In his 1932 memoir Black Elk Speaks, Oglala Lakota medicine man and Wounded Knee Massacre survivor Nicholas Black Elk shared his life, cultural traditions, and work with anthropologist and poet John Neihardt.
In the chapter “The Great Vision,” Black Elk describes a complex, detailed vision he received at the age of nine, a shamanic initiation into the traditions of his tribe and his future role as a healer and teacher. This vision was to guide him and the Lakota nation through a potential future crisis.
At the beginning of the chapter, as he goes about his daily life, Black Elk hears a voice telling him, “It is time; now they are calling you.” He trusts the voice has a purpose and relates,
The voice was so loud and clear I believed it, and I thought I would just go where it wanted me to go.
However, as Black Elk leaves his tepee, his legs begin to hurt, a pain that continues through the day. He is then afflicted with further physical ailments that limit his mobility, forcing him to stay home. Physical symptoms such as these can often accompany a shamanic experience.
When Black Elk falls into the vision, he finds supernatural creatures that resemble horses and other animals that guide him through the experience. In the sky, a cloud forms into a tepee with a rainbow door leading inside where the Grandfathers sit. Only, as Black Elk discovers, these are not men or even ancestors but spirits: “Six Powers of the World” representing the four cardinal directions, plus Sky and Earth.
Each of the Grandfathers present Black Elk with a series of instructions and gifts he is to take back to his tribe. They show to him the interconnectedness of life and a crisis that might affect the Lakota nation. A voice tells Black Elk the purpose of the vision and what he is to do with it:
They [the Grandfathers] have given you the sacred stick and your nation’s hoop, and the yellow day; and in the center of the hoop you shall set the stick and make it grow into a shielding tree, and bloom.
Black Elk beholds further visions of which road his nation will take, to harmony or to crisis and receives another important aspect of the shamanic experience: a song of power which he performs to ward off the crisis. After planting a sacred herb, he meets again with the Grandfathers, who congratulate him as having passed the initiation. They award him the gifts previously shown and send him back home with the lasting image of a “tall rock mountain,” the center of the world.
In the following chapter “The Bison Hunt,” Black Elk learns from his family that he was unconscious for twelve days. Due to his young age and the complex nature of the vision, he realizes it will take time for him to process what happened to him. He relates:
I am sure now that I was then too young to understand it all, and that I only felt it. It was the pictures I remembered and the words that went with them; for nothing I have ever seen with my eyes was so clear and bright as what my vision showed me; and now words that I have ever heard with my ears were like the words I heard. I did not have to remember these things; they have remembered themselves all these years.
The following chapters of his memoir describe how Black Elk worked to incorporate his spiritual learning and knowledge with ordinary life.
In his conversations with journalist Bill Moyers published as The Power of Myth, scholar Joseph Campbell notes common elements of the shamanic experience shared by cultures from Siberia to the Americas. He refers to Black Elk’s vision as a “typical shaman story” and how the Lakota view visionary states as a cornerstone of their tradition. Campbell further relates that a key component of the shamanic vision is to unite the local with the universal and the temporal with the eternal.
It should also be noted that while Black Elk Speaks became a popular book, it is not without its problems as a work representing the traditions of a Native American tribe. At the time of the book’s publication, Black Elk had long since converted to Catholicism and used a translator to communicate with Neihardt, who in turn may have amended the information to render the book marketable to a mainstream audience.