“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
~ Black Elk
Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was a Native American Sioux medicine man and warrior who lived in what is now South Dakota. Through an interpreter, Black Elk related his life story, his great vision, and details about his Native culture to John Niehardt. “Black Elk Speaks” was published by Niehardt in 1932 and has become an important source for understanding Native American culture.
The words of this holy man spoke to my heart as well as to my mind. Although I admit that I know very little about North American Native cultures in general and the Sioux culture, in particular, I find that I am attracted to its simplicity. One basic premise of Native religion, shared by many other world religions is the belief in a supreme being who goes by many names – in this instance, Wakan-Tanka. In this quote, Black Elk speaks to us not of the pursuit of happiness, but that of peace. He maintains, as revealed to him in his vision that there are three stages or types of peace.
Black Elk tells us that we must achieve the first peace within ourselves. Peace will dwell within our souls when we realize our relationship with the universe and everything within it. The foundation of this teaching is the Native belief that all things in the universe, animate and inanimate possess souls. This belief anchors the profound respect the Natives have for everything in Nature. Hence, the special prayers the Native hunter says or sings over the carcass of the animal he just killed for food. This respect is extended to their conservationist attitude that no part of the hunted animal is wasted. Future success for the hunter depended upon his respect for all life.
Black Elk goes on to talk about a person recognizing his or her oneness with the universe and all its powers. At first, I found this tough to grasp until I thought, different but similar. I am a creation of the one God – as is the rest of the universe. All matter within the universe has a beginning and an end – for animate beings – birth and death. I am a part of this great creation – no more, no less. This is my place. As with everything else in the universe I am unique yet similar. This also means that I am a part of everything else and it is a part of me. We, the universe and I, are inseparable.
He also says that each of us must recognize our oneness with the powers of the universe. Again, to speculate, I think he is referring to the powers to recreate ourselves, to grow and evolve into better beings. We have healing power – to heal ourselves as well as to assist in the healing of others. Also, we have the powers of life and death. Giving life, I see as a beautiful act. To bring about death, my own or anyone else’s, is another matter. Killing plants and animals to sustain our life is acceptable. Killing for sport is not. The circle of life is not just mine; I share it with all life forms in the universe – hence, our oneness. The universe does not stand still; it is in constant motion and is ever changing. We must be one with this motion, this movement, this growth.
If we accept our oneness, our belonging to the universe and its powers in the most fundamental ways, we will also discover that God is at the centre of the universe – at the center of ourselves. When we accept our oneness and find God within ourselves, this is the state of peace. There is no need to seek out God in the heavens or a church tabernacle, for the supreme being is within us. We are nourished and strengthened from within and thus find the courage we need to deal with life’s obstacles and challenges. From this truth, we can seek out peace with others and with other nations.