One of the most amazing teachers and human beings we ever had the chance to know transitioned this fall after a two year fight with cancer. Eagle Man spent a week at the Sanctuary in May of 2015, offering several talks and workshops here as well as at the University of Connecticut and Middlesex Community College. His presence touched us deeply. He was working on his last book when he visited, a retelling of Black Elk’s famous vision from a truly Lakota perspective. The essay below is our account of his stay with us.
Black Elk Sings: Eagle Man at the Sanctuary
How did it even come to pass, that this mysterious and great man would end up coming to the Sanctuary?
This was one of the first questions we wanted to ask him when we picked him up at the airport in April of 2015. ‘What made you decide that you wanted to come visit us Ed?’ I asked him as we were driving away from the terminal. His answer perplexed me. ‘I didn’t ask you, you asked me to come.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘You emailed us in November that you wanted to come do an event at the Sanctuary.’ ‘Nope, you asked me to come.’ I didn’t want to push the matter, so I dropped it and we started talking about other matters, but it did make me wonder. After everything we experienced and learned through his visit, more and more we delight in the thought that Wakantanka, or some higher spiritual being, set us up, like rueful match maker inventing false overtures to create improbable new friendships.
What ensued was a weeklong residency by Ed at the Sanctuary at Shepardfields where Jen Taylor and I serve as Executive Directors. The Sanctuary is a retreat center and educational nonprofit located on a 40 acre community land trust in East Haddam, Connecticut. Such precious wisdom did we receive from his intense yet easy presence and depth, his endless stories, his unbelievable personal experiences through central episodes of modern American history: from the Rez to Vietnam to civil rights, to the recovery, preservation and rebirthing of Mother Earth Spirituality. We didn’t know what to expect as we drove him back to the Sanctuary, and now six months after his return to South Dakota, we are still digesting the lessons of his visit. But one thing is clear. Our moral and philosophical lives have been immeasurably enriched by the transmission of energy and insight he offered us waisichu freely, with grave responsibility but also a wiley sense of humor.
Jen and I had first met Eagle Man at the Shivananada ashram in the Bahamas a year earlier, and his presence and words had deeply stirred us. Drawn to the climate and to yoga, we had planned to visit the tropical yoga retreat to catch Snatam Kaur’s Kundalini workshop and do some swimming. Wonderful but awkward and strangely stifling in ways, not all of the ashram culture resonated with our spiritual longing. After a lecture by one of the Hindu priests which spoke of the need for the human spirit to “crush” the animal spirit inside us, and for the divine spirit to crush the human spirit, I was beginning to question my interest in ashram life. We observed a monk chastising a young girl for wearing a dress that revealed her knees, racial disparities between the all-white clientele and the black staff who were also forced to wear uncomfortable attire in the hot climate. There was a strict spiritual hierarchy alive and well here that seemed to mistrust the body, animals, and perhaps females as well.
Then Eagle Man appeared. He had been invited to speak as part of a holiday interfaith lecture series, representing indigenous spirituality. We found ourselves liberated, even elated, by what he said and how he said it. For instance, animals, held to be far ‘below’ humans in Shivananada’s view of Sanatana Dharma, were higher than human beings in Eagle Man’s vision of earth-based spirituality. ‘If you take away the bird, the fish, the insect, the bee,’ Eagle Man observed, ‘the earth dies.’ ‘But if you take away Human, the earth thrives.’ Many things he expressed resonated with us deeply: the connection to the earth, the humility and humor of his attitude towards spirituality, his matricentric orientation, his testimony regarding shamanic techniques for communing with Spirit, and the powerful warrior spirit he radiated, a true warrior from the legendary Oglala Sioux band of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. He had fought first as a Pine Ridge Rez resident, then as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, then as a civil rights activist and spiritual teacher.
Despite their many wonders and rich wisdom traditions, the Vedic religions of Buddhism and Hinduism are predicated on spiritual hierarchies. Each represents a specific Path to truth, watched over and protected by a bureaucracy of spiritual agents, monks and nuns. Like the mystical or more liberal branches of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, great Buddhist and Hindu leaders and practitioners see past the truth of their own dogmas and acknowledge that the immeasurable grandeur of Spirit transcends any particular belief system or set of religious symbols. And yet within these traditions, vast numbers of more dogmatic, less tolerant practitioners cling to the perceived absolute truth of their traditions to judge the methods and spirituality of others, or succumb to the spiritual materialism of their own ego projections, using their power to serve profane interests in power or control or ego recognition. I used to believe that Buddhism was an exception to this pattern but alas, even here figures such as Ashin Wirathu, the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ testify to one of Eagle Man’s most insistent points: only indigenous spiritual traditions avoid the violence and denial endemic to all spiritual hierarchies.
