The book Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, which we will discuss in this article, we don’t just read about this man. As the Lakota himself tells, it is not the story of his life. He says: for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. As he mentions, what is important is not the story of his life, but the time and place he experienced, which was experienced by many other men at the time. As he repeats on the book, it is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things. All living animals and plants are children of one mother and their father is one spirit. Black Elk and John G. Neihardt wrote this book not as the story of one individual, but as the story of a mighty vision given to a man, who, according to Black Elk himself, was too weak to use it. As we will see in this article, and in the author’s own words, this book is the story of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, but a tree that nevertheless withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.
In my view, there are many interesting quotations we can extract from this book and from the words of Black Elk. He says at some point: that mighty view, is of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost. Here it seems to imply how perception plays a crucial role in the corruption of men, what he understands as the wrong way, a way that forms part of this world but a way which detaches ourselves or derails us from reaching that spiritual state. These words also describe the mighty vision Black Elk had. On it he does not just defines how is an spiritual state, but also explains how to reach it. He tells us that a good thing cannot be done alone by a man. First an offering is required, and then to send a voice to the spirit of the world, to help him to be true. Other rituals are required, as we will see.
The native American explains how the pipe came to be. He explains that natives fill the sacred pipe with the bark of the red willow; but before smoking it, he says it is important to understand how it is made, and what it means. These four ribbons hanging on the stem are the four quarters of the universe. The black one is for the West, where the thunder being live, who send us rain; the white one for the North, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the East, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the South, where comes the summer and the power to grow. These four spirits equal to one spirit. The way it works with the pipe is that Black Elk lights the pipe and after that, he offers it to the powers that are one power, and send forth a voice to them. Then people should smoke together. Some of the words told by Black Elk to the spirit are: great spirit, great spirit, my grandfather, all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike. With tenderness have these come up out of the ground. Look upon these faces of children without number and with children in their arms, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.
The book goes through periods of his life. During his boyhood, Black Elk knew about Wasichus (white man) and about their lies and greed, about their worship of the yellow metal (gold) and of their intentions for building rails to reach mines. In fact, natives knew about white men arrival even before their actual encounter with the West. In one dream, a holy man drinks water, and then dreams before Wasichus arrival, about their coming, about the four-leggeds going back to the earth and about the Lakota’s living in grey houses, when the Wasichus throw a web on them.
At a very early age does Black Elk see his great vision. In the paragraph in which this is discussed, the medicine men speaks about a dream he has, in which he meets with the cardinal points: East, West, North and South. All those cardinal points have a symbology and animals are related to each one of them. In that same dream, Black Elk dreams about Wasichus and their arrival. He felt after that dream that the grandfathers in the flaming rainbow tepee had cured him from an almost sure death. He was though glad to have visited the wonderful place of the dreaming, with wonderful horses, life and nature. The vision goes into much detail and has a number of symbols that will return to him, his dreams and thoughts, through all his life. The dream vision had a huge impact on his life and he believed it to be a vision to return to the bloom of life. It was therefore directing Black Elk all his life.
Native Americans had a very different way of understanding the world around them. Just to give an example of this. When they killed hunting deers or other animals, they offered them to the great spirit, to all the wild things that eat flesh, so children will also have plenty. We also see the differences on the stories and tales they explained. The High Horse’s courting tale is an example. High Horse wants a love and offers her father two horses in exchange. The father rejects the offer. Then High Horse finds out that there is another candidate, so he offers four horses, but the father still refuses. Then high horse offers to the girl to run away together, to which the girl refuses. High horse gets so sick about her that tells her he will die if she does not go with him. But the girl wants to be bought. Then high horse and Red Deer, a friend of him, plan to take her by force while all her family is asleep. The first attempt fails. On the second attempt, High Horse paints himself white, like a spirit, and tries taking her, but he fails again. Then High Horse runs away and after joining Red Deer and a bunch of horses, he decides to return to the girl. This time, on war mode, he asks to exchange girl for horses to the girl’s father, to what the father accepts. Not because of the exchange, but because of the courage shown. The lesson learnt is that her father only accepts marriage with his daughter after High Horse shows courage and maturity.
Another difference relates to what is important for them, compared to what it was for Wasichus. The encounter with gold makes Wasichus to become crazy about the metal, something natives did not bother about, as there was nothing they could do with it. The gold though was in an area where the natives played and the place was also on the vision dream in which he saw the spirits taking him to the centre of the world. The area was important to them because it was sacred.
