Book Review · dreams · Earth · morality · Native Americans · Winter

Black Elk


I have spent the last few days thinking and researching, to make sure I relay accurate information on this most beloved book I have read and reread every year or so. It is a true telling of events which took place during the life of Black Elk, a Holy Man, a shaman, of the Oglala, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota Nation. I understand now, why it took Mr. Neihardt thirty years to finalize that book.

It is my deepest hope, that if you read Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt, by Nicholas Black Elk, that you will get a glimpse of something sacred, a glimmer of your own connection to all other life. I hope you will see that greed for riches, purposeful cruelty and unkindness and destruction of the Earth are soul damaging.

Black Elk knew he would be interviewed by John Neihardt. He waited for him to arrive. He had been asked by another author for an interview, but he denied them. He knew that Neihardt would relay his message truthfully, and hoped that it would help his people. He had a spiritual connection to Neihardt, and even gave him a name, Flaming Rainbow.

When Black Elk was only nine years old, he had a Great Vision. It was so powerful that he was sick for days and he almost died. After he was healed from the experience, he lived like all the other boys, riding horseback, playing games that taught skills for hunting and fighting. He learned from his elders to help take care of those too young, old or sick to take care of themselves. His Vision was always with him. He was shown that the real world is in the Beyond, and that Earthly life is but as a dream.

When Black Elk was young, he said the two-legged and four-legged lived together as relatives. But more and more Wasichus came, seeking the yellow metal they worship and makes them crazy. They built their roads and scared away the bison.

Wasichu is and interesting word. It is used to mean: white people, but it also means:  something holy, incomprehensible.

As a child, Black Elk’s family had to move many times to escape the Wasichus, who treated the Native Peoples like vermin. The Washichus came when the People were most vulnerable, sleeping in their tepees, naked under thier buffalo robes, trying to keep warm during the cold winters. The soldiers came in the night and shot into the tepees and the people ran out to die, naked in the snow.

When Black Elk was only thirteen, he was too young to fight, but he was at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He said he didn’t feel badly for the dead soldiers, because they had come to kill their mothers and fathers.

After Little Big Horn, the People scattered to escape the soldiers. The soldiers came after them without mercy, destroying holy sites, burning and shooting into tepees, killing women and babies as they ran out into the cold.

The People were sent to an Agency near Ft. Robinson. Black Elk was saddened by all of the People who sided with the Wasichus and became fat on the white mans’s food, while those who remained true to their culture starved and froze. Many babies died. The soldiers had destroyed the winter stores of dried meat (papa) and the People had to eat their ponies, who died in the blizzards. Black Elk said he thought the chiefs who made their marks on the treaty must have been crazy from drinking whiskey (minne wakan) that the Wasichus gave them. Only a foolish or crazy man could sell Mother Earth.

Crazy Horse was Black Elk’s second cousin and leader of their band of Oglala. He fought hard to keep the Wasichus off, but the cold and hunger were too much. The People were dying and so Crazy Horse surrendered to the soldiers at the Red Cloud Agency near Ft. Robinson.

Black Elk was fourteen. He and his family had enough to eat and they camped near Red Cloud Agency, though they talked about escaping to Grandmother’s Land (Canada,) to be with Sitting Bull and Gall.

Crazy Horse died at Ft. Robinson. They lied to him and used his own people, who sided with the Wasichus, to trick him. He thought he was helping his people. It was the only way they could kill him, because he was a powerful warrior and could not be killed with bullets. They had to get close enough to use a knife.

In the summer, Black Elk’s band traveled to Grandmother’s Land, though they were pursued by Crow, who sided with the Wasichus. The winter in Canada was so cold it was hard to find food. They ran out of papa. Black Elk was told by a coyote where the bison were. His family believed in his power and went with him to find the bison. It was so cold, the rifle froze to his hands. Black Elk had to tear his skin to get it off.  He manageed to kill four bison. His father and another man had to do the butchering because Black Elk’s hands were frozen.