Stemming from the decentralized, matricentric and earth-based society of traditional Lakota peoples, the spirituality Eagle Man teaches is fundamentally both empirical, or experience-based, and tolerant, or refusing to insist on the Truth of a particular experience or vision of higher truths and realities. This structure makes it very difficult to twist a spiritual tradition to fit political projects. Lakota spirituality is more democratic and more obviously rooted in a living concern and love for the community of life than many other spiritual tradition we are familiar with. And it appears to be one of the few spiritual traditions which actually loves and respects women and their bodies.
We had other reasons to be excited that Eagle Man was coming to visit the Sanctuary. For anyone with a basic understanding of the role that the Lakota Nation played in resisting the genocide against First Nation peoples perpetuated to this very day by the US government, the Oglala Sioux band represents a truly unique people. Unlike some other unfortunate tribes whose culture and wisdom traditions were completely obliterated by European “expansion,” the Lakota Sioux successfully defeated the US army in decisive battles. Despite decades of systematic efforts at social extermination and cultural murder, they managed to retain the heart of their traditional way of living and experiencing the mysteries of existence. Of the few Lakota wisdom keepers left to share their wisdom, even fewer are willing to share what they know with citizens of the same American empire which tried so hard to stamp them out of existence. Eagle Man is one of these very few, and he shares his wisdom freely with the hope that it may serve the increasingly improbable salvation of human society.
For most Americans, the meaning and even basic facts regarding Native American history and ongoing ramifications of the US government’s genocidal policies towards these nations are not well understood. While Nazi Germany is still every moralist’s go-to example of evil and psychopathology, few Americans are aware that Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was inspired by the US government’s Indian policies, its use of total warfare to destroy first the self-sufficiency of native settlements, and then the reservation/concentration camp system to confine and systematically degrade the viability of their cultural traditions. Now with world production peaks in hydrocarbon fuels, uranium and other mineral resources looming, the government-supported corporate piracy and looting of reservation lands continues unabated into the 21st century while Columbus Day still brazenly celebrates the exploits of a murderous psychopath.
For others who have more historical perspective, the ongoing reality of the struggle and the vibrancy of Lakota culture still remain concealed by the metaphysical, historical, and moral assumptions of mainstream academic and popular culture. Cutting through the ideological blinders which obstruct the grasping of Native history from a truly indigenous perspective requires a uniquely clear and powerful voice. Such historians are very rare, and Ed McGaa is one of them.
In the workshops that Eagle Man offered at the Sanctuary, one of the things that made his presentation of history so powerful was his unique blending of what the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel identified as the three levels of historical writing: original history (spoken by those with eye-witness experience), reflective history (the scholarly or objective sifting of events and facts independent of the personal involvement), and philosophical history, which moves beyond analysis to distill the broadly philosophical meaning of the events portrayed. Eagle Man’s first-person, embodied perspective on the history of Native Americans and of the Oglala Sioux band in particular, brought to life through masterful storytelling, the authentic experience of growing up on the Rez, serving as a fighter pilot during Vietnam, being at the center of the Native civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, living through and working to transform the enduring consequences of the cultural murder systematically waged against the Lakota Nation to this very day. From his personal testimony of Indian life in the punishing government boarding schools which systematically terrorized their Sioux students, to his history of the Oglala band, which brings to life the larger-than-life figures of Red Cloud and Crazy horse, Eagle Man offered his historical and emotional testimony as an invaluable conduit for seeing clearly this ongoing tragedy, and continuing the process of cultural reconciliation.
Eagle Man also offered much criticism of ideologically-blinded mainstream history which still fails to grasp fundamental facts of Sioux history; for example, the successful armed conflict led by the great Oglala Sioux warrior Red Cloud which defeated the US military in 1868, establishing by treaty the Great Sioux Reservation; just one of the 371 treaties which has been subsequently violated by the US; the origins of American democracy in the Haudenosaunee aka Iroquois Confederacy, or the matriarchal foundations of the traditional Lakota Nation which supported a culture of peace, abundance and deep regard for women.
Philosophically, Eagle Man’s history challenged the participants to question one of the blinding, racist assumptions which still undermines the validity of much (white) scholarship on Native history, as evidenced for example in Drury and Clavin’s recent New York Times’ anointed book on Red Cloud, The Heart of Everything That Is. That is the assumption that modern white civilization, however flawed, is an unequivocal and inevitable improvement over traditional, nature-based societies. This lie creates a devastating cultural self-hatred in Lakota people that continues to play itself out. Pine Ridge Reservation has a teen suicide rate three times higher than the national average. And the assumption also blinds the larger white industrial-consumer society to the unsustainable foundations of its exponentially-accelerating drive to climate change-enabled extinction. The philosophical upshot of Eagle Man’s history lessons is more urgent now than it was when he published his classic Mother Earth Spirituality in 1990. Far from being a relic from our evolutionary prehistory, the societies of First Peoples are our hope, if there still is, for once again living in harmony with our sacred but imperiled planet.
