visions while dangerously ill. It was written by John G. Neihardt, and it has been influential for many, but not without critical commentary regarding its historical accuracy. In my high school religion class we were asked to write an essay comparing Black Elk’s visions with those of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. To compare the two, given their significantly different temporal and cultural backgrounds, was and is a serious but also a notable challenge, and one still worth considering.

Here is the paradox that lies at the center of the question about Nicholas Black Elk (Nicholas being his baptismal name) and his identity, and one of the most beautiful persons about whom I have come to know through a book. He was present at and had vivid memories of both the battle of Little Bighorn as well as of what is rightly termed the massacre at Wounded Knee. In adult life, he was recognized and affirmed as what Anglo’s call a ‘medicine man’ among his own people. Yet, he was also received into the Roman Catholic Church and served in a distinguished way as a Catechist for that faith.

Here is a further paradox. Years ago, I met a former Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota, also a Lakota community member, who told me this. There were many baptized Episcopalians at the battle of Little Bighorn. And most of them were on the Native American side! To appreciate this comment may take some study, and perhaps deserves some reserve regarding the possibility of hyperbole. Yet, with due consideration of the history of Episcopal Church missions in Lakota territory, his view may well have some merit.

But, as the photo at the top suggests, near the end of his life, Black Elk still practiced the religion in which he had been nurtured as a child and youth. To me, this is part of the mysterious beauty of Black Elk. Perhaps it may also illustrate a documented propensity of some Native Americans to preserve an intense privacy about their culture while also realistically engaging with emerging external circumstances in a sincere way. Black Elk’s willingness to retain the spiritual world view of his childhood while accepting the Christian world view of his adult faith, in a both-and way, has not been without criticism. Yet, and maybe because I grew up in Japan, his example of ‘cultural engagement’ positively affects me.

Nicholas Black Elk serving as a catechist of the Roman Catholic Church

For Anglo and other non-Native Americans who wish to become more knowledgeable about the history of many of the peoples who populated this land before our arrival, Black Elk’s story is both informative and yet also challenging. Here is someone who engaged his spiritual life in a deeply serious and experiential way, and who was willing to reflect on its significance from more than one point of view. Whether we might identify with his personal commitments or not, many find Black Elk to be a compelling example of someone who takes his or her faith to be at the core of one’s life.

I continue to find him and his life story, while not easily understood, to be very moving. What I have come to learn about Black Elk has certainly impacted me. May God bless the memory of Nicholas Black Elk.

In addition to the books by Jackson and Neihardt, I warmly commend Peter Cozzen’s book, The Earth is Weeping.

Black Elk (on the left) photographed as a young man

 

I want to thank Martha, who is my editor. For anyone interested in the questions raised by the life and commitments of Black Elk, I recommend the following books: Black Elk: The Life of of an American Visionary, by Joe Jackson; Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neighardt; and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary Mystic, by Michael F. Steltenkamp. Joe Jackson’s book provides a particularly compelling portrait of Black Elk. Peter Cozzen’s book, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, provides the best overall historical background for a proper appreciation for Black Elk and his community’s story.

The Beauty of Stone

Beautiful stones imported to south Louisiana

 

Here in southeastern Louisiana there is virtually no natural local stone. Geologists may differ about when and how it occurred, but generally agree that the original Gulf coast lay somewhere north of where I now live, between Baton Rouge and Memphis. What we do have here, as a setting for verdant plant and tree growth, is a lot of red clay and or sand, as well as the significant contribution of alluvial (river borne) soil. On this, our eastern and only slightly elevated side of the Mississippi River, they tell us we also have ‘loess’ soil, wind-blown from the west. In other words, where I live rests upon a legacy of materials brought here over the course of millennia – by mud-flow from the north, and dust storms from west.

Stone, as my earlier posts about our patio project suggested, therefore comes here from elsewhere, mostly I suspect by river barge. When visiting a local landscape stone vendor recently I was reminded of something I used to take for granted when living in the midwest or traveling in the far west. It is the beauty of natural stone, whether found on a Great Lakes seashore or on the banks of a Colorado river. What on childhood visits I appreciated seeing in abundance upon the north shore of Lake Superior, I now find to be an almost exotic discovery at a commercial location in Baton Rouge.

