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.


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