What happened to me on that blustery afternoon fifteen years ago cannot be explained.
Four hundred miles from home. Bancroft, Nebraska. The area formerly inhabited by the Omaha Indians is now this small town of fewer than five hundred. Ninety-eight percent of European descent.
I am ready to meet Hilda Neihardt, the author of Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow, which chronicles the more personal experiences during her father, John Neihardt’s, famous interviews with Oglala Sioux holy man, Black Elk. I can’t help but think about how those interviews started on this same afternoon–the ninth of May, sixty-six years ago.
In 1931, tomboy-ish and spirited, often wearing breeches and boots at her Ozark home, Hilda misses the last two weeks of her freshman year in high school to be the “official observer” on the trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation to hear Black Elk’s story. With her father and older sister, she sleeps in the small log cabin with the holy man’s family (only a blanket divides them) until they are given a teepee. Feeling a kinship with John Neihardt, Black Elk names him Flaming Rainbow, and then tells him the vision he received as a young boy from the thunder beings. Black Elk’s son translates, Hilda’s older sister takes notes, and John Neihardt composes the manuscript of the medicine man’s words, which becomes Black Elk Speaks.
Hilda rides horses with young Sioux men and serves often as camp cook. She listens intently to the visions of a man who, as a boy, was tender and restless like herself. For Hilda’s curious mind, Black Elk names her Daybreak Star Woman—very fitting given her childhood ways of rising early to eavesdrop on her artistic, intriguing parents. Though Black Elk’s vision was specifically for his Lakota Sioux people, Hilda would carry more than one of Black Elk’s messages into old age. While walking near home, Daybreak Star Woman would see the world as a sacred hoop where all beings live inside.
At the Neihardt Center, dedicated to her father’s studies, I take my time in the sacred hoop garden which represents a part of Black Elk’s vision Neihardt viewed as universal. In the center of the garden is the tree of a life, at the juncture of two colored paths: the black road of earthly difficulties and the red road of spiritual awareness. This intersection is where human beings dwell, and our lives are holy. The flowering crab tree, a third the size it is today, has started to bud an eye-popping pink.
I leave the garden and find Hilda in the rotunda of the main building. A strong, sturdy woman of eighty years, she has short white hair and shoots me a nice smile, but my face breaks into an anxious grin when we shake hands. To be connected to living history, I have travelled a great distance. I wonder if I have not also travelled across years spanning not only my life and hers, but her father’s and Black Elk’s, too.
Hilda, still the tomboy, pops briskly through the door at the Country Pub on Fourth and Main in this town where she was born and has returned. Drawn shades darken the bar at lunchtime. Hilda and I sink into cafeteria chairs at a square brown table. She talks about people who are not Native Americans.
“They think they are separate from things, Dave. They think they are separate from animals. From nature. But like you and I, they are not separate at all.” And she smiles.
Hilda entertains me with stories when highways were gravel and when she rode horseback with Leo Looks Twice. How free she felt. Black Elk was a sweet and generous man. “I came home a changed person, ” she tells me.
I hunch over the brown table. Our plates and iced tea pushed to the side. We chat a little bit about books I’d recently read, which includes Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I talk about my quest for self-understanding, my hanblechyapi, to feel the orenda.
She leans a bit forward. Out of respect for me. And to keep our conversation guarded from the couple at the bar.
“I can see you’re passionate about understanding who you are, who we all are. And what to make of your experiences so far. But whatever you do, don’t play like you’re an Indian. You are brave in seeking to understand your spiritual life. And that is wonderful. Keep that up. You will find the guidance you are looking for.”
An hour later, at her home, she allows me to take her picture. A black and white photo. She is locked in time, in the afternoon sunlight. In comfortable clothes my grandmother might wear.
Full sunshine warms a cool day in May as I head east toward home. In the open jeep, my blue chambray shirt floats like a bed sheet until I pin it beneath my seat belt. The Nebraska plain is bare, soulful, economical. An expanse of the two-lane stretches out like a long limb of cottonwood. The road begins to rise up into a small hill, desolate enough to call it a mesa.
Thunder rumbles. But in the rearview mirror, a sunny day glows on the Plains.
As a very old man, Black Elk climbed up to Harney Peak, South Dakota, the place of his vision at the center of the world, and prayed for the Great Spirit to water the sacred tree, if there was still hope for his people. The thunder beings moved a small cloud across the sky and showered down rain.
A half-minute growl, low and deep like a drum. I look up from my exposed jeep. One gray cloud approaches steadily from the northwest, but even so, I am bathed in sunlight. Then, rain pours down. In awe, I pull over to the side of the road.
To the east, a giant rainbow arcs across the sky. I can see its entirety: from ground to ground.
That afternoon in eastern Nebraska as I drove home, a meteorologist might say a small nimbostratus cloud blew in, and a mild thunderstorm ensued while a young man got drenched in the downpour.
Yet, I had just spent an afternoon with Hilda Neihardt. I knew in the way we know things, the dark cloud was no ordinary cloud, and the thunder beings continued to water the sacred tree.
Top photo by JeremyOK, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Photo of Hilda Neihardt, Black Elk, Chase-in-the-Morning, and John Neihardt is used by permission of the Neihardt Trust. Post and photo of Hilda Neihardt by Dave Malone, author of Seasons in Love.