Black Elk Speaks Summary

John G. Neihardt

Black Elk Speaks

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Black Elk Speaks Summary

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Poet and author John G. Neihardt (1881–1973) met Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In Black Elk Speaks (1932), Neihardt relates the respected elder’s life story as well as the decline of the Sioux people as the nineteenth century came to an end. The work is considered a classic for its depiction of Native American history and beliefs.

Critics have questioned the extent to which this account is true; while translated by Black Elk’s son, Ben, and arranged by Neihardt, additional notes and edits were made by his daughter, Enid. However, the account has largely held up against such criticism and is valued in schools for adding to the history of westward expansion, especially the cruel human ramifications. Themes in Black Elk Speaks include personal spiritual development and resilience, and cultural preservation and annihilation.

Neihardt’s preface and postscript frame the biography and tribal history given by Black Elk (1863–1950). The elder decides to tell Neihardt his story because he has proven himself to be genuinely interested in Sioux spirituality—Neihardt’s previous books included the epic poetry collection The Song of the Indian Wars (1925). Black Elk says that his story is emblematic of Sioux culture and lives during his lifetime; if it was just his story, it would not be worth the energy to tell. They smoke red willow bark in a sacred pipe, then begin.

Lakota healer Nicholas Black Elk (1863–1950) was born “in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed,” that is, December 1863. His earliest memories involve moving west to escape US soldiers and white settlers. Before the imposition of reservation life, the Sioux ruled the great plains. His memories detail how the Sioux hunted, cooked, and worshipped god, as well as rituals for fertility, healing, and war.

Black Elk first hears supernatural voices at five. His grandfather gives him his first bow and arrows, and later that night he sees two men singing a sacred song in the sky; he is too afraid to tell anyone about what he has seen.

His next major vision happens when he is nine. He is ill and lying in his parent’s teepee. He travels through a cloud world. He meets a horse who says he will tell him the history of his people. Eleven other horses appear and lead him to a teepee with a rainbow door. Behind this door are six grandfathers who represent a great power on the earth. They each give him a sacred object and explain its meaning (a bow, the power to destroy; a wooden cup with water, the will to life). They each say what his powers are and what is expected of him in life. They predict that he will have the power to destroy foes, that he will save many people, and that the Sioux will experience many troubles. They charge him with protecting these objects in order to protect his people’s sacred hoop, or connection with the earth and each other. Black Elk is honored to be chosen for this mission, but is also filled with trepidation. Throughout the book, he questions to what extent he will be able to meet the demands of these visions.

The United States, operating under a “manifest destiny” policy, continues to intrude on Sioux land; they extract mineral resources and kill buffalo.

Black Elk Speaks continually references the diminishing Sioux culture with each conflict they have with white Americans. Even under these assaults, Black Elk feels himself grow closer with the oneness of nature. Black Elk recalls how the gold rush in Montana and the execution of Transcontinental Railroad (which divided bison migration patterns in half) contributed to the famous Battle of Little Bighorn.

When the US annexes more Native American lands, Black Elk details how the culture is weakened by collaborating with newly formed Indian agencies and reservations. He suffers an emotional crisis when he cannot square the demands of his vision with life as it is occurring to his people.

His anxieties only worsen after US soldiers kill Crazy Horse, a famed leader, current cultural icon, and second cousin of Black Elk. Many Sioux, including Black Elk, move to Canada to avoid reservation life and future conflict with the US.

In Canada, Black Elk continues to distrust his destiny as a holy man. He documents several rituals, such as the horse dance and the heyoka ceremony. Though everyone in his community believes him to be a healer, Black Elk has his own doubts.

Black Elk ends up travelling to major cities in the US and Europe as part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He performs for the Queen’s Jubilee. In Paris, while recovering from an illness, he has another great vision.

When he returns to the States, he is older and saddened to see his former community eradicated by reservations. The bison, which were a cornerstone of Sioux life, are all dead. He performs a ghost dance to help the Sioux reconnect with their past and protest US incursions into Indian territory.

Black Elk wonders if the world should undergo an apocalypse. He describes the cruel death of Sitting Bull, a famous Sioux leader, and The Wounded Knee Massacre, where more than 200 Sioux were killed by the US military. He wants revenge, but is eventually talked out of a suicidal mission. He sees this defeat as the death of his vision and culture.

After the massacre, Black Elk sinks into a greater depression that his visions are not enough to help protect the Sioux. He blames himself for not fulfilling his visions, though there were insurmountable odds working against him.

Neihardt’s postscript shows Black Elk praying to the Great Spirit for help to protect his people. It begins to thunder and rain, and Black Elk weeps. He stops when the sky quickly clears itself, a sign of possible regeneration.