In one of the chapters, we read about Crazy Horse, a holy man who had also a vision in which he went into the world where there was nothing but the spirits of all things. That was the real world behind this one, and everything seen here was something like a shadow from that world. Crazy Horse was on his horse in that world and the trees and the grass and the stones and everything was made of spirit, and nothing was hard, and everything seem to float. His horse was only a shadow and this was how he got his name, because of his horse queer’s way of dancing.
According to Black Elk, the power of his vision made Crazy Horse great. He had been in the world of the spirits, so he was not scared to return. He was a really brave man and was historically important for the Lakota’s. He fought greatly and died with honour, after his courage in battling Wasichus. In the chapter “Walking the Black Road”, we read about Crazy Horse and others getting caught by Wasichus and surrendering to them. All of this happened after another battle in which the Lakota’s won and expelled the Three Stars cavalry from their land. The death of Crazy Horse is remembered heroically but also sadly. His family took his body away, nobody knows where. Black Elk tells us that it does not matter where his body lies, for it is grass; but where his spirit is, it will be good to be.
After the surrounding of Crazy Horse, the Wasichus tried directing the Lakotas to a new agency, but some of them ran away to Canada. Black Elk was among them and he was fifteen years old that winter. At the time, he thought much of his vision and wondered when his duty was due to come. He says that the grandfathers showed him his people walking on the black road, or how the nation’s hoop was going to be broken. The grandfathers showed him how the flowering tree was going to be withered. However, Black Elk saw on his vision he would bring the hoop together with the power which was given to him, and made the holy tree to flower in the centre. So that afterwards he would find the red road for his people again. Black Elk believed that partly this happened already, and he wondered when his power would grow, so that the rest might be as he had seen in his vision. As the story moves, Black Elk shows his visionary powers, like when he notices bisons around. These creatures had great importance for American indians, it was a very important part of their diet and were venerated as spiritual beings.
In the chapter the Compelling Fear, we read about the moment when Black Elk is encouraged to fulfil tasks assigned by the grandfathers in his vision, to overcome his fears and to fulfil his mission. We read about the community staging Black Elk’s vision with black and white horses symbolising the four coordinates, with four maidens and gold men symbolising the grandfathers. Horse rider’s were all painted in different colours, depending on whether they mounted horses symbolising East, West, North or South. The four maidens represented the four coordinates, and were given different objects; North a healing husband and a white goose wing; East a holy pipe; South a flowering stick; West a nation’s hoop. The maidens, good and beautiful, held in their hands the life of the nation. In the meantime, Black Elk carried a red stick representing the sacred arrow, the power of the thunder beings of the West.
All of this was set up before the dance began. For dancing, first the grandfathers sang to all four rider groups, East, West, North and South, and all of them moved facing the coordinates. Then the four maidens moved, and put themselves in line to the West, together with the groups. Black Elk came from the sacred tepee and mounted his horse, facing West. More singing by the grandfathers occurred and it all evolved on the vision, and the thunder cloud was coming on with lighting on its front and many voices in it, and the split-tail swallows swooped above us in a swarm. The singing was basically a playing to the four quarters for support.
After the dance, Black Elk felt like flying, not touching the earth. He felt very happy, people and animals felt healthier and happier. Black Elk explains on this same chapter that from that time on, he woke up early always to see the daybreak star, and when it came out, the ones that were looking at it said, behold the star of understanding.
Black Elk tells in another chapter, The Dog Vision, that he saw two men from his vision, at sunset, asking him to perform his duties towards their people, the Ogalalas. Black Elk at the time seemed to be on a kind of crisis period. He considered the thunder beings as relatives. He felt that those beings abandoned him, and even though thunder beings helped him in curing people, at this point could not help them to save that nation, the Ogalalas.
The story goes through a process, reaching a point for implementing what was shown on his vision. In Black Elk’s language, when the grasses began to show their faces again, he was happy, for he could hear the thunder beings coming in the earth and he could hear them saying: it is time to do the work of his grandfathers. The first duty was that one of lamenting. To do that, he needed to choose a wise old medicine man, who could offer the pipe to the six powers and to the four-leggeds and to the wings of the air. The man he chose was Few Tails.
Black Elk explains that lamenting must be done far away. They walk far and chose a place where to implement the lamenting ritual. They made the earth sacred there by spreading sage upon it, made offerings West, East, South and North and put a flowering stick in the middle. Then the lamenting started, offering to the spirits, begging for understanding. The story then goes much into detail, a detail that wont be discussed here. After the lamenting animals came from all four corners and spoke to Black Elk about the coming of the great spirits, the thunder being nation, he could hear the neighing of horses and the sending of great voices. Then, out of darkness and out of the fire, the two men of his great vision (who seemed heads of dogs peeping), came dust as a swarm of many-coloured butterflies. Those men, after various transformations, became voices speaking to Black Elk. He slept and visions of his people came on his dreams, of his nation being ill. Then faces and heads of animals being happy. After this ritual, Black Elk offered the pipe again to the six powers.
