Re-dedication ceremony honoring Lakota Sioux holy man and Catholic catechist, Black Elk, as well as the newly restored mosaic on the Tower of the Four Winds, depicting Black Elk’s vision

The following talk was given by John Thomsen on October 5, 2019 at a re-dedication ceremony which honored the Lakota Sioux holy man and Catholic catechist, Black Elk, as well as honoring the newly restored mosaic on the Tower of the Four Winds which depicts Black Elk’s visions.

Neihardt and my father often spoke of the cosmic Christ spirit; a spirit of love and wisdom that has permeated the entire universe and has been available to all mankind from the beginning of time, a spirit which in the early 1870s chose to enter dramatically into the life and visions of the young Black Elk. 

The Sacred Red Road depicted on the vertical arm of the Tower, is the road of deep spiritual truth, understanding and attunement with higher powers.  It is the sacred Red Road of right-thinking, a road of grace, a road of light.  This is the Good Road that Black Elk envisioned and worked to put his people back onto after the terrible destruction of their entire way of life. 

And for all of us who have found this Sacred Red Road while moving along the road of human suffering, we have discovered that where the Black Road merges with the Red Road, there is a Holy Place filled with spiritual light, a light that if we embrace it is available to us all and will bring us peace that passes all understanding.  A place where the heart and soul can be repaired, restored, renewed.  And as Black Elk saw during his first great vision, one of the spiritual grandfathers of his people was holding a bright red stick which symbolized the Sacred Red Road.  This stick was alive and pulsating with immense spiritual power, and suddenly Black Elk saw it growing and sending forth branches, and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured sacred prayers…and within these leaves the birds began to sing joyously!  

…(And the man said): “My life is such that all earthly beings that grow belong to me.  My Father has said this.  You must say this.” 

By John Thomsen, Oct 5, 2019

The Tower, in the shape of a cross, had recently been restored at a cost of nearly $200,000 after significant weather damage.  It still feels like a dream that this amount was raised for the restoration of the Tower within a few months, and that it arrived just days before Christmas, 2018.  It continues to feel like no less than a true Christmas miracle!

A year or so ago I received a VHS tape on which my father, Reverend and Professor F.W. Thomsen, who passed away in 1991, was speaking.  It was a tape from the 1987 dedication of the Tower of the Four Winds located in Black Elk-Neihardt Park on Dana Hill in Blair, Nebraska.  This magnificent tower depicts in a 30 foot high mosaic designed by my father, visions of the great Oglala Lakota Sioux holy man, Black Elk. But even though I was delighted and moved by hearing my father’s voice once again, I was struck by how incredibly short his speech was, 11 lines in all, and surprised by its strong Judeo-Christian emphasis.  After all my father had been inspired to found this park and to design the mosaics in it after reading “Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt, in which Neihardt writes of the life and powerful visions of Black Elk.

At the time of Black Elk’s first profound vision in 1872 he was only a child….a child of 9, and Christianity had absolutely no part in this young Indian boy’s life; rather he’d been brought up with the beautiful spiritual teachings of his own people.  These were teachings which he held deeply within his heart until his death in 1950, and no doubt into the next world.

Restored Tower1

Mosaic for Northern DirectionMosaic for the western direction

Mosaic for Western DirectionMosaic for the Northern direction

In fact, Black Elk did not become a baptized Christian until he chose to join the Catholic Church in 1904 at the age of 40, later becoming an important catechist for the church.  So with all of that being taken into consideration I was extremely curious about my father’s 11 line speech in which he didn’t mention the name Black Elk even once.  My father began by saying…

One time Crazy Horse was asked to give a speech  ….”now I have been asked to give a little speech…”  

Naturally I wondered just what speech my father was talking about.  After doing some research the only speech that is ever mentioned is the deathbed speech of this great Lakota chief who was a cousin of Black Elk.  A speech he gave shortly after being bayoneted, very likely without justification, by a soldier at Fort Robinson.  This speech given by Crazy Horse is one that reflects his love and compassion for his people and his deep sense of justice for all people.  My father no doubt was aware of these rare qualities and was taking this opportunity during the dedication of the Tower to give a nod of respect to Crazy Horse.

The rest of my father’s speech consisted of two short Bible passages.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains (we can look around my father said)..I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.. or mountains from whence shall my help come.

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

“There’s one other verse that means so much,” my father continued, “I’d say to the human race…and you know it so well…”

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, and whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life….Amen, Amen….Thank you. 

This was beautiful in its simplicity….but I kept wondering why my father, the founder of this park, hadn’t spoken about Black Elk’s visions or about John Neihardt’s book, “Black Elk Speaks.”  Wasn’t that what the dedication of this park and The Tower of the Four Winds was all about?

It finally dawned on me that Black Elk, a Lakota boy when he experienced his first great vision, was envisioning symbols that were not only significant for the Lakota Sioux, not only for other Indians, but universal symbols that are at the very heart of the Christian message as well. 

