Religious dimensions in human experience

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Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

“…and many I cured with the power that came through me. Of course it was not I who cured. It was the power from the outer world, and the visions and ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds. If I thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could come through.” Pp. 204-5

It can be argued that Black Elk Speaks reveals a dynamic relationship between “religious experiences” and “religious expressions”. By this I mean the Black Elk’s life is deeply motivated by voices, images and visions (religious experiences) which drive him to seek ways to express, communicate and act out those experiences. As the medicine man Black Road tells him, “You must do your duty and perform this vision for your people upon earth.” P.161 The potent idea is that by expressing his own religious experience, his Great Vision, in ritual dances, others will have their own religious experiences and even ‘save the Indian people’ from the Bad Trouble of the Wasichus.
This dynamic relationship between experience and expression is narrated in what I believe are the five sections of the book.

  1. The first three chapters which introduce us to his first experiences with the voices, the Great Vision and its cosmology and the sense that terrible violence appears on the edges of his social awareness.

  2. Chapters 4-13 which narrate key events in his adolescence and daily life, some history of White-Indian conflicts and the compelling fear that invades Sioux existence.

  3. Chapters 14-18 which tell of his development into a healer or Holy Man through ritual dances and cures.

  4. His journey to Europe and the ecstatic illness or spirit journey and finally

  5. What can be called the Ghost Dance phase of his life which includes his brief sense of the revitalization of his Great Vision, the massacre at Wounded Knee and his final sorrow.

Focus on these questions as you read the book.

    1. What is the religious meaning of Black Elk telling the story of the Sacred Pipe before he will tell his own life story?

    2. What are the first religious experiences or signs that Black Elk undergoes? Do his descriptions of any of his visions have any resemblance to what Otto and Eliade say about religious experiences?

    3. Why do animals seem to have such religious power in Black Elk’s life? What are the powers of these animal modes of being?

    4. Describe two images from his Great Vision that impress you. Why?

    5. In this book we see all four of the major ways of being religious-experience, cosmic law, ritual and mystical power. Give an example of how Black Elk’s vision contains elements of a Sioux cosmology.

    6. At one point Black Elks says he heard ‘the sun singing’. What does the sun sing and what is religious about this song?

    7. Black Elk talks about the ‘craziness of war’ that he experienced as a teenager. Give an example of what he means.

    8. Describe how one of the ritual dances expresses specific elements of his Great Vision.

    9. What is the central idea behind the Ghost Dance or Messiah movement?

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