And, among the wonders of the handiwork of our Creator is the splendor of variously colored and multi-shaped stones

An unfinished stone border featuring ‘river rock’ from Colorado

Some years ago a teaching colleague shared a story from his work assignment in Saudi Arabia. On a free day, a local guide drove him for several hours through the desert toward the sea. Upon viewing the welcome sight of the water, he noted a large cargo ship discharging material into barges. He asked his guide what they were unloading, to which the response was, sand! “You’re kidding me,” he said. And then my friend learned to his surprise that the sand that has been blowing back and forth forever across the Saudi desert is apparently reckoned by many as worthless for construction, having rounded particles. Sand essential for concrete foundations and buildings needs to have edges, and come from Europe and elsewhere, to provide a proper binding material while the cement cures.

I am mindful of this story when I view the beautifully rounded and smooth rock that comes to us from far away rivers and lakeshores, after perhaps long eons of geological friction. I also rejoice in the variety of color in a material that might otherwise be as uniform as the sand in an Arabian desert, or on the banks of the great river just a few miles from our home.

Random Colorado river stone pieces

I am therefore thankful for the shaping and molding effect of God’s Providence upon me – even after what may seem like an unimaginably long time. Our experience through the rough and tumble of life can sometimes leave us feeling awkward and with uncomfortable or raw ‘edges.’ At other times, we may feel we have been smoothed and shaped in ways more attractive to others and to ourselves. The beauty here may lie in the wisdom latent in one of my favorite, but still-not-fully understood, verses from the Psalms: “You have showed me great troubles and adversities, but you will restore my life… (Ps 71:20)” For why would God show me adversity other than as an act of positive love? And, why would God not to seek to bring us together into a beautiful fellowship within God’s own being? Especially when it may be ambiguous as to whether we have jagged and or smooth edges!

 

One big ‘stone’ in my life has been Robert (Bob) Hansel, my former CREDO Institute colleague, to whom I owe much. When I first encountered him, he played a decisive role in helping me to discern that I was being called away from a tenured seminary teaching position back to parish ministry. His prior CREDO faculty role as a team leader changed many of our lives – not by persuasion, but by encouraging our personal discernment. Here, I want to acknowledge his wonderful story about his experience in Saudi Arabia (that he tells so much better than I can).

The Beauty of a Homing Pigeon

A stunning Belgian racing pigeon, sold for $1.9 million

 

My title for this post may appear ironic or implausible. Yet, there is a long history of careful stewardship of homing pigeons by pigeon fliers and ‘fanciers.’ They breed beautiful, graceful, and powerful birds. Some racing birds are capable of flying a thousand miles, mysteriously finding their way back to their nests at speeds between 60 and 100 miles an hour! Most homing pigeons are not quite in that league.

I first became intrigued with the idea of having a small flock of homing pigeons when I was a Boy Scout in middle school, in Japan. A fellow troop member had a flock of some 20 to 30 birds. I went over to his house after school and watched him release them from his roof-edge loft. Then he would scatter bird seed on the roof and enter the loft, a signal to the birds that ‘dinner time’ had arrived.

Multicolored homing or racing pigeons in a Texas loft

His loft, as my later and smaller ground-level pigeon coop would be, was constructed of parts of old wooden shipping crates, then quite common in port cities like Yokohama. Those crates provided solid structural starting points, generally weather resistant, and adaptable to various pigeon loft configurations. What was left to be found was some mesh screen, some wood with which to fashion a simple door, and a set of dangling vertical rods (the formal name for which I have forgotten) which, resting against a wooden ledge, would allow the pigeons to return to the coop while passing through them, but not able to exit again.

A homing pigeon resembling one of the first in my small flock (note the leg band)

My first two birds, received from my friend, had distinct colorings different from common city pigeons. The female had a tan color and the male’s feathers were an overall charcoal gray and black. With them, I raised several more pigeons having beautiful darker brown feathers with white stripes. This was while the adult birds acclimated themselves to their new circumstances, and gained a new homing point for their flights. If I recall correctly, it takes at least a few months for this to happen.