Neihardt and my father often spoke of the cosmic Christ spirit; a spirit of love and wisdom that has permeated the entire universe and has been available to all mankind from the beginning of time, a spirit which in the early 1870s chose to enter dramatically into the life and visions of the young Black Elk. 

It must have been my father’s recognition of this common thread between Black Elk’s visions and a universal Christ consciousness that he found so powerful, and why he chose to share these profoundly beautiful Bible verses.

As we look at the symbolism on the beautifully restored Tower of the Four Winds, we see the crossing of two universally important roads.

We see the Black and stormy Road of Difficulties on the horizontal arm of the Tower, with figures draped in black as if in mourning, bracing themselves against the winds.  These figures could represent the Jews being led into Babylonian captivity and much later into concentration camps, the Africans being pushed onto slave ships, the Indians being forced from their homes and onto the Trail of Tears, or any people, as we see in abundance today, tragically being forced to flee their homelands. This was the terrible road that the young Black Elk foresaw for his people, the Lakota Sioux.

It is also true that every member of the human race, to a greater or lesser degree, walks on this Black Road of pain and difficulties.  We walk this road often because of our own very deliberate actions, but also through the death of loved ones, through dementia, suicides, drug overdoses, cancer, through the pains and debilities of old age, and in many other ways….

The Sacred Red Road, on the other hand, depicted on the vertical arm of the Tower, is the road of deep spiritual truth, understanding and attunement with higher powers.  It is the sacred Red Road of right-thinking, a road of grace, a road of light.  This is the Good Road that Black Elk envisioned and worked to put his people back onto after the terrible destruction of their entire way of life. 

And for all of us who have found this Sacred Red Road while moving along the road of human suffering, we have discovered that where the Black Road merges with the Red Road, there is a Holy Place filled with spiritual light, a light that if we embrace it is available to us all and will bring us peace that passes all understanding.  A place where the heart and soul can be repaired, restored, renewed.  And as Black Elk saw during his first great vision, one of the spiritual grandfathers of his people was holding a bright red stick which symbolized the Sacred Red Road.  This stick was alive and pulsating with immense spiritual power, and suddenly Black Elk saw it growing and sending forth branches, and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured sacred prayers…and within these leaves the birds began to sing joyously!   

In another extraordinary vision, called the Messiah vision, Black Elk saw the figure that you see depicted on the Tower.  Black Elk told Neihart that when he first experienced this vision he wasn’t sure who this figure was, but he later told him that he felt he had actually seen the Son of the Great Spirit….. 

In Black Elk’s Messiah vision he saw 12 men coming toward him.  They said, “Our Father, the two-legged chief you shall see.  Then I went to the center of the sacred circle with these men and saw the sacred tree in full bloom.  Against the tree I saw a man standing with outstretched arms….  The man looked at me… and I didn’t know whether he was a white man or an Indian.  He did not resemble Christ (of course no one really knows what Christ looked like.)  He looked like an Indian, but I was not sure of it.  He had long hair which was hanging down loose.  On the left side of his head was an eagle feather.  His body was painted red (a sacred color).  This man said to me; “My life is such that all earthly beings that grow belong to me.  My Father has said this.  You must say this.”  Black Elk stood gazing at this man and tried to recognize him.  “I could not make him out,” Black Elk said “but he was a nice-looking man.  And as I looked at him, his body began to transform….  His body changed into all colors… and it was very beautiful…  All around him there was light.  Then suddenly he disappeared.  It seemed as though there were wounds in the palms of his hands.”  This revelation of Christ to Black Elk of course beautifully parallels the glorification of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life… 

 Many years after this vision, when Black Elk was nearing 70, he and his son Ben, along with Neihardt and his two daughters, climbed about half way up Harney Peak (now Black Elk Peak), the highest peak in the Black Hills. Black Elk said to his son …”even though it has been dry and hot for some time and there isn’t a cloud anywhere to be seen, if I have any power left there will be a little thunder and a little rain when I send my prayer to the Grandfathers”….and as he lifted up his eyes and called out to the Grandfathers with great humility, a small gray cloud formed over Harney Peak…… a little thunder rumbled……  and a little rain fell……..

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills… I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills or mountains from whence shall my help come…  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 

I believe that Black Elk’s tremendous faith in the Lakota and Christian teachings, even after his people had been dragged mercilessly along the Black Road of difficulties, as well as the universality of his visions, compelled my father to work tirelessly day and night, creating artwork based on Black Elk’s visions for close to twenty years. My father dedicated himself to creating something very fine by founding Black Elk-Neihardt Park and the Tower of the Four Winds on Dana Hill; something he prayed all people would value, be inspired by, and in times of hardship, pain and temptation could visit and find strength and solace in.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence shall my help come.

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Amen…Amen…. Thank you.

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