black elk- redface


As you can see from looking at the first posting on this blog, its original impetus was to post, and to some extent explain, last year’s ‘Rant’ at the Games for Change Annual Festival in New York City (  Now one year later, I find myself once again explaining a rant.

This time the explanation doesn’t have so much to do with the rant itself (see previous post) as with my appearance doing the rant (see photo above).

From the start when considering showing up as the Ogallala Lakota Sioux Medicine Man, Black Elk at a festival of activists deeply committed to all kinds of social issues, I knew that I had to make sure and do my homework.  That included, for example, making certain that the clothing I wore was both authentic, actually made by Indians and purchased from Indians.  It also meant studying the history of Black Elk, his vision and times.  Year’s ago, I had read both Black Elk Speaks ( , and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee ( , both of which I re-read for the rant. I also spent additional time and effort reading academic ethnographic sources, including several who specifically evaluated the origins and accuracy of John Neihardt’s account of his interviews with Black Elk recounted in Black Elk Speaks.

On finishing the rant, however, I was approached by two conference attendees apparently associated with Native American Museums in New York and Washington D.C.  They stated that while they didn’t want to appear impolite, that they were deeply offended on behalf of Native American’s that I had showed up in ‘Red Face’.

I was frankly flabbergasted.  Why would anyone think that I or anyone else would be so foolish as to appear at Games For Change in Red-face, Blackface or any other kind of face?  Furthermore, although squeezed into 4 minutes, I had explicitly said that Indians danced the ghost dance  “with red paint”.  Although again time limitations didn’t allow me to go into the point – one of the reasons that the initially skeptical Black Elk had finally accepted the ghost dance ritual was that it shared with his own vision the painting of the body red. Although the photograph is in black and white, in the famous picture taken by John Neihardt of Black Elk attempting one more time to speak to his grandfathers from the most sacred point in the Black Hills (reproduced in the previous post), Black Elk was apparently wearing long red underwear (the best he could do at the time).  I also made it clear several times in the rant that a central focus and image of Black Elks original vision was the distinction between the “red road” his nation would have to be on to survive and the “black road” that lead to ruin.

Why had these well-meaning defenders of Native Americans not paid attention?  Further, and perhaps more surprisingly, why didn’t they already know about the symbolism inherent in being painted red?  (I will note, that the paint on my face also included black lighting bolts).

Later that afternoon, I was again called out for my depiction of Black Elk, this time with the additional concern as to whether I had sought permission to use Black Elk’s words.  While again, the 4 minute limitation didn’t allow elaboration, I had explicitly attributed to Black Elk the view that his vision was not only for his people, but also “for all peoples even including you the Wasichas” (non Indian people).  It turns out this also derives from historical fact:

In August of 1930, John Neihardt, who had written several previous books on the plains Indians, was writing a new book on the ghost dance movement and wanted to interview Black Elk.  Arriving on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, he was told that Black Elk would likely not want to talk to him, as he had just the previous day declined an interview with someone else. Neihardt persisted however, and after having sat quietly and respectfully on the ground near Black Elk for some time, Black Elk reportedly said: “As I sit here, I can feel in this man beside me a strong desire to know the things of the Other World.  He has been sent to learn what I know, and I will teach him.”  Later Flying Hawk, the translator, apparently remarked, “it was kind of funny the way the old man seemed to know you were coming”.   In several interviews over the next year, Neihardt and his children transcribed Black Elk’s story which then became the basis for Black Elk Speaks, and through that book, the basis for my own rant.

Of course, I make no claim what-so-ever that my small rant at Games for Change has any significance in the larger Black Elk story, however, the fact is that Black Elk clearly intended and desired that his vision and his story be recorded and continue to influence history.  It is also likely that more Washicas have read Black Elk Speaks than any other Indian account of the history of that time.  Search twitter for “Black Elk” and you will see the continuing influence.   Had I gone on stage to represent Crazy Horse, who Black Elk described as “the last big chief and then it’s over”, and whose one willingness to talk to Wasichas was trickery leading to his murder, I think one could rightfully criticize.  But I would like to believe that Black Elk himself would have been at least in some small part pleased by my small and insignificant effort to translate “what he knew” and perhaps more importantly what he had learned about ghost dancing, to a more modern time.

It turns out that I do have some reason to believe that this could have been the case.  Rather remarkably given the ethnic composition of Games For Change (on that another rant), just after my first discussion about “red-face”, and still somewhat befuddled, I walked around the corner to be greeted by a women who approached me saying, “I am from a Pueblo in New Mexico and am part Indian, and I wanted to let you know that I thought your presentation was beautiful and a tribute to Indian people.”  I am not a mystic, am not religious in the least, and strive hard to distinguish correlation from causality.  I also have no doubt that there are Indians in addition to well meaning White People who might object to my efforts.  However, for just a moment I felt a rather strange feeling. The thunderclouds that were just then forming outside didn’t help, I have to say.  At the very least, the overall experience gave me perhaps a deeper sense of the wonderment and power that Black Elk and his people must have felt in the world.

Returning to Games for Change, and more generally, to the question of the enterprise of restructuring learning and society that the festival represents – what is the lesson of these events.  For me, the bottom line is that what we are trying to do is hard and requires a deep, not superficial consideration of the issues and their consequences. It is time for deep thinking and deep seriousness – as we are trying to do something extremely important.  We have to shed our own biases and preconceptions (and knee jerk reactions) if we have any chance of succeeding.  Everyone must listen and try to understand.  Superficial reactions or superficial treatments perhaps especially in learning games won’t get the job done.  Learning in the end isn’t about being handed meaning, but about uncovering meaning for yourself.  I deeply believe that Black Elk thought that.  I do too.


