I recently retraveled the back roads of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 travel account, Blue Highways. I read the book when it was released, but this time I listened to the audiobook which is how I prefer to experience books when I am on the road or walking my own backroads and woods.
Heat-Moon seems to have coined the term “blue highways” to refer to those out-of-the-way roads in mostly rural America which were shown in blue on the old Rand McNally road atlas. This is a book from a time when a GPS wouldn’t have even seemed possible.
But the author mentions an earlier version of his blue highways coming from his own American Indian ancestry. He references Black Elk’s “Two Roads,” one of which is sometimes called the Blue Road. On this recent reading of the book, I did some further research into that aspect of the roads.
I had read John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks a few years before I read Blue Highways, but I don’t recall ever making the connection between the two.
Nicholas Black Elk was born in 1863 and died in 1950 and saw tremendous changes in the lives of his Oglala Lakota people. The book was published in 1932, but paperback editions of it were common in the 196s and 70s amongst college students. The “New Age” popularity was probably due to the visions of Black Elk that are recorded.
The book describes Lakota life and is a history of a Native nation, but it is often read as a spiritual tale.
Black Elk met Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked him to record and share his story. (There has long been some controversy about this non-native writer telling the story.)
At the age of nine, Black Elk received a great vision which is the central reflector of the book. His celestial vision has been interpreted as the totality of earthly creation. It is a joyous sky-spanning vision of Earth and the heavens united.
For perspective, think about that the year after his vision, Black Elk was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was a second cousin of the war chief Crazy Horse.
In the 1997 book, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, we get a more modern version of the vision and of the latter part of Black Elk’s life.
His childhood vision remained strong in Black Elk’s life until his death, though his own interpretation changed. He asks Wakan Tanka (God or The Great Spirit) throughout his lifetime if he properly interpreted or fulfilled the vision. In Black Elk Speaks, the conclusion seems sad and he feels he has not been able to save his people through his vision and works.
But Black Elk lived for almost twenty years after Neihardt finished his book, so the story there is incomplete. The newer book suggests that the answer that Black Elk finally received from Wakan Tanka was that he had fulfilled the vision.
Something that is missing from Neihardt’s book is that Black Elk was baptized on St. Nicholas Day in December 1904 and took the name Nicholas to preface Black Elk. He was a practicing and proselytizing Catholic until his death. He baptized hundreds of Indians, taught the Bible, held Masses, and preached sermons. That was a 46 year period of having a simple, righteous, useful Christian life.
This conversion changed his interpretation of the childhood vision. There is Roman Catholic teaching aide that he encountered commonly known as the Two Roads Map. It was a visual catechism that was poster-sized. Though it is a Christian “salvation history,” there are parallels between Black Elk’s vision and the Two Roads Map that Black Elk was probably pleased to see. Some of the similarities may seem coincidental or trivial – thunder beings, flying men, tree images, villages, a black road, a red road, an evil blue man engulfed in flames in a “Hellish” place where people moaned and mourned. He used the Two Roads Map in his teaching.
The map has a pre-Christian black road and a Christian red road. In Black Elk’s vision as well as in the Christian map, the Red Road was the good and authentic path. For Black Elk, it seems to have represented both the traditional Indian way with Lakota symbolism and Christian symbolism. The Red Road was the Christian right way to live.
It may be cultural or religious appropriation that the Red Road has more commonly become a name for the right path without regard to religion but perhaps some regard for spirituality.
So where does the Blue Road that Heat-Moon alludes to originate? For that, you need to read in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. This book is also a transcribed version of Black Elk’s teachings on the sacred pipe that was written much later in his life. In this book, he speaks of the Red Road as the north-south cross of the Medicine Wheel. The east-west cross is the black or blue road, which is the way we should not travel.
For, Nicholas Black Elk, Christianity was the Red Road, a metaphor for living a spiritual way of life. Rather than being a road stretching forward to the horizon, he saw the people on the red road as one interconnected circle of travelers making a “sacred hoop.”
William Least Heat-Moon lightly references the blue roads as being a way to travel that is kind of a waste of your time, but his blue highways were chosen to help him reconnect to people, the country and himself. His motorized journey is a spiritual one, though not one Black Elk may have recognized or endorsed.
In the descriptions of Black Elk’s central childhood vision that I have read, there is almost always a disclaimer that, of course, words cannot really capture what he saw. He saw multiple manifestations of a single Great Spirit. This monotheistic image probably made the transition to Catholicism more logical.