While humans the world over tend to be familiar with the iconography surrounding Mount Rushmore, few are aware of its Native origins. Mount Rushmore was carved into a Lakota sacred site by a white supremacist in league with the Ku Klux Klan to memorialize genocidal colonial conquest.
The mountain known at Mount Rushmore is really Tunkasila Sakpe, the Six Grandfathers—and it has great spiritual significance to the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation). The stone is wise.
Hehaka Sapa, Black Elk, was an Oglala Lakota wicasa wakan (medicine man) and heyoka (sacred clown and healer) who received his power from the wakinyan (the thunder beings). He had a vision about the Six Grandfathers that not only explains their divine providence as the Powers of the World but teaches us about our place in the Universe.
He met them inside a great tipi made of clouds. Within, each grandfather bestowed a gift upon Black Elk. The first grandfather gave him water, symbolizing the power to create, and a bow, meaning the power to destroy. The second grandfather gifted him a medicinal herb and conferred upon him the power of peace and understanding. The third grandfather handed him a canupa, the sacred pipe, which represented the power to heal. The fourth grandfather gifted him with a red stick, symbolizing the ability to lead his people. The fifth grandfather presented an eagle’s wing to Black Elk, which translated to the power to spread Universal truth. The sixth grandfather gave him a new name: Eagle Wing Stretches. When gratefully accepting these gifts according to Lakota custom, Black Elk had an epiphany. He realized that the sixth grandfather was him.
Black Elk’s revelation is representative of a key element in Lakota spiritual beliefs. As human beings and individual souls, we are not separate from the spiritual realm or anything above, below, or within Mother Earth. We are an integral part of the Universe and powerful beings in our own right. While we may bear witness, we are not spectators. We play an active role in the outcome of all events by our engagement as well as our indolence. We need only claim this birthright to activate and in so doing, take responsibility for our existence and what we’ve been given.
The Six Grandfathers also embody six directions. The Lakota use the medicine wheel, a sacred symbol, to describe our core belief system. The medicine wheel itself is in the shape of a circle. It represents the sacred hoop— the continuous pattern of life and death, and all the knowledge contained in our Universe.
A cross within the circle of a medicine wheel reveals four directions that are patently obvious. North is white. South is red. East is yellow. West is black. There are different aspects of the natural world, deities, values, attributes, and ceremonies that fall under each direction. Yet there are more directions that are not seen. The fifth direction is above, or Father Sky, and the sixth direction is below, or Mother Earth.
As human beings and individual souls, we are not separate from the spiritual realm or anything above, below, or within Mother Earth. We are an integral part of the Universe…
We have a song we sing called the Four Directions Song, but two verses are about the fifth and sixth directions.
Wankatakiya etunwan yo, Wakantanka heciya he yankelo, Cekiya yo, cekiya yo! Ahitunwan yankelo!
Makatakiya etunwan yo, nikunsi k’un heciya he yunkelo, Cekiya yo, cekiya yo! Anagoptan yunke lo!
Look up above, the Great Mystery sits above us, pray to Him, pray to Him! He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the Earth, your Grandmother lies beneath us, pray to Her, pray to Her! She is laying there listening to your Prayers!
Still, there is another direction that is not visible to us: the one within us.
You are the sixth grandfather and the seventh direction.
Lakota understood, many millennia ago, that humans are a crucial component of the System that drives all that moves within our Universe. We are the conduit, the answer, the cipher, the antidote—the alpha, and omega. We are at the core, the center, of the Source that powers all things, not out of ego but because we are all connected, from the most minuscule subatomic particle to flowering supernovas.
Humanity now finds itself on a precipice that is largely the result of our own doing. We’ve allowed our planet to be ruled by evildoers who leave death and destruction in their wake for mere vanity and coin. As ancient redwoods burn to cinder, pure arctic glaciers melt into saltwater and legions of plant and animal species meet extinction, we’re confronted by the harsh reality that our existence may also be at an end in less than 100 years unless we make sweeping, systemic changes to prevent it.
In Black Elk’s vision of the Six Grandfathers, he too saw a people who were dead and dying. He had to ride through black death to bring them the flowering stick, the Tree of Life. Sheltered by the newly planted tree, the wisdom of the daybreak star shined upon them and they knew peace.
It is we who will fulfill prophecy. As the seventh direction, we are at the center of this history defining enigma and we will decide our own fate. When we do harm, or allow harm to occur, it is our duty to repair that injury, or stop it from transpiring further. Inaction and self-pity will only bring negative consequences, not just for us, but everything we are connected to.
Humankind has spent much of its time inventing and enforcing division among its own by race, ethnicity, class, religion, sex, gender, and nationality. They’ve all been used to determine who is worthy or superior and this severance always leads to our collective downfall. Only through unity and reconnection will we survive.
We have the power to turn the tide. Before waking, Black Elk witnessed many nations of all colors and creeds united under the Tree of Life. Let it be us who he saw.
“Make a Nation live,” said the second grandfather.
Be a good relative. Mitakuye oyasin.