CUSTER, S.D. — A Black Elk prayed again this week from atop the highest peak in the land sacred to the Lakota.
What happened minutes later was either a striking coincidence, or evidence that something more mystical was in motion.
Nearly nine decades ago, Nebraska poet John G. Neihardt hiked with Oglala Lakota holy man Nicholas Black Elk to the summit of Harney Peak in South Dakota’s Black Hills. At 7,242 feet above sea level, it is the nation’s highest summit east of the Rocky Mountains.
It was a bright and cloudless day. Black Elk faced west and recited a lengthy plea to the Great Spirit to help his people find a way to prosper. He asked for a sign of hope.
Thin clouds gathered. Scant, chilling rain fell. Thunder rumbled. Then the sky cleared.
Neihardt chronicled the May 30, 1931, event in the postscript of his acclaimed “Black Elk Speaks,” published the following year.
On Tuesday, six Nebraskans and two South Dakotans commemorated the episode and the book with a return hike to the summit 86 years to the day later.
They also celebrated the federal Board on Geographical Names’ August decision to change the mountain’s name to Black Elk Peak.
The group included Myron Pourier of Porcupine, South Dakota, a great-great grandson of Black Elk; members of the John G. Neihardt Foundation in Bancroft, Nebraska; and others.
Unlike his famous ancestor, Pourier didn’t hold a sacred pipe before him. He held a borrowed smartphone to recite a downloaded long version of Black Elk’s Prayer.
Pourier, a 47-year-old disabled military veteran, estimated that he has walked to the summit anywhere from 60 to 100 times to pray. This was the first time he recited his ancestor’s prayer on the site.
Small clouds gathered as Pourier spoke.
Paul Hammel of Lincoln, a member of the foundation’s board of directors and a World-Herald reporter, read Neihardt’s description in “Black Elk Speaks” of the tearful plea of a self-described “pitiful old man” who hadn’t accomplished the “great vision” for his people that the Great Spirit sent him as a youth.
Black Elk, who lived from about 1863 to 1950, was a second cousin to the war chief Crazy Horse.
As Hammel spoke, a dark gray cloud obscured the sun, the temperature dropped and a chilling wind swept across the peak. The cloud passed as the reading concluded and sunshine warmed the onlookers, which included a few tourists who happened upon the informal ceremony.
Algis Laukaitis of Lincoln, part of the Black Elk-Neihardt contingent, said the readings on the historic summit were a special moment.
“History came alive,” he said. “I read the book in college and then it sat on my shelf for 30 years. All of a sudden it just came to life today. Before, it was just a story. It was a spiritual moment in a world where there’s a lack of spirituality.”
Walt Duda of Omaha, who first read “Black Elk Speaks” in college in the 1960s and has been a Neihardt Foundation board member for more than 20 years, said Neihardt’s book had a big impact on him.
“It changed the way I looked at the world,” he said.
Duda said one of his favorite parts is the scene in which the Lakota spiritual leader asks for a sign if there’s any life left in the Sacred Hoop, the Lakota concept that everything in the universe is interrelated. Then it rained.
“Ever since I read that I’ve been fascinated by it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to come here and see the spot where it happened.”
Pourier said he was humbled to be at the peak on the anniversary of Black Elk and Neihardt’s visit.
“Things don’t happen by chance,” he said. “We as a people believe things happen for a reason. My grandfather (Black Elk) knew John Neihardt was the one to tell his vision of everyone coming together under the flowering tree (a symbol of the life of the Earth and all people).”
Pourier said the decision to take the Harney name off the peak was right and just. The Lakota people pushed for the change because of the massacre of dozens of Lakota men, women and children at Blue Water Creek by soldiers under the command of Army Gen. William S. Harney in western Nebraska Territory in 1855.
“Now it’s time to move forward together in cultural diversity and understanding in all walks of life to live together without racism,” Pourier said.
"Black Elk Speaks"
“Black Elk Speaks,’’ the story of the Oglala Lakota visionary and healer Nicholas Black Elk and his people during the late 19th century, is the 2017 selection of the One Book One Nebraska reading program.
The program encourages Nebraskans to read and discuss one book written by a Nebraska author or that has a Nebraska theme or setting.
The celebrated 1932 book by John G. Neihardt is a spiritual testament that reveals Black Elk’s visions of the unity of humanity and Earth and tells of Lakota history and life during the closing decades of the Old West.
Libraries and other organizations across Nebraska are hosting discussions, activities and events to encourage Nebraskans to read the book.
Among coming events:
» Tuesday, Grand Island Public Library: “Walking the Dream: John Neihardt’s Preparation for ‘Black Elk Speaks’ ” by Timothy Anderson, author of the Neihardt biography “Lonesome Dreamer” (2016), at 5:30 p.m.