Medicine Man Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was “a Lakota of the Ogalala Band” who also practiced Christianity in the Roman Catholic tradition. When suddenly taken ill at nine years old, Black Elk had a great vision in which he was visited by the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan), and taken to the Grandfathers — spiritual representatives of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above and below — who were “represented as kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers”, and on to the centre of the earth, and to the central mountain of the world, a recurring religious symbol that mythologist Joseph Campbell calls axis mundi, the pole around which all revolves.
As Black Elk related to John Neihardt:
… while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
Raymond J DeMallie
The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s teachings
given to John G Neihardt
Again and again I feel drawn to meditate upon circles, and the planets in their courses, and the axis mundi they revolve around; and cantus firmus, the enduring melody, ever present at the heart of all things; and the wisdom of all the philosophy and the religious traditions I’ve loved and learned from; and the poetry and other expressions of art that have found a home in my soul; and the people and animals, mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and seas, trees and flowers, and the timely round of the seasons upon the tilled, warmed and watered earth.
And I delight in the encircling thought that there’s no need for me to wonder which animal, or commodity, or community, or flower, or food, or gender, or hate, or idea, or literature, or love, or melody, or moon, or nation, or ocean, or person, or philosophy, or plant, or poetry, or prose, or psalm, or prayer, or religion, or science, or sense, or species, or star, or sun, or territory, or time, or tree – or anything at all, in all creation, dead or alive – is “first”. No need – because in the great ecology of life all things are embraced by the one Great Circle.
And I see that it is holy.