The book tells that this vision of the dogs should be performed on earth to help their people, and because people were sad and discouraged, he should do this with Heyokas, who are sacred fools, doing everything wrong or backwards to make people laugh. The Heyoka ceremony is basically the dog vision done through these Heyokas. According to Black Elk, only those who had visions of the thunder beings of the West can act as Heyokas. They have sacred power and share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision passes, and the world becomes greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like rain. In the Heyoka ceremony, everything is done backward, first happy and then darker, so it is easier for the power to come afterwards. The idea of the Heyoka ceremony and of the cosmovision in general is that truth has two faces, laughing and weeping. This ceremony also tells that when people feels too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see.
The book goes through the dramatic change experienced by native Americans when the Wasichus moved them to live outside their territory. Black Elk and his people came to live on houses provided to them. Those houses had a square shape, which shocked them, as everywhere they stayed was circle. According to natives, the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. Black Elk says: in the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred loop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, people flourished. The flowering tree was the living centre of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are the stars… The sun moves on a circle, birds make nests in round shapes. Even seasons go in circles. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood. Tepees are in circle, and even the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the great spirit meant for us to hatch our children. The medicine man explains that Wasichus put natives now in square shapes and that this affects the maturing of children into adults, delays it.
In the great vision, Black Elk sees the four-rayed herb and sees it on the lamenting again. This he knew was a herb for curing. Following his great vision he manages to find the herb. Not randomly, as he needed the herb next day to cure a child. It seemed to be destiny that he found the herb just a day after he needed it. In order to cure the child, first he smoked the pipe to the six powers and passed it for all to smoke. Then he started making a rumbling thunder sound on the drum. Greenness comes after thunder, he says. The voice of the drum is also an offering to the spirit of the world. Its sound arouses the mind and makes man feel the mystery and power of things.
The boy was on the tepee North East side and went left to right, entering the south. The South is the source of life, and man approaches North when hair becomes white. Black Elk understands the East as a source of understanding, the source of light. He says then: does he not return to where he began, to his second childhood, there to give back his life to all life, and his flesh to the earth whence it came? The more you think about this, the more meaning you will see in it.
Black Elk had the pipe, the herb to cure and the drum. Then asked for a wooden cup with water, and an eagle bone whistle, which represented the spotted eagle of his great vision. He started playing the drum and calling the spirits, naming what he possessed to cure the child. He went next to the child, stamped on the earth, blowing air on him, chewing the herb and putting on the cup with water, then a virgin gave it to the boy. The ceremony continues, allowing Black Elk to cure children.
The medicine man also discusses on the powers of the bison and the Elk. In the vision, Black Elk sees a red bison. To use the power of the bison, Black Elk had to perform that part of his vision. To do that, he got support of another medicine man, Fox Belly. What they did was to paint a red road, and Fox Belly made little bison tracks all along on both sides of it, meaning that the people walking there should get the endurance and power of the bison, facing the great white cleansing wind of the world. Black Elk was also painted red, like the man of his vision before turning into a bison, and wore bison horns. On the left horn hung a piece of the daybreak-star herb, which bears the four-rayed flower of understanding.
Then the Elk ceremony started. The elk was believed to be found on the south, and in relation to that belief, this ceremony was performed to search for the source of life and for the mystery of growing. To implement it six elks and four virgins were needed. The Elks’ power represented in his vision was supposed to be nourished by the four quarters, and from the sky and the earth. Therefore, it was represented by six elks. The four virgins represented the life of the nation’s hoop, four quarters, therefore four virgins.
We won’t go through all the specifics of this ceremony, but just to say that Black Elk described the objects brought by the maidens, how they entered the tepee, and said that nothing could live well, except in a manner suited to the way the power of the world lives and moves to do its work.
After the discussion of these ceremonies, we read about Black Elk leaving his nation and travelling with the Wasichus. He first mentions about the crazy and awful slaughtered of the bison, and on how Wasichus completely erased them from the earth. Then he goes on in saying that Wasichus changed the shape and form how natives lived, putting them in square shape houses, with no space for the flowering tree at the centre.
