In the middle of January, Black Elk gets news of another attack. He rides out, despite the fact that his wound is not completely healed. The Indians attack soldiers at Smoky Earth and take their horses and then retreat into the Badlands. Black Elk wants to form a larger war party and continue the battle, but Red Cloud convinces the Indians to surrender because it is a hard winter and he fears the same hardship and deprivation that followed the Battle of Little Big Horn.
The surrender is about more than the battle. The dream is dead, Black Elk says. Not only Indians died at Wounded Knee; a dream for a nation died. He sees himself as a man who could not enact the vision that was granted to him.
The Battle at Wounded Knee is largely regarded as a massacre, a last-ditch effort to eradicate Indians who were showing signs of reviving. Statistics vary, but U.S. Troops, using rapid-fire guns, killed at least 150 men, women, and children. White families of the soldiers rescued at least two babies from the massacre at Wounded Knee. It is no coincidence that the battle took place on almost the last day of 1890, the year that the U.S. Census Bureau pronounced the frontier closed — that is, no longer containing any uninhabited area (“uninhabited,” the Census Bureau meant, by white people). Black Elk’s tone throughout this narrative has been elegiac, a lament for a time and a way of life that has gone, and that is his final note here. Many Indians in the present would disagree with this interpretation and say that the Sioux nation never died. The Sioux have gone through many transmutations as a culture, but they have survived. Black Elk’s mournful tone here raises the question as to how much his persona in the book is Neihardt’s invention. Answering that question is beyond the scope of this book, but certainly the reader understands that the last statement Black Elk makes is a lamentation at the passing of his people’s traditional culture.