John G. Neihardt

Black Elk Speaks

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Black Elk Speaks Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “Black Elk Speaks” by John G. Neihardt includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 26 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Differences Between Lakota and American Societies and Necessity of Following One’s Duty.

Black Elk Speaks (1932) is a book written by John G. Neihardt that relates the life of Black Elk, a member of the Ogalala band of the Lakota Native Americans. Though Neihardt is the book’s author, the book is based on a conversation between Black Elk and Neihardt and is presented as a transcript of Black Elk’s words, though Neihardt made some edits to the transcript. The book follows Black Elk from his boyhood to his involvement in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

Plot Summary

The opening chapters of the book describe Black Elk’s childhood. During this time, the Lakota live around the Black Hills mountains in South Dakota. However, the Wasichus (the Lakota term for white people) hope to mine for gold in the Black Hills, leading to fighting between the Wasichus and the Lakota. Black Elk is aware of this fighting, though he is too young to participate in any of the battles. At the age of 9, Black Elk experiences what he deems his “great vision” (16). In the vision, Black Elk is taken to the clouds, where he meets with six Grandfather spirits, who provide Black Elk with several powerful gifts. Black Elk sees numerous images providing him with sacred knowledge about the universe and the Lakota nation, which suggest that Black Elk has a duty to help his people heal and regain power. However, upon his return to his tribe, Black Elk is too scared to tell anyone about what he has seen.

As Black Elk grows older, the Wasichus become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to take the Black Hills. Black Elk’s people join with Crazy Horse, a Lakota chief who is renowned for his powers in battle and believed to be invincible. Crazy Horse rallies the Lakota to fight back against the Wasichus, winning several battles. However, the Wasichus eventually force Crazy Horse to surrender, who joins the other Lakota chiefs in signing a treaty giving the Black Hills to the Wasichus.

Black Elk and the other Lakota are rounded up by the Wasichus and forced to live on reservations and abandon many of their customs. Black Elk frequently experiences visions related to his boyhood vision, and he believes he is being called upon by his Grandfathers to fulfill his duty and help his suffering people. Though frightened by this, Black Elk decides to confide in a medicine man, who convinces Black Elk to perform his visions in ceremonies for the rest of his people. By performing the vision for the public, Black Elk gains the ability to use the powers granted him in his vision. After being approached by a Lakota man about a sick boy, Black Elk uses a four-rayed herb that he had seen in his vision to heal the boy.

In his early 20s, Black Elk is given the opportunity to join a traveling Native American show lead by Buffalo Bill. Black Elk is taken by wagon train to New York, where he performs Native American songs at Madison Square Garden. Black Elk is shocked to see the Wasichu society and believes them to live greedily and disconnected from the natural world. The show travels to England, where they perform for the Queen of England. After Black Elk gets stranded in Manchester, he joins another traveling show lead by Mexican Joe. The show travels to Paris, where Black Elk finds a Parisian girlfriend.

After several years in Paris, Black Elk has a vision of a cloud bringing him back to his tribe. Black Elk decides to travel home, where he finds his people in an even worse state than when he had left, as they are starving and have lost even more of their land to the Wasichus. Rumors spread of a Native American man called Wovoka, who claims that a new world is coming, where Native Americans can live free of the Wasichus. In order to gain acceptance to this coming world, Wovoka preaches that Native Americans must practice in a sacred ceremony called the ghost dance. Black Elk begins joining ghost dances, where he has several visions of the spiritual world.

The Wasichus grow frightened of the ghost dance movement, believing it may lead the Lakota to fight back against them. Wasichu soldiers seek to crack down on ghost dance practitioners. The increasing tension culminates in the Wounded Knee Massacre, where soldiers shoot at a group of Lakota lead by Chief Big Foot. After hearing gunshots, Black Elk comes to fight back against the soldiers, where he witnesses a huge pile of Lakotas slain by the soldiers. Enraged by the massacre, Black Elk and other Lakota form a war party, hoping to get revenge on the Wasichu soldiers. However, Chief Red Cloud eventually convinces them that fighting is futile, leading to the Lakota’s final surrender to the Wasichus.

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