Black Elk continued thinking about his vision, and about his aim of saving the nation’s hoop, and of making the holy tree to bloom in the centre of it. In that great vision, they planted the herb of understanding after taking root on earth. Thinking about all of this, he felt to cry, for the sacred hoop was broken and scattered. Then he found out there was an offer to participate on a show across the ocean, and he thought that by going, would learn the secret of the Wasichus. He thought that by seeing the great world of the Wasichus, he would be able to understand how to bring the sacred hoop together and to make the tree to bloom again at the centre of it.
A hundred people, including Black Elk, went for that long trip. They travelled first by train, visiting few cities along the way. When they reached towns such as Chicago or New York, he felt really sad. He saw people not taking care for each other like they did in their nation. Wasichus took things from each other. Some had more than they could use, others had nothing at all. People had forgotten the earth was their mother.
He kept repeating to himself and aloud that was feeling sick and in despair. He wanted to go back home, but even after living in New York, and after doing those shows, felt that had not learn anything yet for his people. So Black Elk joined those crossing the Atlantic. At some point crossing the ocean, rough sea made natives feel sick and they even thought would die. During the journey, they rejected Wasichus’ offer to tie themselves into floating objects, and instead they wore dresses to die, while singing death songs. After a while bison were thrown away into the water. Black Elk felt sad about this, because he believed that part of the power of his people was lost with the bisons.
Then they arrived to London, where they continued performing shows. Black Elk even met the queen of England. He got a good impression of her in fact, of her kind comments and the care she showed towards all his people, the ones who were in London at least.
Native Americans toured also in Manchester and Paris. When Black Elk was in Paris, had a dream in which he flew back to his country as a spirit and oversaw the treaty of 1889, when the Wasichus bought some of his nation’s land. In this dream, he saw all his people from a cloud, all his family, friends and the whole community. That dream became a real event, as Black Elk would have foreseeing the future of his people. When he physically came back to his home, his mother told him that she saw him coming down from a cloud. This was an extraordinary event and the connection with his dream vision was taken as a great opportunity. Black Elk shared it with his mother for the first time. It is interesting reading the time taken by the medicine man to explain to his most close family his great vision, even at his young age.
After the experience abroad, Black Elk explains about the Messiah and the influence that had on him. He says that the period before encountering the Messiah was a time of despair. He keeps saying that he couldn’t eat lies, his people either, referring to all the lies and unfulfilled agreements signed by the Wasichus, which turned on a whole nation in starvation. At the same time, Black Elk felt like having lost his power while away across the Atlantic. He worried that could barely remember his dreams and his vision. It is at this time, that some rumours reached Black Elk, and natives in general, of a sacred man among the Paiutes, who would have talked to the great spirit in a vision. The great spirit would have told him how to save Indian people, how to make the Wasichus disappear, how to bring back all the bison and the people who were dead, and that there would be a new earth.
In a meeting with the spiritual men, three men, Good Thunder, Brave Bear and Yellow Breast, were told of a new world coming, which would bring plenty, like in the old times. The spiritual men gave red paint and two eagle feathers to Good Thunder, so to put this paint on their faces. Then, the three man were taught to perform a sacred ghost dance. By doing this, they could get on this other world when it came, and the Wasichus would not be able to get on, and so Wasichus would disappear. This reminded Black Elk of his vision of going back into the red road to reach this world. He thought that, perhaps if he would be helped, the tree would bloom again and his people prosper.
The spiritual man name was Wanekia. Among natives, it was believed he made his dead son to be alive again by having a long talk with him. He was even believed to make animals talk. He showed his great vision of big water, and green lands where all indians and bisons had lived. He taught natives to dance the ghost dance. Kicking Bear, from the Cheyenne Creek, had the first dance. The people who performed it, was able to see their dead relatives and to talk to them.
After listening all those stories, Black Elk wondered and decided to go and see that ghost dance. He came to believe his vision could be seen on that dance. In that performance dancers held their hands on a circle, and in the centre there was a tree painted red with most branches dead and few leaves still alive, like in his vision of the holy tree dying. The circle was like the sacred hoop giving the power to the tree to bloom again. We could see all objects in scarlet, and a pipe and eagle feathers. The experience of the ghost dance encouraged Black Elk to work in bringing his people back into the sacred hoop. He thought: they might walk again the red road in a sacred manner pleasing to the powers of the universe that are one power. This dance made him remember how the spirits took him to the centre of the earth and showed him the good things. He remembered how the six grandfathers taught him how to bloom the holy tree again.
