Colte Haines Nancy Skeen Philosophy 100 December 4, 2006 Black Elk Speaks: Critical Analysis In the book Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt tells the life-story of a Sioux Indian named Black Elk. Black Elk recalls several events and visions that he as had through out his life. In his visions there are several symbols that keep reoccurring throughout the book. These symbols are the red road, the black road, the hoop of the nation, and the daybreak herb or the herb of understanding. Some how Black Elk visions are surprisingly similar to the teachings of the socratic philosophers some two thousand years earlier. The telos and virtue of Socratic philosophy compare to Black Elk’s red road and the hoop of the nation, and Socrates concept of the soul compares to Black Elk’s herb of understanding. The first Symbol I will look at is the red road. The read road is the highest good. This compares to virtue in socratic philosophy. The read road is referenced throughout the book but most noticeably in chapter 3 (The Great Vision pg 16-36). “From where the giant lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road goes, the road of good” (pg 22). To Black Elk, the red road symbolized the highest good for the Native American community or living a virtuous life. “And as I looked ahead, the people changed into elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls, all walking in a sacred manner on the good red road together. And I myself was a spotted eagle soaring over them” (pg 28- 29). Black Elk wants to bring his people back to the “good red road” (pg 22) and save the Native American way of life. In the book the red road is always described as moving from south to north. This could be because Native Americans linked the sky with the spiritual world, and since people symbolize north as being upward one could conclude the end of the red road is the Native American spiritual world or the highest good. Black Elk also discussed the black road in many of his visions. The black road in Black Elk Speaks can be seen as a vice or as way from the traditional Native American way of life and away from the telos. “(Black road) a fearful road, a road of troubles and of war” (pg 23). Black Elk also describes the black road as the road that the Sioux tribe is currently on. “The Grandfathers had shown me my people walking on the black road and how the nation's hoop would be broken and the flowering tree be withered, before I should bring the hoop together” (pg 112-113) Black Elk describes the black road as a road that leads to many hardships and troubling times for the Sioux. The hoop of the nation to Black Elk represented the telos in Socratic philosophy. To Native Americans anything that is circular is considered sacred. This is also the case here. Black Elk’s hoop of the nation symbolizes the cohesive and unified Native American community and their surrounding like mother earth and the animals. Black Elk associates breaking the hoop with walking down the black road and putting the hoop back to getter in walking the red road. “The nation's hoop was broken… The people were in despair…. they could not be made to see any more. Hunger was among us often now” (pg 164) To the Native Americans the tribe is crucial to there way of life that is why breaking of the “sacred hoop” is always seen as a terrible thing. Another one of Black Elk’s reoccurring images is the daybreak herb or the herb of understanding. In the visions the day break herb or the herb of understanding represents the knowledge to solve the Sioux’s problems with the whites, and keeping their traditional way of life. “They came and gave a herb to me and said: ‘With this on earth you shall undertake anything and do it.’ It was the daybreak-star herb, the herb of understanding, and they told me to drop it on the earth” (pg 33). The men in Black Elk’s vision gave him the knowledge to solve the Sioux’s problem of walking the black road the herb represented the way of returning to the red road or virtue. “The rays from these (the herb’s stem) streamed upward to the heavens so that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness” (pg 34). This is saying how the herb shined light or intelligence to the Native American community. So they could see what or who their enemies where and the solution to the great problem they where facing. Black Elk’s vision of the herb of understanding is very similar to Socrates concept of the soul. To Socrates the soul was normal waking intelligence. He also thought the function of the soul is to know and to direct behavior in accordance with knowledge. Black Elk’s herb of understanding gives him the intelligence or the wisdom to solve several of the problems. “Two men from the east had brought me the daybreak-star herb and they had told me to drop it on the earth” (pg 165). In his vision his grand fathers where always giving him the herb this was just a symbol for the incite or the wisdom to solve what was ailing the Sioux tribe. The herb was always guiding Black Elk to the solution of the problem of his people walking the black road. According to Socrates the telos is virtue and virtue is telos. That is the same for Black Elk as well. Black Elk telos is the hoop of the nation. He thinks that the way to get to the hoop of the nation or the telos is to walk the read road or live a virtuous life. The reverse is true too. If the Native American community walks the red road you will have a strong community, or hoop of the nation. “All our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished” (pg 150). This shows how important the sacred hoop was as long as his people stayed on the red road there community stayed together they strived and grew from one another. Black Elk also thought that knowledge is virtue. Because in his visions Black Elk is given the knowledge to solve the Sioux’s problems through the day break herb, and thus give them a virtuous life or make the Native Americans walk down the red road. Socrates and Black Elk both valued the community very much. Both men believed that they belonged to something far greater then themselves. I feel if Black Elk was in Socrates position in the Crito he would not escaped. Black Elk held the hoop of the nation at the panicle of his values. One example of this is how important it was to Black Elk to perform every step in each ritual down to the smallest detail. This leads me to believe that Black Elk would not have broken the laws of his society or the hoop of the nation. Because it is the hoop of the nation that brings prosperity to the Native Americans. So in a way, harming the hoop of the nation is in fact going against Black Elk’s telos. In the book Black Elk faced a major battle with the coming of the wasichu (whites). Black Elk thought that the Native Americans where losing their sense of community (hoop of the nation). This starts a very slow down turn in the Native American way of life down the black road that Back Elk is unable to stop. When they should be holding on to their traditional way of life and values (red road), and restore their traditional values through the daybreak herb. In the end Black Elk feels that he has failed in his attempt to put the sacred hoop back together. Because his fore fathers picked him to solve the problems by giving him the visions and the sacred herb but he still failed to correct the slide in the Native American way of life. Although Black Elk lived two thousand years after Socrates, Black Elk still came up with basically the same concepts with out ever knowing about Socrates existence let alone his teachings. They both came up with the soul or herb of understanding being knowledge. The means to the telos or hoop of the nation is virtue or the red road, and away form the telos is vice or walking a black road. It is amazing how ideas can be the same over great distance, time periods, and cultures. This goes to show that great minds do think alike even if they do come from very different backgrounds.
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