Black Elk Speaks is a personal narrative about the Oglala physician who witnessed both the zenith and plummet of the Sioux Nation. It tells the story of Black Elk’s life and spiritual journey. At the same time, it’s also more than that. It also reveals the tales of the Sioux and the price they had to pay during the westward expansion.
The narrative begins when Black Elk makes it known to John Neihardt that he intends to tell him the story of his life. They begin by exchanging smoke from Black Elk’s holy pipe to offer to the Great Spirit. Black Elk was born as an Oglala Lakota during the “winter when the four crows were killed” (December 1863). He began learning about the Wasichus (White Man) from a very young age due to the rising tension between the Wasichus and the Indians, a movement that was a big part of his early life. His life took an important turn when he had a vision at the age of five. He witnessed two men appear in the sky singing a sacred song. Black Elk tells John about how afraid he was, back then, of telling anyone about the vision.
Black Elk’s second vision was at the age of nine. His vision depicts his journey to the cloud world where his grandfathers give him six sacred objects that would allow him to guide his people and maintain their sacred hoop, their cultural identity and coherence as a tribe. Each of these six objects symbolize his people’s future. As a result of his vision, Black Elk started to feel alienated but he gained a better perspective of himself through the vision as he ages. He gained a sense of purpose as his vision guided him through the hardships that he faced. Soon after, Black Elk saw his first Wasichus when he joined his relatives near Soldier’s Town. During his time at camp there throughout the winter, he learned how to fish from Watanye, an older Sioux man.
Black Elk tells John about a story that Watanye had told him about High Horse who had been lovesick for a girl from his tribe. High Horse neither had the wealth nor the respect to ask for this girl’s hand from her parents. His friend Red Deer told him to elope with the girl but when that proved to be troublesome, High Horse decided to prove himself. Through sheer willpower, High Horse succeeded and gained the respect of not only the girl’s parents’ respect but also the whole tribe’s. His account of High Horse’s courtship, while being an inset story, is a vital representation of the Sioux culture since it ended up providing John with a better understanding of their ways.
When Black Elk was eleven years old, he had to camp near Black Hills along with his people when threats from General Custer made them move places several times until they finally settled at Fort Robinson. The Indians were divided as to what they should do about the Wasichus who were looking for gold in the Black hills. Red Cloud, who was at Fort Robison with Black Elk, was moderate towards the Wasichus but Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who were placed at different locations, thought otherwise. In a year, more soldiers went into the Black hills and the Indians sat down with the Wasichus for a resolution, an event that Crazy Horse didn’t attend. However, when they learned that the white men were willing to go into the mine for gold with or without their consent, Black Elk, along with his people, joined Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was Black Elk’s second cousin and was also a chief. Black Elk admired him a great deal. When Black Elk’s people finally met up with Crazy Horse, they set camp near him. Later that night, they found out that the Crow Indians had killed all but one member of Red Cloud’s band.
As Black Elk’s people headed back towards Fort Robinson, Crazy Horse stayed back but the U.S. Cavalry soon raided his band. Men, women and children were killed and horses were stolen. When Black Elk and his people learned of this, they painted their faces black that symbolized that they were willing to fight their oppressors. As the tension rose between the Indians and the Wasichus, all the tribes came together with Crazy Horse and they began to prepare for retaliation. “The battle of little big horn” commenced shortly afterwards. Black Elk actively took a part in the battle with his father and the rest of his tribe. Although the battle was fought from both sides, the Indians had only retaliated after being provoked by the gold rush and the land invasions.
However, the battle didn’t establish their claim on the land. As the soldiers continued to slaughter the Indians despite the fact that the US Government had signed treaties, Black Elk and his tribe began to move westwards. The harsh weather and lack of ammunition made it impossible for the Indians to fight back. At this point, Black Elk heard a rumor that Crazy Horse was surrendering. Black Elk and his father cried all night after finding out that Crazy Horse had died after falling victim to treachery from the U.S. soldiers.
Tired of being driven from one reservation to another, Black Elk and his people went to Canada to join Sitting Bull. Soon, Black Elk found out through his vision that they were in grave danger and thus, they were forced to move again. They found camp with other Indians who, too, were off the reservation. As the soldiers took away their guns and most of their horses, Black Elk found himself getting frustrated, having being granted the great power of his vision yet not being able to do anything with it.
Black Elk reenacted his vision with the help of his parents and he officially became one of the medicine men. As he got up each morning to see the star of understanding, he once again found faith in himself. However, it wasn’t late until the Indians were once again driven out of their land because it had been sold to the U.S. Government. They moved into the agency that had built for the Oglala when Black Elk received a rare vision. Black Elk decided to perform his dog vision with Heyokas (Sacred fools) and the reenactment eased the people’s pain.
At the age of nineteen, Black Elk performed his first healing on a sick boy and began to gain reputation as a healer. Black Elk explains to John that performing the vision with the Heyokas was what had granted him his healing power since a vision has to be performed before its powers can be used. Shortly after his first healing, Black Elk performed the Bison ceremony with the help of Fox Belly, another fellow medicine man. However, as the bison herd continued to disappear, so did his nation’s hoop. The bison herd was the Indian’s livelihood and protecting the sacred hoop had become Black Elk’s purpose. Black Elk and his people were deeply saddened.
In 1886, Black Elk traveled to New York to perform for Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show”. He moved around with the show for a while as he hoped to learn some of the things that the Wasichus know. Black Elk met the Queen while he was in London with Buffalo Bill but he ended up not going back to the United States with him. Instead he started working at Mexican Joe’s with another lost Sioux, a job that took him to Paris, Germany and Italy. While in Paris, he became quite close with a girl. When he became terribly homesick and ill, the girl’s family took care of him. While in convalescence, he witnessed another great vision. Healed and homesick, Black Elk headed back only to find his people starving and ridden with diseases.
With the 1889 treaty, the Indians were left with almost no land. The bison herd was nonexistent and the food, which the white men had promised to send them, never arrived. Black Elk’s father and his younger brother and sister died. Black Elk was forced to work in a store for the white men. Even though he thought that his healing powers had left him at first, he soon became the high priest of the ghost dance religion. As more Indians joined, the whites tried to prevent them from practicing the ghost dance. Black Elk and Good Thunder decided to move to the Brule encampment on Wounded Knee. They soon found out that Sitting Bull was dead because the whites had killed him on account of resisting arrest.
As more Indians came to Wounded Knee, bruised and beaten, so did soldiers. Black Elk, along with about 20 more Indians, did his best trying to hold off the soldiers but the massacre was inevitable. Black Elk and the Red Crow managed to survive but as the fight went on back and forth, the massively outnumbered and outgunned Indians had no choice but to surrender. In the end, Black Elk had lost the battle along with his purpose since he hadn’t been able to enact the vision that had been granted to him.