Nicholas Black Elk
and Emanuel Swedenborg

I have a built-in interest as an American Indian in similarities between Swedenborg's teachings and American Indian religions. It is my duty, both as an American Indian and as a Swedenborgian, to find any harmony that the two worlds share. There are broad similarities between Black Elk's interpretation of the Oglala Lakota religion and Swedenborg's teachings. Those similarities led me to become a Swedenborgian. I'd like to tell you about those commonalities within the context of my life.

In 1990, I was speaking to public groups about American Indian religious issues. I found that it helped to find similarities between Indian religions and Christianity. These could act as bridges to understanding. However, as Ben Franklin once said, all cats look alike in the dark. It was unhelpful to speak about generic "American Indians"; I needed to find examples from a specific religion. I was fortunate since I practice the Lakota traditional religion. Most American Indian traditional religions forbid speaking publicly about certain religious matters, but there are exceptions. Around the turn of the century, several Oglala leaders released their knowledge to James Walker, a doctor on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Lakota ceremonial etiquette suggests that since this knowledge has been "released," it is public knowledge that we can safely discuss.

In addition, I needed an understanding of a Christian religion that would be compatible with the Oglala religion. This was more difficult than one might think. Besides common problems of stereotypes and misconceptions, Indian religions teach many ideas which cause some Christians doctrinal difficulties.

However, it was not my search for ideas but a newspaper ad that introduced me to the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg said that the Lord is "heaven's sun," the source of all life. This life "inflows" into all things. The spiritual and the natural world live side by side, but the spiritual world is complete. The natural world is a reflection of the spiritual world. For example, one could contrast the Lord as "heaven's sun" with the world's natural sun. Both worlds are in harmony as far as the natural world reflects (corresponds or responds to) the spiritual world. The Word, as an expression of God, contains a deeper or spiritual meaning if we look for it. We look for that meaning when an inner process called regeneration begins to happen within us. We should try to live a life of usefulness to ourselves and to others. Yet, we should realize that the power to do this comes from God.

I found that the statements of both Black Elk and Swedenborg could have been made by either, if we just change the wording. For example, this is how John Neihardt expressed Black Elk's attitude toward the sacred: "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." If one allows for cultural differences, this quotation sounds a lot like a description of Swedenborg's "Universal Human."

Over one hundred years after Swedenborg's death, Black Elk spoke of the inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony. The lodge has heated rocks in a center hole. The ceremony's leader pours water over the rocks to provide steam for this purification ceremony. Here is Black Elk's Oglala interpretation of the sweat lodge. He said, "The fire which is used to heat the rocks represents the great power of Wak n-tanka in a certain aspect." Black Elk urged that "when we use water in the sweat lodge, we should think of Wak n-tanka who is always flowing, giving his power and life to everything." There are both natural and spiritual worlds, for "men die but live again in the real world of Wak n-tanka, where there is nothing but the spirits of all things." Further, "the whole lodge is the universe in an image, and the two-legged, four-legged, and winged peoples, and all things of the world are contained within it." It is necessary to understand the spiritual meaning of things, for "the power of a thing is in the understanding of its meaning." Moreover, we should know that the power of that understanding ultimately does not come from us. Black Elk said of this to John Neihardt, "As you sit there, in your mind there is a kind of power that has been sent you by the spirits; and . . . probably there is a kind of power that did the work for you, although you think you are doing it yourself."

There are other areas of resonance between Swedenborg's teachings and the Oglala religion. For instance, Swedenborg said that the world has good and evil influences that need to be kept in balance. Many Native religions realize that evil cannot be driven from a person. The person becomes whole by balancing the forces of good and evil. Also, statements made by Black Elk and other Oglala imply that the greatest spiritual truths are the most unknowable ones. This sounds akin to Swedenborg's idea of "appearances of truth."

There are further generalizations that might link Black Elk and Swedenborg to the mystical tradition. First, direct experience of the sacred transformed both men into different people. This has been spoken of by both regarding their spiritual experiences. Second, both men said that we reach a point where the sacred is no longer describable. Third, like some mystics, Swedenborg and Black Elk were atypical of their religious traditions. Swedenborg chose to approach the sacred as a scientist and describe it through observation. Black Elk was atypical because he released his vision to a non-Indian and simultaneously to the world. Fourth, both experienced the sacred as involving danger. In the Spiritual Diary, Swedenborg reveals that he could only undergo his transformation through the protection of "God Messiah." Similarly, some Lakota individuals have compared a loaded ceremonial pipe with a loaded gun; we should approach both with care.

My search for public speaking examples caused a major change in my life. The Louisiana Cajuns have a word called "lagniappe" (lan-YAP). It means "a little something extra," and is what others have called "a baker's dozen." As I continued my reading of Swedenborg, and became a part of the Swedenborgian Church, I found "a little something extra." I found that I could be both Christian and an Indian traditionalist. Some American Indians have felt they were betraying their Native cultures when they became Christians. My understanding of Swedenborg's teachings is that both ways are good ways. So, I am not a Swedenborgian in spite of being an Indian traditionalist. I am a Swedenborgian because of being an Indian traditionalist. Perhaps other Christian churches can provide this kind of welcoming atmosphere, but I think that it is done very well in the Swedenborgian Church.

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