In the night it was so cold, Black Elk could hear whimpering outside the shelter. When he looked out, he saw a band of porcupines huddled as near as they could, to stay warm. He didn’t chase them away because he felt sorry for them.

In the summer the band tried to go back to their old home, but they were pursued by Blackfeet who sided with the Wasichus. They ended up back at Ft. Robinson.

Black Elk’s Vision started getting more powerful. He was often afraid he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do to save his people. An old medicine man convinced him to perform the Horse Dance from his Vision. From this he saw a lot of his Vision come true.

Black Elk became a powerful medicine man. He was shown a powerful herb in his Vision, the daybreak-star herb, which blooms in four colors, blue, white, red and yellow; and a sacred pipe through which he sent offerings to the Six Powers (North, South, East, West, Up and Down.) Directions are sacred and we always face south, which is the source of life, and move from left to right. Black Elk was the vessel through whom many sick people were cured.

Black Elk said everything the power the world does, is in a circle. The sky is round. He heard that the Earth is round, like a ball, and so are the stars. The wind in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles. The sun rises and sets in a circle, as does the moon, and both are round. Seasons form a great circle, changing and going back to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so is everything where power moves. The tepees are round, like bird nests, and set in a circle where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.

Wasichus put us in square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying.

When Black Elk was 23 in 1886, he went to Europe with Buffalo Bill. He thought it would help him to see how to help his people, as in his Vision, to see the great world of the Wasichu.

He did not like what he saw in New York. He saw the Wasichus did not care for each other the way his people did. They would take everything they could from each other, so some had more than they could use, and many had not enough.

The trip to Europe was frightening and there was a terrible storm. They finally arrived in London and stayed there for six moons.

One day Grandmother England (Queen Victoria) came to see a private show. She told them the were the best looking people she knew, and if they were hers, she wouldn’t let them be taken around in a show like that.

Black Elk liked Grandmother England because she was little and fat and she was a fine woman. (It is good to know here, that Black Elk thought women should be fat, because it meant that they got to eat; a thing that was not always so for the women at home, who often starved.) She was good to them. Maybe if she was their Grandmother, it would have been better for his People.

Black was in Paris and had a brief infatuation with a French girl. It was not strong enough to keep him from being homesick. He had a Vision of his home and his mother. He was very sick and the French girl’s family took care of him until he was well enough to go back home. Buffalo Bill gave him a ticket and $90 and a big farewell dinner.

The fate of his People was not any better. The Agency people did not give all the food that was promised in the Black Hills Treaty. There was a drought and nothing would grow. The bison had all been killed and left to rot on the Plains.

The Wasichus made yet another treaty to take even more land, though the People didn’t want it. The Three Stars, (General Crook) came and took the land and penned the people up.

While Black Elk was in Europe, his power was gone. Some people came to ask him to help cure a sick person. He was afraid his power would not come back, but it did. So he cured as many as he could. That winter measles killed many who were already weak from hunger, and little children died of whooping cough.

Then in the summer of 1889, there was strange news of a Messiah who lived out west near the Sierras in Mason Valley, Nevada. His name was Wavoka. At first Black Elk did not believe the stories he heard.

The winter of 1889 was very bad. Many People became ill. Black Elk’s father died of the illness. He had already lost his younger brother and sister while he was away in Europe, and he felt all the good was going away. He worked in a store for the Wasichus, so he could make sure his mother could eat.

He heard more and more about Wavoka from close friends. He wanted to meet this sacred man, who lived among the Paiutes, who had a Spirit Vision. The Great Spirit told him how to save the Native Peoples and make the Wasichus disappear, and bring back the bison and dead relatives. There would be a new Earth.

At first Black Elk did not believe this, but after he heard people he trusted talk about the Ghost Dance and how they saw their dead relatives and talked to them, and he heard there would be a Ghost Dance on Wounded Knee Creek, he decided to go. He could not believe what he saw. It was like his Vision was coming to life. He became happy and felt it was possible to bring his people back to their sacred hoop and they would walk the red road again, in the sacred manner pleasing to the Powers of the Universe that are One Power. He believed his Vision was coming true at last.

