Black Elk Speaks is the work of two collaborators: Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man who tells his life story, and John G. Neihardt, a white man sensitive to American Indian culture, who interviewed Black Elk at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1931 and fleshed out and gave artistic form to Black Elk’s account. Black Elk tells the adventure story of a young Sioux boy as he grows into adulthood.
Black Elk had early memories of a father wounded in the Fetterman Fight against the Wasichus (white men), which at first seemed only like a bad dream that he did not understand. Then came a growing awareness of the white man and first seeing one when he was ten years old. His grandfather made him a bow and arrows when he was five years old, and with the other boys he had played at killing Wasichus. There were the times when an older man named Watanye took him hunting or down to a creek’s woods to go fishing or told him funny stories like that of the misadventures of High Horse in his courtship of a chief’s daughter. He had memories of playing pranks with the other boys—chopping off the top of the flagpole at Fort Robinson, teasing the people during a dance—and of endurance contests such as the breast dance, in which the boys burned sunflower seeds on their wrists and tried to keep them there without crying.
Black Elk’s account includes memories of famous chiefs he had known: Red Cloud, who was too friendly with the white men; the defiant but always cautious Sitting Bull; and Black Elk’s cousin, Crazy Horse, whom he idolized. Black Elk listened to the stories about Crazy Horse and how he became a great and daring warrior. He also heard about Crazy Horse’s idiosyncrasies, but he especially remembered Crazy Horse’s sense of humor. Crazy Horse sometimes teased him, and one time he invited him into his tent to eat with him.
The book is a rich source of information about Sioux customs. The psychologist Carl Jung called it a storehouse of anthropological data. Dances of various kinds were frequent, preceded by elaborate rituals. A comic dance was the heyoka ceremony, which involved considerable horseplay and clowns circulating throughout the crowd, provoking laughter. At the age of nine, Black Elk, with five other boys, went through the puberty rite of purification—his body and face painted yellow, a black stripe on either side of his nose, his hair tied up to look like a bear’s ears, and eagle feathers on his head. Even the bison hunt, so necessary for the meat supply and survival, had a ritual that was preceded by the smoking of the sacred pipe and a prayer to the Great Spirit and Mother Earth. The hunters attacked in a special order, with the soldier band first.
Black Elk’s account documents events from much of the second half of the nineteenth century as witnessed by a young Indian boy. These include the series of battles in the Indian War and the sufferings of the Sioux as they were displaced from their lands by the white people. When Black Elk was eleven, tensions with the whites mounted as news arrived of the coming of Pahuska (literally, Long Hair, the name given to General George Custer). Many chiefs gathered in a council to discuss a strategy to deal with the whites, a gathering avoided by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, who were suspicious of any agreement with the whites. Black Elk’s people did not hear of the subsequent attack on Crazy Horse’s village for quite a while, but when they did, they joined the huge gathering of tribes on the Rosebud River. Chaos ensued when the Wasichus attacked, and Black Elk ran from place to place and even killed one of the soldiers.
Custer, eager to avenge the defeat on the Rosebud, decided to attack the Sioux at the Little Big Horn. Black Elk was not yet of age to fight. He watched with the women from the top of a hill, but all he could see was a cloud of dust. When it cleared, he rode down to where a vast army of Wasichus lay dead. He did not see Custer, and no one knew which of the corpses was his. When Black Elk saw a quivering soldier, he shot him with an arrow; he scalped another. He was not sorry, since the Wasichus came to kill them, but he got sick at the sight of so much blood and went home.
The victory did no good, however, and the Sioux began to travel the Black Road of suffering. Some went to the white agencies, but most tribes scattered in different directions, pursued by the soldiers....
(The entire section is 1812 words.)