Black Elk Speaks by Arthur von Boennighausen


In 1996 we bought a 1640 acre property called the Sierra Mojada Ranch and moved to Westcliffe from Boulder, Colorado. The Ranch is very quiet in Winter and our Chesapeake Bay retriever "Shogun" barking at our Horses made me think of the last time my wife Marty and I were with the American Indian Medicine Man - Wallace Black Elk of the Lakota Indian tribe.

We had been sitting in the conference room with about two hundred other Seekers for over a half hour after the scheduled start of the lecture. No one had seen Black Elk and a kind and gentle woman in Native American dress had taken the initiative to keep the audience entertained by getting up on the stage and telling stories.

A half hour after the scheduled start of the lecture a commotion was heard near the back of the room and I turned to my right to see several people coming up the aisle with an imposing figure in blue jeans, rose colored cowboy shirt and braided hair that could only have been the legendary Black Elk. Standing well over six foot tall with long legs and a barrel chest, Black Elk was everything I could have wanted a Medicine Man to be in physical appearance.

"Sorry I am late." Black Elk apologized. "I have been spending too much time between Earth and Sky" He said with the big friendly smile that is one of the things that is so appealing about Black Elk.

I enjoyed the subtle humor of his apology. Not only had Black Elk been traveling by airplane a lot over the last few months but like so many Medicine Men, he was referring to their occupation which required them to be spending a lot of time in the "Sky"; a metaphor for Heaven or the Spirit World used by the American Indian.

Everyone laughed at the joke and were genuinely happy that Black Elk had been able to make the lecture at all.

"Did I ever tell you about when I was a boy and first learned that many people did not Understand the language of Dogs" Black Elk asked.

Most of the audience shook their heads and settled down in their chairs for a Good story.

"When I was a boy, I attended a big meeting with a lot of people one day." Black Elk started the story. "Most of the people were not Lakota Indian like I was and most only spoke the English language. The man who was to do all the speaking got up on the stage and started to say something when a Dog barked loudly outside several times interrupting the man's speech.

"Arf, Arf, Arf !!" barked the Dog.

"The Dog is telling us he would like his Alpo Dog food!" the man told the audience. Everyone laughed but me.

"Are you kidding" I thought. "That Dog was not asking for his Alpo. Don't you Understand the language of Dogs?"

It was then that the young Black Elk realized that the English language did not have extensions like the language of the Lakota tribe to Communicate with the animals. Only Black Elk could Understand what the Dog was really saying.

Black Elk proceeded to Teach us that the spoken language of the Lakota Indians had extensions that were used to Communicate with all of the animals. The Lakotas, like many people moved through the natural world and would often encounter Bears, Wolves, Coyotes, Dogs, Birds and many other animals.

It really came in handy if you were walking down the trail in the forest and came face to face with a Bear and were able to Communicate to them. Nothing like being able to say "Bear, I mean you no harm" in a language that the Bear could Understand to avoid a conflict.

Over a year later, I was able to put Black Elk's Lesson to good use. My wife Marty and I had traveled to Canada for some fishing in a lake called "Nippigon" just above the Great Lakes of the United States. Unknown to us, the Abidjan Indian tribe in that area was in conflict with the French Canadians over who had the legal right to some of the shoreline of Lake Nippigon.

Relationships between the Indians and the French Canadians were strained when we innocently pulled into a gas station for some fuel and a can of cold soda.

"Hello!" I shouted to the gas station attendant. "We are from Westcliffe, Colorado in the United States where everyone is a Cowboy!"

"Hello to you!" responded the attendant a little to intensely. "We are all Indians up here!"

I sensed something was wrong from the tone of the attendants voice so I made an effort to make Friends with him.

"My name is Arthur; what is your name" I asked to engage the man in conversation.

"Jim is my name. We are Abidjan Indians" the man replied as he shook hands with me.

"What tribe?" I asked.

"We are the Red Rocks tribe and have just finished hosting a gathering of Medicine Men who were here for a week" Jim told me as the conversation loosened up.

I explained that we had recently been with Black Elk of the Lakota tribe and had learned about Communicating with the animals.

"Oh, you mean Black Elk who is about 30 years old and really short and skinny" Jim commented.

I sensed that Jim knew who Black Elk was and was testing whether I had really ever met him.

"No, Black Elk is a big tall man in his middle 60s with braided hair and a deep voice" I explained as I looked Jim in the eyes and saw that he was now comfortable with me telling the Truth.

I explained to Jim that Black Elk taught us that when the Lakota would meet a Bear in the forest they would stop, raise one hand and say in Words that the Bear could Understand: "We mean you no harm."

