By Jack Phillips. A Pawnee healer appeared with a long list of medicine plants. He wanted to find them, sit with them, thank them, be healed by them, speak his vision to those companions thusly entrusted. During the days I spent with Marcus Frejo, I began to have sense — albeit a distant sense — of what John Neihardt felt at the feet of Black Elk.
This recent encounter happened at Pahaku the sacred and cosmogonic hill emerging from the Kickatuus and rising in the dreams of the Pawnee Nation to this day, and to a fortunate few find themselves there grasped by its vivifying power. The Naturalist School helps to care for this holy site. Our work includes exploring and recording the natural history of Pahaku, collecting seed for propagation, repairing trails, and inviting ecologists from across the region to study her wonders and offer their expertise.
Our engagement with indigenous peoples and the living communities of native places gives us opportunities to share our work and mission with a wide audience. We were recently invited to participate in the 56th annual Neihardt Day at the John G. Neihardt Center and historical site in Bancroft, Nebraska. Joelle Sandfort and I read our original Black Elk-inspired poetry and presided over the blessing of The Tree of Life, a bright young bur oak sapling to be planted in the Sacred Hoop Garden. Nebraska Youth Poet Laureate Mimi Yu also read her poems, and Omaha Elder Pierre Merrick blessed the Tree of Life sapling in his native language after reciting his family history stretching back to pre-European settlement generations. Rocco Stormberg Hinrichs served as Tree Keeper during the ceremony, assisted by younger brother Beckett.
The Sacred Hoop Garden was designed and built by Neihardt himself to embody the Great Vision entrusted to him by Black Elk. But Neihardt was a receiver of visions himself and one finds threads, allusions, and disjecta membra of these visions throughout his poetry and prose. Neihardt scholars have wondered how much of Neihardt’s dream cosmos slipped into Black Elk Speaks. But for us, the Great Vision however blended and the manifestation thereof in the garden in Bancroft Nebraska is a powerful image that speaks to the soul.
The Naturalist School has been invited to help restore and enhance the Sacred Hoop Garden and the Neihardt Center grounds with native ecology and Earth-house poetry workshops in the coming months. Black Elk Speaks and other works by Neihardt embody an eco-spirituality that grounds itself in creaturely bodies and native places while drawing together the cosmic web that sustains us all. We look forward to growing this web with our friends at the John G. Neihardt Center.
(Photos courtesy of Ashley Gaughan, West Point News and Robert Smith.)