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Earth Day Through Indigenous Eyes

Posted by Joanna Mounce Stancil, U.S. Forest Service, member of both the Shawnee and Cherokee tribes in Forestry
Apr 23, 2015
An undated photo of Black Elk
An undated photo of Black Elk who lived from 1863 to 1950. He was known amongst his people as Heȟáka Sápa and was a famous wičháša wakȟáŋ or medicine man and holy man of the Oglala Lakota and Sioux tribes.

Earth Day is April 22 and on this unique and special day the U.S. Forest Service is celebrating our nation’s forests and grasslands. Looking from space, the world has been described as the great blue planet. But you don’t need to travel beyond our atmosphere to see the Earth for what it is — a planet rich with vibrant life. And, sadly, it is facing one of its greatest challenges — the destructive impacts of a changing climate.

Today I offer an indigenous view of what many Native Americans refer to as Mother Earth from Black Elk who lived from 1863 to 1950. Black Elk, known amongst his people as Heȟáka Sápa, was a famous wičháša wakȟáŋ or medicine man and holy man of the Oglala Lakota and Sioux tribes.

In 1931 Black Elk spoke of one of his visions: “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.  And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” 

In interpreting Black Elk’s vision the “many hoops that made one circle” are the many peoples of the Earth and all living things. The tree is a key figure in the drama of life on Earth. Black Elk speaks to our relationship to each other and to all life that shares this one home. He stood on the mountain and could see that we are all connected orbiting around each other as the Earth orbits the Sun. He would also acknowledged that one tree standing together with others in a forest has the collective power to protect and shelter all living things on our planet.

So, on this Earth Day, take time to celebrate one of Earth’s mightiest things – the tree. It springs from the soil and gives back of itself in many ways. It provides beauty, shade, habitat for countless creatures and the material to build our homes. Its’ roots find footage in the ground and holds it close to keep it from washing away; and cleans the water we drink. It pulls harmful carbon dioxide from the air and stores it within its own body and even makes oxygen so we all can breathe.

From Black Elk’s vision there is the power of one tree – imagine what an entire forest can do.

Category/Topic: Forestry