More and more People did the Ghost Dance. They believed it would help them regain their land and bring back the bison. The Wasichus forbade this dance and Black Elk was warned that the soldiers were coming to arrest him. He and his friend, Good Thunder went to stay with friends and ended up at Pine Ridge.

In December 1890 when Black Elk was 27, the soldiers came to slaughter all the people camped at Wounded Knee Creek. Black Elk saw all the dead women, babies and little children scattered along the gulches. It was one long grave of innocents who never did any harm and only tried to run away.

Black Elk wanted revenge after he saw that. He did his best to shoot as many soldiers as he could. As he was going up a hill to loop around, a bullet struck him and tore open his abdomen. Another man helped him stay on his horse and as soon as he could, he tore a blanket into strips to hold Black Elk’s insides in. He made him go back to the Mission to rest.

A powerful bear medicine man came to heal his wound, after three days Black Elk could walk, though he had to keep the blanket strips wrapped around his belly.

Black Elk wanted to go back to fight, though his mother tried to stop him. Red Cloud was with them and he told the warriors that the winter was too hard and who was left of the women and children were starving and freezing. He would make peace with the soldiers and make sure no one else was harmed.

So the massacre ended, but to Black Elk, the beautiful dream of the People had died there in the bloody mud, buried in the harsh snow of the blizzards. Black Elk felt he had failed to fulfill his Vision.

It has not been clear to me, though it is hinted in other books, that the love of Black Elk’s life was killed there at Wounded Knee. Black Elk was very private about such things. There was a girl who pretended he was her horse, when they were children. She later became his confidant. They lost touch with each other as she was from a different band, but I think she was there, at Wounded Knee.

After Wounded Knee, Black Elk stayed on at the Mission and eventually married Katie War Bonnet. They had three children, two of them died young, but Ben was the translator for Black Elk Speaks. Katie died in 1901.

Black Elk’s second wife was Anna Brings White, and they had three children. Two of them died from tuberculosis, but Lucy (Looks Twice) lived to be an old woman. She was raised Catholic.

Black Elk became a Catholic catechist and had his children raised Catholic. He did not tell them of his Vision and they grew up being told that the Oglala religion was nonsense.

In her later years, Lucy told Enid Neihardt (John’s daughter who did the stenography for him when he interviewed Black Elk) that “Black Elk Speaks” was all true. She finally learned, after all the years of seeing small signs here and there, that her father, Black Elk, was true to his words he said to John Neihardt, when asked why he didn’t tell his children his life story. Black Elk said, “My children still have to live in this world.” He did not want them to suffer for believing in the old religion. Children back then were taken away from their parents and not allowed to learn their ways or speak their own language. They were severely punished if they tried. Black Elk believed he was protecting his children. Enid Niehardt wrote a book called “Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow,” to give more insight this story of Black Elk.

I highly recommend “Black Elk Speaks.” To learn further, I also recommend: “When the Tree Flowered” by John Neihardt, “The Sacred Pipe” by Joseph Epes Brown and “Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala,” by Michael F. Steltencamp (which gives a negative view of Black Elk’s powers, but also gives information as to his life after Wounded Knee) and “Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow” by Enid Neihardt.

One last thing, if I could, I wish so much I could go back and save Black Elk and his People. Something sweet, and wonderful and sacred was lost to us all, when they were lost.

3 thoughts on “Black Elk

  1. Fabulous post Jeanice. Have always been fascinated by Native Americans and their lives and beliefs. I have a lovely book of photos of First Nation chiefs – amazing characters. I read a book years ago called Silver Birch, about a Native chief and Spirit Guide, have you seen it? Cannot recall the name of the author and lost the book when moving. Just a fantastic read.

    1. Thank you, Jane. Black Elk was a precious soul. I haven’t seen Silver Birch, but I will look for it next time I go to the bookstore! My husband collects books on Native Americans and we have lage portraits of Sitting Bull and Quana Parker in our dining room- love them. Thanks again!

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