January 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The blood of a warrior, holy man, healer, mystic, and visionary runs in the veins of Myron Pourier, whose broad face, jet-black hair, and dark, narrow eyes provide a window to his proud heritage. Pourier’s great-great-grandfather, an Oglala Lakota named Black Elk, straddled two distinct eras in the history of Native Americans.

“For 16 generations of our family, we lived the good,” says Pourier, 45. “But when Grandfather (Black Elk) was still a young man, we started living the bad, when the first European settlers came.”

The story of Black Elk became the stuff of legend in 1932 when author, teacher, and critic John Neihardt—Nebraska’s first poet laureate—published Black Elk Speaks, a moving account of his historically fascinating life.

The “good” for Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota lasted only a few years after his birth in 1863, when “everything was in harmony and you only took what you needed from the earth,” says Pourier.

At age 13, Black Elk took his first scalp from one of General George Custer’s soldiers at the Battle of the Greasy Grass—the Lakota translation for the Little Big Horn River.

Wounded during the massacre of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the winter of 1890, Black Elk surrendered his way of life. He lived out the rest of his days at Pine Ridge where, at age 68, he entrusted Neihardt, whom he considered a kindred spirit, to “spread the word.”

Like Black Elk, Pourier possesses the heart of a warrior. Unlike his great-great-grandfather, Pourier’s warrior instincts have drawn no blood. They arise from deep despair.

“Life on the reservation is a struggle,” he says with slumped shoulders, looking out the window of his trailer in Porcupine, South Dakota. “We have 85 percent unemployment among 44,000 enrolled members.” Pourier, who receives a small military pension, goes through a litany of ills plaguing Pine Ridge: cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome, and teenage suicide rates soar above the national average.

Pine Ridge, considered the poorest reservation in the country, spans 3,468 square miles of prairie grass, most of it unsuitable for growing anything. Tattered trailers and rusted-out cars and trucks dot the landscape. Children play on large propane tanks. The sound of laughter: nonexistent.

Why does Pourier stay? “To keep fighting for my people and mend the sacred hoop of Grandfather’s vision.”

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The vision to which Pourier refers comprises the longest chapter in Neihardt’s book, one that makes Black Elk Speaks a spiritual classic.

Rich in Native symbolism and almost biblical in its content, the vision came to Black Elk at age 9 during a severe illness. It eerily foreshadowed the decimation of the Lakota. Black Elk sees his people dead or dying, only to be revived through the power of a sacred hoop he’s been given. As he stands “on the highest mountain of them all,” he sees the whole world as one, with the hoops of many nations united in one hoop, “living together like one being.”

Black Elk’s vision defined him in later life. “He believed his people could be saved if we fix the hoop one generation at a time,” says Pourier, one of only an estimated 6,000 who can still speak the Lakota language. “That has been my mission in life, to stand up for our rights as a people and to make others understand who we are as a people.”

One way to heal, Pourier believes, involves changing the name of Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota—the “highest mountain” in the vision—to Black Elk Peak. The tourist site is the highest point east of the Rockies and bears the name of a U.S. Army general blamed for wiping out a Brulé Lakota settlement in 1855.

“I went to Washington in August and met with the Board on Geographic Names,” says Pourier. “I told them the name is as offensive to the Lakota as waving the Confederate flag is to African Americans. I felt a positive energy at the meeting.”

South Dakota’s process for such name changes seeks consensus, so the state opted against the name change after a huge backlash from citizens who pointed out that blood was shed on both sides during the Indian Wars. But after Mount McKinley was recently renamed Denali in Alaska, Pourier believes the Feds will override the state’s decision soon. A large photograph of an elderly Black Elk standing on top of Harney Peak, arms outstretched, hangs in Pourier’s home.

Curiously, John Neihardt ends Black Elk’s narration at Wounded Knee, omitting the next 60 years of his life and his conversion to Catholicism in 1904. Baptized Nicholas Black Elk, he embraced Christianity fully.

A Native Catholic church in Milwaukee began a petition drive last summer to make Black Elk a saint, based in part on this inexplicable occurrence:

“The night he died [Aug. 19, 1950], Grandfather told his children some sign would be seen in the sky,” says Pourier. “The next day at his wake, the skies filled with a brilliant light.”

In fact, a spectacular electrical storm, documented around the world that day, was so pronounced that it disrupted military communications in the Korean War.

Perhaps the last chapter has yet to be written.

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