Sunday, July 27, 2008

Editing Black Elk aboard The Hampton Jitney

In the end, I think I was the only person who actually shared a prayer at The Prayer Breakfast. We didn't hold hands in a circle or anything, and I didn't really pray - I just shared a powerful set of words that the other guys might want to use later, in the spirit of a workshop, a workshop of the spirit.

These words have worked for me. I told Elder K. Curtis Lyle and Brother John Eiler a long story about that, and I would probably tell you personally (if you are slogging through my blog), but I don't think I'll leave it dangling out here on Blogspot for every yahoo with Google on his toolbar to skim.

However, I will post the prayer, which is already in the public domain, in at least two other forms. And I will first tell you a little something about it.

In 1931 a poet named John G. Neihardt set forth from St. Louis (which is a tributary city, in this story) to gather notes for an epic poetic cycle he was writing about the American West. He took two of his young daughters with him to the Pine Ridge Reservation, looking for an elder Lakota who could tell him about the Indian experience of the great Indian wars of the 19th century.

He was directed to Nicholas Black Elk, who had survived the massacre at Wounded Knee as a boy. He was an old holy man who had rode for a time with Buffalo Bill's road show and was now living quietly as a Catholic catechist. ("My children have to live in this world," the white man's world, was how he explained his - partial - conversion.)

Black Elk, as the world would come to know him, still had some of the old spiritual horse sense, evidently, because when Neihardt approached his home the old man was standing outside. He said he had been waiting for an important visitor. (No, nobody text-messaged the old man to say a Wasichu on a mission was headed his way!)

Black Elk's welcoming Neihardt into his home was an important historic confluence. Neihardt gathered the material he needed to complete his Cycle of the West, but much more importantly Black Elk's personal narrative bloomed into a stand-alone volume that appeared as Black Elk Speaks. It endures as the most widely-read volume of American Indian spirituality or memoir (with lots and lots of strong competition in both genres), and the resurgent Indian activists of the sixties hailed it as a Bible that gave them a blueprint for reviving the old ways.

I read Black Elk Speaks to prepare for a trip through the Badlands in the early-nineties. It changed me quite a bit, especially as I thought about the book in the hard and lush country it describes. It changed me even more to read The Sixth Grandfather, which presents the actual transcipts of the interviews that went into the book. For Neihardt would ask a question in English, Ben Black Elk (the holy man's son) would translate it into Lakota, Black Elk would answer in Lakota, the son would translate his answer into English, and then Neihardt's daughters would write the answer down.

From this mass of notes, Neihardt very skillfully wrote Black Elk Speaks. Once you have read the original transcripts, you admire Neihardt's skill all the more. But you also see, of course, what he left out and what he added. His role was considerable (and, of course, it is Neihardt's name as author on the spine of Black Elk Speaks). This means The Sixth Grandfather, while much less artful, actually brings the reader much closer to Black Elk himself - his personal quirks, his sense of humor, even his dog, Bob, who gets no ink at all in Neihardt's masterpiece.

In the mid-nineties, I was invited into the continuing revival of Lakota ceremony by a white woman who had very much gone native. I attended two Sun Dances in Lakota country as her guest and supporter. These experiences continued the transformation I had started by reading these sacred books and by climbing through The Black Elk Wilderness to the spot where Black Elk had his definining vision, on the highest peak east of the Rockies.

I returned from the reservation, praying for the first time since I was a child attending Methodist tent revivals. I brought back a long and unwieldy prayer I had developed during the Sun Dance, which was much more appropriate for an eight-day religious ceremony, where some people never stop praying (except to sleep - and dream, which for Lakota is a deeply sacred space). I had never pared down a prayer before. I didn't know where to start. I didn't know who to leave out, the Earth or the ancestors or the spirits or the trees or the animals or my family or the Lakota or ... you get the picture.

I turned to Neihardt. Then I turned to Black Elk. I looked at those two versions of Black Elk's basic prayer. I saw some differences between the two, which freed up my editorial instincts. So I did a composite, which I then adapted over several hours spent memorizing the text, aboard The Hampton Jitney, of all preposterous vehicles of prayer. Here is what I came up with:

Grandfather, Grandmother, Great Mysterious One,
You have been always, and before You nothing has been.
There is nothing to pray to but You.
The star nations of the universe are Yours,
And Yours all grasses of the Earth.
Day in, day out, You are the life of things.
You are older than all need,
Older than all pain and prayer,
Older than all disbelief and doubt.
Grandfather, Grandmother, Great Mysterious One,
All over the word, the faces of living ones look alike.
With tenderness we spring from Your Earth.
Look on Your children with children in our arms,
That we may face the winds,
And walk a good road to the day of quiet.
Let me walk on this soft Earth and in these hard cities,
A brother to all that lives,
Give me strength to understand, and eyes to see.
Sweeten my heart, and fill me with light.
Help me, and guide me, and protect me,
For without You, I am nothing.

As I said to Curtis and John at our prayer breakfast: Try it, it works!

But, as I also cautioned them, the Lakota who taught me how to pray were insistent that people have no business praying for themselves. Your suffering, if anything, will only make the Great Spirit more likely to work on your behalf. Only if you are terribly desperate do you work in a small prayer for yourself, after you are finished asking for blessings for others. You have to trust that someone else, somewhere, is praying for you.

And, if no one else is praying for you, then you are lost anyway.

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