This would change the situation between the Bear and the Man from a possible conflict arising from fear to one of mutual respect. The Man and the Bear would simply move around one another and go their own ways.

Instinctively, I raised my left hand; looked Jim in the eye and said "My wife and I mean the people in this area no harm."

Jim nodded his head, smiled a warm friendly smile and offered us some suggestions as to good places to fish on Lake Nippigon along with where the camping spots were and who to contact if we wanted to charter a fishing boat for the day. We had made a new Friend in Canada.

Black Elk's story also reminded me of my 83 year old Friend Dr. Ogilvie who spent a lifetime helping animals through his study and practice of Veterinarian Medicine. Dr. Olgilvie walked around with a walking stick that was a miniature totem pole from the Tlingit Indian tribe of the Pacific Northwest as a symbol of his interest in the culture of the Tlingit Indian.

Dr. Olgilvie told me he had learned that all the animals could Communicate with each other if they were around each other enough. That the Squirrel could talk to the Owl and the Dog and the Horse and all the other animals if they had a chance to spend enough time together to Understand each others Languages.

However, Dr. Olgilvie had found that a Dog could not Understand another Dog if one of the Dogs had never been around another Dog before. Just because you were a Dog did not mean that you could speak the language of Dogs.

This seemed to be the case with Men and Women. Just because you were human did not mean you could Communicate with other human beings if you had seldom been around them.

Someone once taught me that in Communication theory there was something called a "ARC" triangle. Where the "ARC" stood for one side of a formula for Understanding. Here is the formula I learned: Affinity + Reality + Communication = Understanding.

If you wanted people to Understand each other they had to develop an Affinity for each other; share the same Reality and most important of all; the people had to Communicate in order to Understand each other. If you saw that a conflict was arising and you wanted to get people to Understand one another to proactively prevent the conflict the best thing to do was to increase the level of Communication.

Of course part of "Communicating" is "Listening". It doesn't do any good to Communicate if no one is Listening.

One of my mentors once taught me that: "No matter how quickly you see the opportunity; nor how clearly you perceive the course of action; all is lost if others will not Listen. It is the sound of one hand clapping." This mentor was the Corporate Officer of Research and Development for a mulit-national corporation employing about 12,000 people who was also an Electrical Engineer.

The same "Message" over and over from people with very different backgrounds. An Indian Medicine Man, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine a Telecommunications Engineer and a Corporate Officer leading the efforts of a Research and Development Team.

The "Message" of the importantance of "Communicating" and "Listening" in whatever culture you are in.

We also learned about "Making Medicine". When the Great Spirit gave one of his Shaman a project to do, this was called "Making Medicine". The Shaman was working for the Great Spirit and if anyone interfered with the Shaman in the course of his duties, the Great Spirit would help the Shaman keep the project going.

A saying the Medicine Men had to warn people not to try and interfere with their project was: "Don't throw that tomahawk at me, I don't want you to hurt yourself".

You see, the Medicine Men had discovered that if a tomahawk was thrown at the Shaman while he was "Making Medicine", the tomahawk would turn around and hit the thrower instead of the target.

Of course we all realized that it did not have to be a physical tomahawk thrown at the Shaman. It could be a verbal attack, a written attack in the form of a newspaper article, an frivolous lawsuit, destructive gossip or many other things that are the opposite of Friends working as a Team.

The Chinese Taoist Philosophers who lived about 2000 years ago discovered that if everyone worked as a Team you could accomplish 50% more in the typical year. Or you could have 50% more time to have Fun because you got your work done in less time and had more time to have Fun with Family and Friends!

This was perhaps the earliest recorded increase in efficiency in a Community. The Taoist Philosophers would simply encourage the people in a Community to not spend one minute of each day working against another member of the Community. In fact, look for every opportunity to help the other people in your Community to be more successful.

"Each one of us constantly sought to help one another" to paraphrase the French Alpinist Gaston Rebbufat.

Fill each day with doing your own job to the best of your ability and helping others by contributing something positive to your Community. Working and helping others while having Fun! Getting more done without working harder and longer.

Since the Medicine Men were kind and gentle people, they always gave people the chance to not harm themselves unnecessarily by softly saying to the person about to interfere in their work: "Don't throw that tomahawk at me, I don't want you to hurt yourself."

The lecture ended all too soon as Black Elk asked us to stand while he sang a Blessing for us. The deep voice of Black Elk joined with the rhythmic sound of his deerskin covered Medicine Drum to ask the four Winds to watch over all of us and help us do a good job of contributing to society.

Arthur von Boennighausen @ The Sierra Mojada Ranch