Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1812
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. Sitting Bull and Gall went to Canada, but Crazy Horse stayed. Black Elk’s tribe moved from one place to another, setting fire to the grass behind them to stave off pursuing soldiers. It was a hard winter. Most of their land was burned, and there were no bison. One day, when Black Elk was fourteen years old, Dull Knife came with what was left of his starving and freezing people. Black Elk’s tribe gave them clothing but not much food because they themselves had only their frozen ponies to eat.
Then came the news of the arrest of Crazy Horse. Black Elk was in the crowd and could not see him, but he heard him struggle. When he heard that Crazy Horse was killed, all Black Elk could do was mourn with the others and watch the next morning as Crazy Horse’s father and mother put the body on a drag and bore it away, nobody knew where. After that, Black Elk’s tribe went to Canada for a while. When they returned home, they found the people in despair, but soon after they heard about the Messiah and his Ghost Dance, with its mission for a spiritual revitalizing of the Indian nation and restoration of the old Indian culture. Because the Messiah seemed to promise the eventual defeat of the whites, the whites became alarmed and took the offensive again. Black Elk was a grown man when he heard that Sitting Bull was killed. The Messiah went to the soldiers at Wounded Knee to attempt conciliation. Black Elk, nearby at Pine Ridge, hearing that violence might occur, rode over and arrived to see the result of the Massacre at Wounded Knee: the land covered with the bodies of men, women, and children.
Black Elk Speaks, however, is primarily an account of a man’s vision and what became of it. Black Elk first saw his vision when he was nine years old, lying in a coma for twelve days. In his vision he flew to a council of his grandfathers, where he was given a hoop representing his people. In its center was a flowering tree that promised they would flourish. The tree stood at the crossing of a red road, the road of good on which his nation would walk, and a black road, a road of troubles and war, on which he would also walk and where he would have the power to destroy his people’s foes.
As a result of having seen the vision, Black Elk became a visionary seeker of salvation for his people. He was troubled because they were threatened not only by the destruction of their culture but also by their willingness to adopt the worst habits of their white conquerors. At intervals he sank back into the routines of Sioux life, but the vision recurred periodically throughout his life, for example, after the purification ceremony of puberty and again on his family’s journey back from Canada, when he sat alone on a hillside. There, he experienced a strange foreboding that lingered until he returned home. When a medicine man urged him to tell others of his vision with a dance, he discovered he could heal the sick, and for three years he practiced curing. He felt, however, that his mission was greater than that: It was to save the nation’s hoop.
When Buffalo Bill approached the tribe to recruit members for his Wild West Show, Black Elk joined. This, he concluded, was an opportunity to bring the whole world into the sacred hoop. His people had sunk back into selfish pursuits, everybody concerned only about himself. If the Wasichus had a better way, maybe his people should live that way. The travel with the show took him to many places, including into the presence of Queen Victoria, and although it was a happy time, he was in strange world. One night, he experienced another vision and returned to his people. Things there were even worse, however, and he lost his power. At first, he could hardly remember the vision, but when people came to him for help, the power returned. This was about the time when he heard of the Messiah, and for some time he believed that this was the answer to his vision. He soon discovered though, that it, too, was a mistake. At Wounded Knee, he found that his and the Messiah’s vision of peace and unity was not to be. When Black Elk looked over the horror of Wounded Knee, he realized that something besides people had died in that bloody mud: a dream.
As the interview ended, Black Elk said to Neihardt: “He to whom a great vision was given is now a pitiful old man who has done nothing. His nation’s hoop was there broken and scattered. There was no center any longer, and the sacred tree was dead.” After the interview, Black Elk and Neihardt made a trip to Harney Peak in the Black Hills. Black Elk pointed out the spot where he had stood in his vision. He stopped, dressed and painted himself as he was in his vision, faced the west, held the sacred pipe before him in his right hand, and prayed to the Great Spirit: “The tree is withered. Maybe some little root of that tree still lives. Hear me that my people may once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the red road.” The old man stood weeping in the drizzling rain, and then the sky cleared again.
Black Elk Speaks reflects Black Elk and Neihardt’s affection for the Oglala Sioux and their sorrow for the Black Road the Sioux had to travel and for the way of life they lost. At the same time, the book promotes a genuine mysticism, a belief in the unity of all humankind under one great Being. It is about the failure to accomplish a mission but also about a hope that the mission could yet be accomplished.
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