The Circles Beneath Our Feet

Rock Art [ columnist Lara Eastburn looks deeper into our circles.]

by Lara Eastburn

As Americans push our burgeoning bellies away from abundant tables this weekend, many of us will recall in some way the story of “Pilgrims and Indians” and of “The First Thanksgiving” we have heard repeated since our school days. It is a problematic story, to say the least, and one that does little to recall the complicated role and history of Native Americans on today’s cultural landscape. But since 1990, November has also been Native American Heritage Month, a time to study and reflect upon the history and contributions of Native Americans and cultures. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that it coincides with a time in which we also celebrate all that we have to be thankful for. For many of us, hooping has taken its place near the top of that list. We are grateful for the bit of magic it has brought to our lives, the dash of sometimes inexplicable wonder that we experience when stepping into and moving within a circle. And it is Native American Cultures that may have more to tell us about that magic than any other.

Though the cultures and beliefs of the Native American peoples are richly varied, the significance of the circle abounds in a great many of them. As hoopers, we immediately think of the mesmerizing and story-telling Native American hoop dance. But we might just as easily think of the Medicine Wheel or dreamcatchers, the bonds of our families and “tribes,” or the cyclical nature of seasons and of life. Each of these is, in the translation of Native languages, referred to as a “sacred hoop.” But it is from the visions and teachings of a Lakota (Sioux) shaman named Black Elk (1830-1950), as told to those who would write them down, that most of us today can learn of what the hoop and circle may have meant to the Native peoples that once danced upon the soil where we now find ourselves:

Black Elk: Heȟáka Sápa
Black Elk
“Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle […] and so it is in everything where power moves.”

Black Elk was no more thinking of our modern hoopdance than the 13th century poet Rumi, but his words cannot help but send this hoop-lover into a heady spin. Nothing could ring truer to any of us who has felt the touch of an entire universe inside a dance that moves in circles. You just want to drop everything and jump into your hoop right now, don’t you? Before you do, I offer you the following excerpt from Black Elk’s Sacred Hoop Vision. Known as “The Sunset Prayer,” it strikes me as an ideal meditation before your next hoop vision and the perfect blessing for this weekend’s holiday meal:

“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 say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the 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… But anywhere is the center of the world.”

On this Thanksgiving weekend and in these last few days in which we are called to reflect upon Native American Heritage, I choose to think about those who danced in circles upon this ground long before my European ancestors knew it existed. I will quietly repeat the words of Black Elk as I turn, digging my heels into the circles deep beneath my feet. And I will be conscious of the history twirling there just beneath the surface, in the soil between my toes.


Excerpt from The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, edited by Raymond J. Demallie, University of Nebraska Press; new edition, 1985

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