So he decided to perform the ghost dance too. In the chapter Visions of the Otherworld, we read about this. He dressed on a sacred manner and before the dance began next morning, he went among the people standing around the withered tree. After that, he left and started crying, thinking about his family and people. Then, under the tree that never bloomed, he stood and cried again. With tears on his eyes, asked the great spirit to give life, leaves and singing bears, as in his vision.
After all these rituals, Black Elk felt the power. He thought that perhaps his vision, when from the centre of the earth he was shown all good and beautiful things in a great circle of peace, and maybe this land of his vision, was where all his people were going, and there they would live and prosper where no Wasichus were or could ever be. The performance obviously involved dancing, but also crying, laughing and some even felt on the floor.
At some point in the ceremony, Black Elk felt he was swinging off the ground and not touching land any longer. Then he felt down and saw a ridge right in front of him, and in the other side beautiful land, where many people camped in a great circle. Inside, horses eating grass, animals of all kinds scattered all over green hills, and singing hunters returned with their meat. Black Elk came then towards the centre of the hoop, where he saw a beautiful tree all green and full of flowers. He saw two men, who handled to him an object to be given to his people. He brought the memory of the holy shirts the two men wore, as those ghost shirts were believed to help.
After that, all people came together, danced, wept and Black Elk felt again like flying. Then he saw the ridge, a flame, and then six villages ahead of him in that beautiful land which was all clear and green in living light. Then he went to the centre of the circle, where once more he saw the holy tree all full of leaves and blooming. In there, there was a man standing with arms held wide in front of him, a very fine-looking man. Black Elk started looking at him, and the man changed colours. This man was so special. He claimed that all growing things belonged to him, and then he left like light in the wind.
After that, twelve men spoke, beautiful people was there, and twelve women were also there. Then Black Elk had to cross a dark river, then crossed it, saw his people and felt back into his body again. Right after this, the medicine man explained his vision to the old men, sang a song like the one sang by Wanekia under the flowering tree, and the air of it was that which he heard in the West after the twelve women had spoken.
There are some symbologies we can extract from that vision. The six villages provably represent the six grandfathers and Black Elk went to the sixth village, representing the spirit of the earth. The Wanekia might have been the red man on his vision, who turned into a bison and then into the four-rayed herb, the daybreak-star herb of understanding. The twelve men and women might have represented the moons of the year.
The ghost dance had great influence on native Americans, bringing hope and spirit to communities who had been in despair. In fact, the ghost dancing started to be seen by the Wasichus as something to be controlled. Different events happened, such as the arresting of Good Thunder for example. The people of Big Foots ran away from the Wasichus, but they were starving and freezing, so soldiers got them and brought them to Wounded Knee creek. In the chapter The butchering at Wounded Knee, it is explained the murdering of women, children and babies by the Wasichus and of all unarmed warriors, more than 100 of them, by 500 soldiers. These tragic events were also the result of Wasichus fear of that feeling of freedom brought about by the Ghost dancing.
The last part of the book is obviously about the end of a dream. In this chapter, we read what it seems to be a different version of Dancing with Wolves movie. Black Elk is encouraged by the Messiah and other natives, who out of huge anger, attacked and battled against the Wasichus. The medicine men charged with his horse on a battle, with a gun on his hand, and his arms wide opened, making the sound of geese. Just like he saw on his vision. Just like low geese flight when it comes a change in weather conditions. Black Elk was shot in that battle, and even though he was ready to die, at the end he was convinced by an old guy, a protector, not to ride on a suicide mission against the Wasichus. At the end, more soldiers came and the Lakota’s retreated and eventually surrendered. It was all lost, and how much it was lost. He ends saying: and I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth – you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
After reading, we realise about the importance of his vision. Black Elk was given the sacred cup and the sacred bow, to give life and death. He was given the sacred wind and the sacred herb, to heal others. The daybreak star and the pipe from the East; and from the South the nation’s sacred hoop and the tree that was to bloom. He says: to the centre of the world you have taken me and showed the goodness and the beauty and the strangeness of the greening earth, the only mother – and there the spirit shapes of things, as they should be, you have shown to me and I have seen. All of these objects represented nature and had great importance. The appearance of the pipe is an example, brought by a beautiful woman, able to kill but also a kind of symbol of the earth, asking people to plant the sacred tree. This women gave a pipe to the chief of the community who planted that tree at her request, a pipe with a bison calf carved on one side to mean the earth that bears and feeds us, and with twelve eagle feathers hanging from the stem, meaning the sky and the twelve moons. These were tied with a grass that never breaks. The pipe meaning was to help multiply his nation and therefore it helped them to be a good nation.