Black Elk Speaks

Another year,  another Games For Change rant – perhaps also somewhat opaque.  But as Black Elk himself said as reported by John G. Neihardt in his book  Black Elk Speaks:  “When the part of me that talks would try to make words for meaning it would be like fog and get away from me “.

Here then is the text for this year’s Game For Change rant:

black elk in black hills

Hey a a hey, Hey a a hey, Hey a a hey, Hey a a hey


‘Revealing this, they walk

A sacred herb – revealing it, they walk

The sacred life of the bison – revealing it, they walk

A sacred eagle feather – revealing it, they walk

The eagle and the bison – like relatives they walk”


I am happy to be with you here in the moon of the fat making

Here on the island of many hills or Manna-hata named by my brothers the Lanape of the Algonquin nations.

When I was in my 9th year, now many many moons ago, I had a great sacred vision not only for my people, the Ogallala Lakota Sioux but also for all peoples even including you the Wasichas.

My vision came at a time of the start of great change for the Lakota nation, but at a time when the grass was still tall and our brothers the bison were many, and all the footed, winged and rooted beings were living in harmony.

In my vision, six grandfathers told me of 4 ascents that were coming, each of greater difficulty for my people.  They also told me of a red road north and south leading to prosperity and happiness, and a black road east and west, that was full of war and unhappiness.

Though I tried for many moons to help my people find the red road, it is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and many changing shadows.  Among those shadows men get lost

I am here to tell you when I got lost because I fear you may be lost in the same way.

In the year of the blue man, who dried up all our rivers and grass, my people were starving as the promises of the Wasichas chiefs were empty and all the buffalo were gone.  At the height of our desperation, we heard of a new powerful vision coming from a Paiute Medicine man named “Wovoka”, that a new world would soon start.  In this vision, if Indians danced the ghost dance, with red paint – they could get on this new world and the Wasichas couldn’t and would therefore disappear.

When I first heard of it, I thought it was foolish talk someone had started somewhere.  I thought it was of despair that made people believe just as a man who is starving might dream of plenty to eat.  But when I went myself to ghost dance, I came to believe that my vision and Wovoka’s vision were the same.

I started making ghost shirts, which I believed would make our warriors not feel the white mans bullets.

The last ghost dance for my people was at Wounded Knee – where the ghost shirts did not protect our warriors and the Wasichas wagon guns murdered many of our people including women, old men and children.  I did not know then, how much was ended.  At Wounded Knee – my nation’s great hoop was broken and scattered.

So I am here today to warn you about the false promise of ghost shirts.  This was my great mistake, because I lost sight of my great vision and focused on little visions instead.   In times of great change, it is easy to think that a ghost shirt will protect old institutions from the coming ascents.  But Digital Ghost shirts will not protect you from the revolution happening all around you just like my ghost shirts did not protect our warriors or our nation.

However, in this case, I do not understand what the digital ghost shirts are intending to protect.  For my people, change destroyed a people and many beings in harmony.  For you, digital ghost shirts are covering a system that is not in harmony, and has failed to uplift certainly the children of my nation and many of the children of your own as well.

Square boxes, like the ones that the Wasichas make us use, and the ones that we make for our children, are a bad way to live.  In these square boxes our power is gone and we die.  Because there is no power in a square.  The power of the world works in circles and everything tries to be round.  The sky is round, the earth is round, the wind in its greatest power swirls around.  The sun goes up and comes down in an arc; the life of all peoples is a circle, from childhood to childhood.

And birds, who have the same religion as we, and who the great spirit tells use to use as a guide to raise our children, raise their children in round nests.  Our teepees are round like the nests of birds.  The tepees in our villages are placed in the round, so the community as a whole can nurture, protect and educate our children, and the great hoop of our nation was round nurturing all.  Things that are round have many possible connections and are not easy to control.  This is why the Wasichas took away the tepees of our own making and that we could move where we wanted when we wanted, and put us in square houses that can not be moved.

And we have put our children in boxes, in rows all facing forward, and all in lock step.  There is no roundness in that.  Further, what you would have our children do is also not round, but square.  Games that lead children by the nose to what you want them to know and believe.  Many of the digital ghost shirts I have seen, are like this, fundamentally reflecting the structure they seek to protect which is not the right structure.  Not round and connected, free and open but closed and square.

But, there is a new way – while many moons ago the new way was not better for my people, the new way I see now is a new version of my vision.  It is children connecting and connected to everyone in the community, no longer in rows in boxes.  Children playing real games to learn including those of their own making, with each other, and their grandfathers and grand mothers. Children with the opportunity to learn their own way, make their own connections – their own circles, connected to all our circles.

And this is important, boys of my people began very early to learn the ways of men. And no one taught us, we just learned by doing what we saw. And we were warriors.

This is the old way, and I believe it will be the new way.  While, in the end, there was no protection for my people from the bullets of the Wasichas.  I do not believe that there is any way to protect these old institutions from replacement by something round not square.  We must stop building square things – and stop protecting square things.  It is time to finally seek the red road and get off the black road  –  and build a new hoop together.

“Grandfathers, behold this pipe In behalf of (our) children I offer this pipe, that we may see many happy days”

Hetchetu aloh  (good indeed)


Haho  (thanks)