Black Elk is an Ogalala Lakota, born in the Moon of the Popping Trees during the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed (December 1863). Three years later, his father was wounded in the Battle of the Hundred Slain (the Fetterman Fight). During the first three years of Black Elk’s life, his tribe was increasingly embattled with the white man, who was motivated by greed for gold and land. He compares that to the ancient past of the Indians, when animals and human beings lived together in harmony. Black Elk introduces and invites his older friend, Fire Thunder, who fought in the Battle of the Hundred Slain, to describe that battle. Fire Thunder explains that, fearful of encroaching white settlement, Chief Red Cloud organized a victorious Indian attack on white soldiers in December 1866. He describes a scene of great destruction in which even a surviving dog was shot to death with arrows. Black Elk resumes his description of his family’s journey west, away from the white man and their encampment. Hunting was poor, and people suffered from snowblindness during this cruel winter. When summer came, they moved again, and Black Elk recalls watching his five- and six-year-old friends play war games on horseback. Fire Thunder describes a second battle that took place in August 1867: The Indians suffered heavy losses in the Wagon Box Fight at the hands of white men using breech-loading Springfield Rifles. Black Elk’s friend Standing Bear confirms the location of their camp that winter. Black Elk began to hear voices the following summer, when he was four years old, and the voices frightened him. When he was five, at the time his grandfather gave him his first bow and arrows, Black Elk had a vision in which two men appeared in the sky singing a sacred song. Although he liked thinking about the vision, Black Elk was afraid to tell anyone about it.
This chapter introduces three central themes in Black Elk’s narrative: the great cultural and philosophical differences between Indians and whites that resulted in conflict and destruction as whites moved west; the visionary ideal of the perfect Indian society, which existed in the mythic past but was spoiled in the present by the actions of the whites; and, finally, the problems of autobiographical narrative, including the accuracy of memory, complicated in Black Elk’s case by the translation, transcription, and editing of his oral narrative by others.
At the time of Black Elk’s birth, the U.S. Civil War had slowed down westward expansion, both because the war consumed national efforts and because many able-bodied young and middle-aged men that would have immigrated had become war casualties. The decade between 1860 and 1870 was the first decade since the 1790s that did not witness a 30 percent growth in United States population. The Gold Rush of 1849 had diminished. Kansas became a state in 1861, and the next to enter the union would be Nebraska in 1867. Only about a third of Minnesota and Texas was inhabited by whites; the rest of what are now American States were territories. In 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads would join in Utah to form the Transcontinental Railroad.
Some of the most immediately apparent differences between Indian and white culture in this chapter seem merely superficial, but actually represent deep contrasts in worldview. One of these differences relates to the concept of space. At this time, the U.S. Government was annexing huge amounts of land, naming them “territories,” which the Indians had formerly inhabited. In addition to claiming “uninhabited” territory, the government imposed geopolitical boundaries that defined states and the nation, but nineteenth-century Indians refused to acknowledge these claims and boundaries. Indians maintained a sense of tribal boundary, marked by encampment and use of the land, but they did not share the Euro-American concept of land ownership. The U.S. Government struck treaties with the Indians, and then violated those treaties. And, to make room for the Transcontinental Railroad, the whites annihilated the bison that were food and a sacred animal to the Indians.
Many American Indian tribes, such as Black Elk’s, moved camp seasonally to take advantage of hunting, harvesting, or foraging opportunities. Black Elk most often refers to geographic locations according to features in the landscape, especially rivers, which were important as a source of water and food. Black Elk’s statement that he was born on the Powder River, rather than in Wyoming or South Dakota, is an expression of Indian culture that contrasts with the U.S. Government’s practice of marking out boundaries to control the ownership of land.
Another difference between the Indian and white worldviews relates to the calculation of time. Black Elk locates events in traditional Indian time, and Neihardt uses footnotes to translate these into familiar terms. Instead of months, Black Elk speaks of “moons,” which are described according to seasonal features: the Moon of the Popping Trees translates into December, the Moon of the Changing Season is October, the Moon When the Ponies Shed is May, and so on. Years are not enumerated in relation to the birth of Christ (B.C., A.D.), who is not the center of Indian spirituality, but are named according to distinct events: the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed, for example. This practice is also consistent with the oral culture of Black Elk’s tribe, for whom written numerals were not especially meaningful.
Related to Black Elk’s concept of time is his belief in an ancient, idyllic past, before the coming of the white man, when the Indians lived in their own land and were not hungry because humans and animals lived together in kinship and there was plenty for all to eat. Black Elk’s belief is similar to the myth of a Golden Age. Many cultures share the belief in a mythical golden age — when all creatures in the world lived in harmony, and pain and suffering were unknown; the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve is such a story. Frequently, the mythology of a culture is an attempt to explain its fall from that ancient innocence into the evil of the present. It is significant that the white man’s greed for gold and ownership of the land occasions the fall from harmony into disorder.
