Black Elk Speaks depicts the tragedy of a culture that can no longer support its traditional ideals. In their own terms, the Sioux have lost the sacred hoop of their nation. But they did not lose it through a lack of faith or other internal weakness; they lost it, almost inevitably, to the forces of economic greed when white Americans expanded westward in search of more land and more goods. Their culture is lost through the loss of the traditions and lifestyle that Black Elk commemorates.
The end of the traditional Sioux hunting practices is a striking example of the loss of culture. The bison, an abundant source of food that was a daily reminder of the providence of the Great Spirit, were considered sacred. The bison roamed the prairie in what seemed to be a never-ending supply. Even the Transcontinental Railroad's separation of the herd into two halves, when Black Elk was still a child, did not seem especially threatening; as he says, half of the herd was still more than they could use. A complex cultural event, the great bison hunt, occurring just after his vision (see Chapter 4), is an arena for the hunters on horseback to display their courage and bravery (Standing Bear, killing his first adult buffalo, shows his manhood). Butchering, food preparation, and the hide-and-bone-processing practices that followed the hunt allowed for the tribe's sustenance. Finally, the community celebrated with dancing, singing, and thanksgiving rituals — a joyous feast. The priority of railroad and settlement expansion and the carelessness with which whites hunted the bison for sport ("They just killed and killed because they liked to do that," Black Elk says) meant that the herd decreased drastically in size. After January 1876, when Indians were ordered onto reservations, the food supply became a way to control defiant Indian behavior. With the bison herd much diminished and the confiscation of Indian horses and guns, the Indians had no way to supply their own food and were forced to rely on government rations. When the Indians seemed hostile, as when Sitting Bull refused to come out of Canada and live on a reservation, rations were decreased. The Indians, starved and sickened, were coerced into submission. When the bison herd was lost, so was contact with the sacred along with a sense of Sioux identity and independence.
Loss of their nomadic way of life was another incident in the cultural displacement of the Sioux. When the Plains Indians were herded onto agency-governed reservations, they lost their interdependence with nature. No longer could they move voluntarily to pursue the bison herd, harvest plants and rootcrops, or fish. The traditional encamped way of Sioux life, with its close sense of community and its clear social structure, was replaced with the foreign immobility of reservation life, further undermining the Sioux sense of identity.
In connection with the loss of traditional practices, Black Elk calls attention to the loss of cultural symbols, most importantly the circle, which is central to Sioux belief because "the Power of the World always works in circles": The world is round, the moon is round, and the seasons return to repeat themselves cyclically. In reflection of this, tepees were built around circular frames, and the structure of the community was understood as a circular image, the sacred hoop. "Our tepees were round like the nests of birds," Black Elk says, "and these were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children." He recalls cutting poles for tepees as a child as emblematic of an older, happier time. When the Indians had to abandon their traditional tepees for the square wooden houses of the reservation, he says, they lost their power: "When we were living in the power of the circle in the way we should, boys were men at twelve or thirteen years of age. But now it takes them very much longer to mature." Black Elk calls the houses "square boxes" and characterizes the Indians as "prisoners of war."
The Indians retain some important practices amidst this cultural displacement. Black Elk retains his sacred pipe, and even when he speaks to Neihardt, Black Elk uses the ritual of pipe smoking as a way to affirm their relationship. (Elsewhere, Neihardt mentions that he himself shared the cigarettes he brought with him at his first meeting with Black Elk; one imagines that the significance of this gesture was not lost on Black Elk.) Some Indian scholars maintain that Sioux culture was never lost, that it only went underground or transformed itself under new appearances. Photographs, for example, of Black Elk, in his later years, show him addressing the Great Spirit while wearing long red underwear instead of the red paint that he wore as a young man. Similar photographs show Indians handling ritual objects, such as small drums made of evaporated milk cans instead of wood and buffalo hide. These can be seen as a triumphant sign of the survival of a culture, but Black Elk's tone in the narrative is one of lament for a culture lost.