It seems significant that the Gospels record the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism, as being like a dove (a pigeon relative) rather than – as some might have imagined or hoped – like a falcon or an eagle. Doves and pigeons, the latter offered on the occasion of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, are symbols of peace, while avian raptors more often figure in war and or civil power-related imagery.

Over the couple of years I kept pigeons, I may have had as many as 8 or 10 in my small coop, some of which I purchased from local Japanese fanciers. I particularly prized the white birds, and saved up paper-route money to buy them. Once, I bought a beautiful one without having a proper transport case with me, and carried it home through the Yokohama streets. After my journey of a mile or two, almost near home, the pigeon in my hands and held in the proper way suddenly startled me and flew off to its former home!

I never raced my pigeons, though that is a common hobby for those who raise homing pigeons. Transporting the pigeons by vehicle (in vented carry boxes) to an assigned location, they are then released at a particular time, and clocked regarding the speed of their return to their home lofts. How homing pigeons are able to do this is not yet fully understood, though it is thought to involve magnetoreception, a sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field.

My time with my pigeons came to both a happy and a sad end. I was examined and proud to receive the pigeon raising merit badge from the Boy Scouts.

And then one morning, some months after this, I went to check on my pigeons before school. I was devastated to find that a cat had gotten in during the night, and I had lost my beloved birds.

As you might imagine, from time to time I muse about having a small flock of these amazing and faithful birds once again.

The Beauty of the Night Sky

The milky way over an arch in Joshua Tree National Monument. © by CC Lockwood/ used with permission

 

Recently, a photographer friend, CC Lockwood, offered a welcome suggestion. Had I thought about doing a blog post on the beauty of the night sky? Not only did his idea inspire this new post, he was willing to let me include here two of his copyrighted photographs. They display well his masterful skill with a camera, especially in challenging circumstances. Following his lead, I will focus on the night sky theme here, and anticipate a proper focus on CC’s photography and books in a future posting.

Milky Way rising over the Davis Mountains. © by CC Lockwood/ used with permission

The allure of the night sky was recently and surprisingly brought home to me in, of all places, downtown New Orleans. For there, because of bright city lights, on a clear night you will see few or no stars at all from just about any location in the Central Business District or the French Quarter. Yet, sitting in New Orleans’ historic Saenger Theater for a concert, I was delighted and distracted by the ceiling overhead, mimicking the enchanting night sky, with subtle bulb-lights effectively representing sparkling stars and recognizable constellations. If you have been there, you will know what I mean.

One of my earliest memories of having a sense of wonder in response to the night sky goes back to our first house in a suburban area of Yokohama, Japan. My room had a built-in bunkbed. At the top of the ladder, at the foot-end of the bed, was a framed clear window. I remember moving my pillow near it, looking out on a dark and clear night, and marveling at the view of the stars above.

from Nepali Times

I also remember a late summer night in south central Minnesota, about ten years later. Some friends and I had decided to sleep out at a place at the edge of town. We not only had the benefit of a clear sky on a dark night, we saw a partial eclipse of the moon as well as some aurora borealis. It was an astonishing and memorable experience.

That we are still touched by such sights, especially when we get away from urban areas, tells us something. We are not so different from people who lived 2,000+ years ago in the Near East, whose words record a similar sense of marvel. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork” (Psalm 19) These words spoke especially to me when I was camping on a then-somewhat-remote part of the south coast of Crete, preparing for Baptism, between terms at Oxford.

The image below, of the night sky over Zion National Park, reminds me of a more recent experience while camping on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It not only brought home to me those words from Psalm 19, but also the story about God summoning Abram out of his tent to view the abundant stars in the night sky as a sign of God’s promises (Genesis 15; in an image much repeated in the following chapters and books of the Hebrew Bible). I cannot think of a more evocative place than the Canyon rim to say one’s morning prayers at sunrise, and especially one’s night prayers under the canopy of light above.

It is encouraging to learn how in recent years managers of a number of geographical locations have sought to establish no-light zones, precisely so that we might appreciate the glory of the night sky. The website, https://idahodarksky.org, has some very beautiful images of what may be seen at such a location.

 

To see more of CC Lockwood’s evocative photography, as well as to learn about his numerous books, you can visit his website here: https://cclockwood.com/