And yet, it can be hard to understand a thinker from such a vastly different world as your own. It was interesting and baffling to us that some members of our own tribe found it very difficult to see and hear what Eagle Man had to share. Some were confused by his physical appearance: his Vietnam-era flight jacket and cap and bravado. Some were turned off by talk of the need for armed resistance, for example, his story of how the Klu Klux Klan got chased off Pine Ridge Reservation, never to return, after some Lakota men killed several Klansmen and burned down their church. It was hard for some Christians to hear how much their religion is still being used to generate cultural self-hatred in young Lakota women and men. It can be hard for peaceniks like us to hear and grasp that the Lakota nation would never have survived if they had followed Gandhi’s path of non-violence and ahimsa.
Several friends were offended by his suggestion that Patriarchy still debases women in modern western societies, seeming not to appreciate the fact that Eagle Man not only strongly believes in matricentric societies but is one of the few people we know who has a living experience with it. Of all the lies still taught about traditional cultures, this is surely the biggest and most offensive; namely, that women were treated worse before white civilization came to save them. As non-white scholars of traditional Lakota culture agree, rape was virtually unheard of until white people brought their patriarchal violence to Turtle Island. Unlike so-called ‘civilization,’ women in traditional Lakota society owned all property, had total control of their reproductive functions, held an equal voice in social and political matters, and were highly venerated for their wisdom and life-giving abilities.
After his teaching engagements at the Sanctuary, Eagle Man led us in a sweat lodge ceremony, an ancient technology of the sacred used in Lakota society to pray and establish communication with the spirit world. Banned for many years by the US government at the behest of racist Jesuit priests, Eagle Man had been part of the generation of fearless Indian leaders in the 1960s who, empowered by the Civil Rights movement, brought back these rituals, beginning the recuperation of traditional Lakota life. Hunched beneath the shallow domed structure, Eagle Man led us in prayer and gratitude and surrender. We thanked Creator for our lives, asked for guidance and prayed for the health and wellness of our friends, families, for the earth, for Spirit.
The sweat lodge ceremony is one of many techniques indigenous cultures have for systematically pruning and deflating the human ego, and opening up awareness to channels of communication between human and non-human intelligences. In the animistic experience of the world which such rituals reveal and amplify, one learns to communicate directly with the intelligence and spiritual interior of the natural world – a rich and profound epistemological attitude which has been for the most part totally suppressed and discredited by western materialism and the objectifying gaze of phallocentric rationalism. But it’s returning, and this is a good thing.
It wasn’t until several days before he left that Eagle Man began to sing. Using an acoustic guitar as a drum, he sang songs of thanks to all the animals, and he sang his gratitude to Wakantanka, Great Spirit, for his life. And he sang about Black Elk’s vision, the subject of his forthcoming book; a revelation of climatic devastation brought on by human greed.
Black Elk’s Vision
In 1868, long before climate change and mass extinction were scientifically understood, a young Lakota boy named Black Elk had a prophetic vision of a world turned upside down – fish floating dead in the streams and animals dying of starvation, ravaged by the Blue Man, a personification of greed and corruption in human society. In his vision, humans on their own cannot defeat the Blue Man, but higher dimensional beings, personifications of six cosmic forces of the universe, descend to offer Black Elk the staff of understanding to strike down the Blue Man and save the earth. It is a mysterious and baffling, but hopeful vision. During our week of meditation and conversation with him on the perilous future of rapidly accelerating global environmental devastation, Eagle Man brought to life this beautiful mythos, giving us strength to face our fears and hope for guidance and energy from our sisterhood with the Community of Life. Perhaps there are higher intelligences at work behind the scenes, agencies of goodness we can learn to listen to and be guided and empowered by. I’m not sure what the ultimate meaning of Black Elk’s vision is, but we somehow felt stronger, more emboldened, and less alone in the universe after our encounter with Eagle Man.
When he left after spending a week at the Sanctuary, we felt as if a beloved uncle or grandfather was leaving, immeasurably touched and enriched by his heart and his wisdom. Eagle Man was going to be returning to the Sanctuary this year, but had to cancel for health reasons. We offer gratitude to Wakantanka for Eagle Man and for all that is good in life.
Post Script: My drawing for the cover of Eagle Man’s Last Book
This spring 2017, Eagle Man was busy working on yet another book called “Exposing Terrorism: Indigenous Spirituality Vs. Religious Extemism,” and put a request out on Facebook to artists to create an illustration for the book jacket. I got very excited and decided to try and create something worthy of such a book. I was very surprised and deeply honored when Ed chose my drawing and then asked me to design the book cover. Below is the drawing I created.