Black Elk calls the white man Wasichu, which Neihardt’s footnote explains is not a reference to skin color. The white man’s obsession with gold is the root of the terrible dislocation of Indian culture and the destruction of the land. In order to mine the gold, the white men wanted to build a road through Indian country and, although they claimed they needed only a strip of land as wide as a wagon, it is clear that they wanted as much as they could get. The Indians feared that this road — and the path of the Union Pacific Railway — would frighten away the bison, which finally did happen. A direct connection is made between the white man’s greed and the lamentable alienation of animals and humans into separate little islands, which became smaller and smaller in comparison to the flood of the white men.
In this chapter, Black Elk’s elders threaten the children with the white man, so that they grew up in fear of whites; the young children act out their war games against imaginary Wasichus. As an adult, Black Elk has a more comprehensive understanding of his resentment and grief over the damage that the white man’s intervention did to Indian culture.
Another important aspect of this chapter is the introduction of the holy man and the medicine man, essential characters, who represent some of the most distinctive beliefs of Indian culture, and who foreshadow Black Elk’s development as a healer and holy man. Black Elk relates the words of the holy man Drinks Water, who told his grandfather that with the coming of “a strange race” (the white man) the Lakotas would live in square houses in a barren land and would starve. This has, indeed, come to pass, and Black Elk says that dreams can be very wise. Similarly, in the difficult winter after the Battle of the Hundred Slain, a medicine man named Creeping cures people who are snowblind by singing a sacred song that he had heard in a dream. This belief in the power and the prophetic wisdom of dreams prepares the reader for and adds credibility to Black Elk’s voices and visions.
This chapter ends with the circumstances of Black Elk’s first vision. At five years of age, he was hunting birds on horseback, when one of the birds spoke to him. When Black Elk looked up, he saw two flying men, singing a sacred song to the accompaniment of the drumming of thunder. The men then turn into geese and disappear, and it rains. This vision conveys two ideas. One is the Indian belief in the solidarity of all living creatures and the possibility of slipping back and forth between human and animal forms: the bird speaks; the men turn into geese. It is important that Black Elk receives his vision in the natural world of woods and clouds, that creatures of nature deliver the message, and that thunder and rain accompany the vision. The Sioux depended on nature for their most essential physical needs and also saw in nature the evidence of divine power.
The vision also conveys the idea that calling or destiny can mark an individual. Like other heroes, Black Elk is ambivalent about accepting the message he has been singled out to receive: “I liked to think about it, but I was afraid to tell it.” His modesty is an important part of his character as it develops throughout the narrative.
Finally, this chapter exemplifies some of the critical problems that the narrative presents as a whole. Black Elk refers several times to forgetting details or having been too young to observe them. Fire Thunder and Standing Bear are helpful in lending credibility to his narrative; their corroboration also indicates the communal nature of Indian experience. Black Elk is also shaping his narrative to some extent to reflect his own interpretation of his life and Lakota history. This is a standard practice that a critical reading of any autobiography must acknowledge. Black Elk’s personal authority develops with his narrative, and the reader’s trust and sympathy develop as well. In addition to the filter of Black Elk’s memory and imagination, his narrative also passes through the filter of his son’s translation and Neihardt’s transcription and editing. Neihardt’s footnotes that clarify some of Black Elk’s references are helpful, but it is difficult — and can be problematic — to try to separate the content of Black Elk’s narrative from Neihardt’s language.
Lakota one of three groups (the other two being Dakota and Nakota) that made up the Sioux tribe or nation; the Lakota and Dakota, both located west of the Missouri River, are together sometimes referred to as West Tetons.
Ogalala (variant spelling of Oglala) one of the six bands that made up the Lakota group of the Sioux tribe or nation; the other five are Hunkpapas, Miniconjous, Brules, Sans Arcs, and Black Kettles.
Wounded Knee the name given to the Sioux encampment around Wounded Knee Creek in Montana.
Wasichu the Lakota name for members of the Caucasian race.
warpath route taken by a party of American Indians going on a warlike expedition or to a war.
Shyela the name Black Elk uses for the Cheyenne Indians.
Blue Clouds the name Black Elk uses for the Arapahoe Indians.
hoka hey a Lakota phrase meaning “charge”.
tepee a cone-shaped tent of animal skins or bark used by North American Indian peoples.
pony drag a conveyance made from wooden poles covered with hide, hitched to a pony or horse, for the purpose of carrying people or equipment.
snowblindness the condition of being temporarily blind from the sun’s ultraviolet rays reflected by the snow.