Black Elk is the protagonist of Black Elk Speaks, the only character readers see close up, from the inside out. He is the first-person narrator of the story, and part of what readers know about him is conveyed by the voice he uses in the narrative, which is modest and generous in deflecting the reader’s attention from his personal story to the story of his tribe. Black Elk wins the reader’s faith by using friends to corroborate his narration when his own memory is questionable. He sometimes shows a gentle sense of humor or irony, and he does not sound angry or vengeful as he narrates the story of the extreme difficulties his tribe has endured; on the other hand, he is proud and dignified and does not dismiss the wrong done to him, either. He is a holy man, and his spirituality comes through in the story he tells.
Black Elk’s character is developed in two main ways: in the process of claiming his privileged place as a holy man and healer, and as a member of the Oglala Sioux, in the course of the tribe’s increasingly adverse relationship with American whites (whom he calls Wasichus).
A vision granted to him at the age of nine empowers Black Elk to lead and minister to his people, and especially to maintain their “sacred hoop” — their cultural identity and coherence as a tribe. This is a mandate that he now says he has failed to enact. Black Elk’s growing anxiety about carrying out the promise of the vision is evident throughout the narrative. In the immediate aftermath of the vision, he repeatedly felt “queer” because he had been so marked for a special destiny; he feels separated from other members of the tribe. Black Elk typically feels somewhat daunted, rather than overly proud, at having been singled out: He is often worried that he may be unworthy of the power given to him; in any case, he specifies that the power is not his own; he is only an instrument of something much greater working through him. Despite some misgivings, he develops a confident-but-modest sense of himself; and in his late teen years, enacts his great vision within a public ritual in order to validate his tribal role. He performs individual healings, but the circumstances of Sioux life at the time of American westward expansion prevent him, he laments, from preserving his tribal culture.
Respectful of his elders, his parents, the various medicine men who support him in becoming a holy man and healer, and the Sioux chiefs, Black Elk consults with medicine men, listens to his elders’ stories, obeys his father, and makes his mother happy. His characteristic regard for those older than himself reflects the values of his culture, which greatly esteemed the wisdom that comes from age and experience. Indeed, this respect for authority might have contributed to the vulnerability of the Indians, some of whom initially had some trust in “the grandfather at Washington” (the U.S. President). Black Elk is also shown being respectful of Queen Victoria, for whose jubilee celebration he participated in a command performance as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Black Elk also exhibits the bravery for which the Sioux were known. As a young boy, he participates wholeheartedly in the games that test and challenge his manhood. He hunts with his father, using a bow his grandfather made for him when he was five. He takes his first scalp at the Battle of Little Bighorn, when he was thirteen. Empowered by his vision, he is fearless in battle with the cavalry. Like other members of his tribe, he endures great privation with courage during the transition to reservation life. His greatest hero among the Sioux is Crazy Horse, famed for his bravery.
Despite Black Elk’s holiness and healing powers, which mark him as a rare individual, and despite the fact that he is a brave warrior and hunter, he displays a wide range of ordinary human feelings, too. Illness and injury to others saddens him, he rejoices in the growth of new grass in the spring, and he is homesick while in Canada and while touring Europe with the Wild West Show. Black Elk talks about a Parisian girlfriend and her family, but doesn’t mention the women he later married or his children. He enjoys feasting, singing, and dancing. The most traditional activities of the tribe, such as hunting bison and cutting tepee poles, define his best times.
In his interaction with whites, usually in the person of U.S. Cavalry Soldiers, Black Elk shows himself to be a man of integrity, honesty, and shrewd judgment. He sees his first white man at Fort Robinson when he is ten years old and thinks only that he looks sick (because of his paleness). Soon, however, he finds himself, with all the Sioux, entrenched in a genuine territorial war with the whites. Throughout this process, Black Elk maintains his sense of fairness: The Indian wanted nothing, he says, but to stay on the land he had lived on for centuries; the Indian did not want to make war on the whites just for the sake of making war. The treaty-making history of the Sioux with the U.S. Government clarifies that even after the Sioux had ceded Plains territory, they were robbed of more land in repeated violation of treaty terms. Black Elk’s values, reflective of his tribe’s, are fairness and honesty: He notes that the U.S. Government never compensated the Indians for confiscated horses and guns, despite the government’s promise; the U.S. Government did not pay the Indians for the territory they annexed; and U.S. Soldiers murdered their leaders Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Throughout his narrative, the whites’ greed for gold, for land, and even for bison bemuses Black Elk. However, Black Elk judges people individually rather than on the basis of race, describing his Parisian girlfriend and her family as good and caring people, for example. He reacts similarly to Queen Victoria and Buffalo Bill — even though they are white, too. He contends that the Crow Indians, on the other hand, are horse thieves and never to be trusted.
Black Elk’s most distinctive personal characteristic is his spirituality. His acceptance of his visionary experience and participation in the ghost dance, about 20 years later, show that Black Elk believes deeply in a divine power greater than himself. Throughout his daily life, he recognizes a divine presence — in a thunderstorm, in the coming of spring. In his deepest expression of sorrow at the dislocation his tribe has suffered, he is mindful of that spiritual reality: “We are prisoners of war while we are waiting here,” he says of reservation life. “But there is another world.” Black Elk converted to Catholicism in 1904, 14 years after the point at which Black Elk Speaks ends, and worked among the Sioux and other tribes as a catechist; those experiences are not included in his narrative.