Response Paper on Black Elk Speaks

Black Elk, Lakota visionary and healer communicates his painful conclusion to John G. Neihardt at the end of his interviews in the following way: “[…]The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead”(207). After he narrates the unspeakable tragedy of his nation, the concluding lines mark the tragic end of a personal life and that of a national displacement. Black Elk Speaks reads as a mourning text, commemorating a cultural loss.

Black Elk attributes the loss of cultural values to the symbolic loss of the circle, the location of the Power of the World. As in nature everything moves cyclically and repetitively, the life of Native Americans was also organized around this principle: they built their tepees on a circular frame and the community’s structure was also circular. “Our tepees were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children (150-51)”.

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However, when they were moved to the grey, square houses of the reservation, this power was lost forever; despair, cultural displacement took the place of the older, happier days. What is to mourn the loss of identity? How to work through such a trauma? A form of individual and communal working-through can be found in the presence of dreams and in the decoding of their meanings. Native American dream-visions (also called prophetic dreams) were interpreted by the whole community, and functioned as healing, recuperating activities for the tribe.

Freud in his Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety also emphasised that dreams can express and thereby help to deal with anxiety (77-172). In Black Elk Speaks the holy visionaries and medicine men serve as healers of the nation, but when they fail to interpret and fulfil their prophetic dreams, working-through becomes impossible for the community: “it is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among those shadows men get lost” (Black Elk 192) and he also stresses while referring to the massacre at Wounded Knee that “a people’s dream died there.

It was a beautiful dream” (Black Elk 207). Thus, the restoration of a cultural identity becomes impossible as Black Elk also fails to fulfill his mission he was given in his dream, that of healing, ameliorating individual and/or communal pains.

Works cited:

Black Elk, Nicholas, as told through John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks. Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1979

Freud, Sigmund. (1926d [1925]). Hemmung, Symptom und Angst, Leipzig-Vienna-Zurich, Internat. Psychoanal. Verlag; G. W. , 14:111-205; Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 77-172.



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