In the Footsteps of Alfred Vogel
In 1902 in the Basle region of Switzerland, an unique man was born. Throughout his childhood he learned about Nature and its laws from his grandparents and parents. Later he embraced natural healing and exemplified how to live in harmony with Nature, to benefit both Man and Nature. His name was Alfred Vogel.
Throughout his life he made a great impact on people, always ready to share his knowledge and with a deep and heartfelt interest in everyone he met. The knowledge he shared he learned from the ‘University of Nature’ as he described it, by travelling all over the world and meeting native peoples, staying with them for extended periods and learning from them.
This particular adventure started in the 1950s when Alfred Vogel travelled to the USA. Before he left he wrote in his diary: ‘I wanted to visit with the Indians, the remnants of the once so large and proud tribes. Together with my wife I went on extensive trips through the reservations and met so many natives with whom I discussed herbs and natural living.’
One of these Native Americans, a Sioux from South Dakota called Ben Black Elk, was to change his life. Alfred Vogel spent many hours talking to this wise and thoughtful man. The revered medicine man told Alfred Vogel much about the Native American herbal tradition and they became close friends. Indeed when they parted, Black Elk gave Alfred Vogel a farewell gift that showed his great respect for his Swiss friend – a handful of seeds from the Echinacea purpurea plant, the most powerful remedy Black Elk knew. This remedy had helped his people through countless infections as they travelled the Prairie in the winter blizzards.
Back in Switzerland, Alfred Vogel extensively researched this amazing herb, eventually creating Echinaforce. The Echinaforce that is sold throughout the world today can trace its origins to that original gift from Black Elk.
Over the years, various attempts had been made to trace Black Elk or his descendents but without success. However, in 2002, Alfred Vogel’s Centenary year, I decided to make one last concerted effort to follow in his footsteps and to learn about native attitudes to herbs and natural healing in the 21st Century.
The idea was to pay a visit to the same Sioux tribe. It seemed a simple aim but, as the Sioux are divided into three ‘clans’ each of which has a number of distinct ‘septs’ and as tribes today are very elusive and still dislike white people, it proved quite a difficult task. My research suggested that Black Elk belonged to the Lakota clan who still reside on the Pine Ridge Reservation. However, numerous phone calls and emails went unanswered so I resolved to travel to the USA with only a photographer for company and try the face-to-face approach.
Having arrived on the Pine Ridge Reservation we met Tim White Face, a Lakota. Our guide for the first day, his role was also to assess us and our intentions. He first took us to Wounded Knee Hill where the memorial of the terrible massacre stands overlooking the landscape. It was a little intimidating to be a ‘paleface’ there, surrounded by Indians! We then visited the Red Cloud School, (named for a famous Indian Chief) and Camp Justice where the ‘American Indian Movement’ demonstrates against more recent injustices. Crossing the border to Nebraska we saw the tragic sight of drunken Indians literally lying in the road. Alcohol is not permitted on the reservation but the border is easily crossed.
By our reactions, Tim White Face had decided that we were ‘okay’ and drove us to the Lakota Radio Station where I explained on air who we were and about Alfred Vogel’s meeting with Ben Black Elk, in the hope of finding some trace of him or his family.
Next day we met Richard Sherman, a local herbalist, who immediately recognised Ben Black Elk from a photograph. Indeed we learned that he had lived in that very village. ‘Would you like to meet his family?’ Richard asked. We were overwhelmed to discover that the end of our quest was so close. First we met Black Elk’s daughter, Bette who served us traditional Tacos in her kitchen and spoke about her father and life on the reservation. From there we visited the log house that Black Elk built with his own hands. It is no longer inhabitated but the log walls are still standing, grey and solid.
Then it was off to the mountains to search for herbs. Richard proved to be an adept guide and, even though it was February, we found Echinacea. Here, Richard introduced us to the Lakota rules for herb collection: ’You search until you find the herb you want but you do not pick it. You must continue your search until you find the next stand of the same herb. Only now you can pick it, so ensuring that no herb will become extinct because of over-harvest.’
Later Richard and I discussed Nature’s laws and Alfred Vogel’s philosophy and Richard finally commented: ‘I can see why Black Elk and your Alfred Vogel became so close. It seems to me that Alfred Vogel had the same understanding of nature, balance and healing as we natives.’
Our final visit was to Black Elk’s granddaughter Charlotte, a former UN lawyer. An attractive woman with a razor sharp mind, she summed up her work: ‘We travelled all over the world, we visited many places and talked to a lot of people but we never actually made a difference.’ Thus she decided to return to the Pine Ridge Reservation where she lives as a Lakota traditionalist, campaigning for the return of the Black Hills to her people. She belongs to the women’s ‘Warrior Society’ and determinedly defends the old ways.
Our meeting with her brought our visit to the Reservation to a close and we returned home clear in our minds that the Lakota still believe strongly in living in harmony with Nature.
Alfred Vogel was born over 100 years ago and he spent his life advocating a natural way of living in harmony with Nature. Following in his footsteps was an experience of a lifetime and certainly left an indelible mark on both my photographer and myself.
As Alfred Vogel used to say: ‘Man can provide medicine and show direction, but only nature can truly heal.’ It is as true and valid as ever in our modern society.