As Black Elk Speaks is not a novel, it may not seem to illustrate themes in the traditional literary sense. As a narrative shaped around the life of an extraordinary person living in extraordinary times, however, it raises significant universal issues and explores central ideas that can be traced throughout the book. The following essays examine some of those thematic ideas as well as a unique textual problem posed by the circumstances of the book's publication.
The story of someone who undergoes great tests of character to become the embodiment of the values of his or her society is a familiar one. Such stories are the stuff of myths, legends, fairytales, and folktales. The most familiar plot structure for these stories is the journey: The hero sets off on an actual journey, encountering danger and intrigue, adventures that form him or her into the person that he or she is meant to be; the story of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey follows such a plotline. Frequently, the journey is a quest, a search for a significant object that the hero must bring back to the community, as is the case with the Arthurian legends that depict the search for the Holy Grail; sometimes the hero must find and destroy an enemy of the community, as Beowulf does in killing Grendel. In the process of the literal quest, the hero develops those qualities that his or her society most values, becoming a model for the society by the time he or she returns home. In a psychoanalytical view of literature, these stories are interpreted as reflective of a psychological or spiritual process, as symbolic of any person's psychological and/or spiritual quest for the mature integration of personality and the full development of character.
Black Elk Speaks is such a story. The Sioux lifestyle of moving camp from place to place forms the journey as a plot structure. The troubled period of tribal history depicted in the story, with the Sioux migrating into exile in Canada and being forced to move out of their own territory and onto reservations, further dramatizes the journey plot. In addition, Black Elk himself travels to Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. But the most important journey the narrative represents is Black Elk's process of fulfilling the destiny promised to him in his vision, a process that ends somewhat tragically, according to the narrative, rather than heroically.
Because of the vision he was granted at the age of nine, it is clear that Black Elk is a child with a privileged destiny. The terms of his great vision give him the mandate of maintaining the sacred hoop of his people — an imaginable structure of cultural coherence and unity. The Sioux are known as warriors, but Black Elk will be something different, a holy man and a healer, equally valued in his community. Black Elk comes from a family of medicine men, and he will need the recognition of other healers and holy men in the tribe in order to fulfill his destiny. First of all, the fact that his culture has a place for such a person is important: his task will be to equip himself to take on a public role that is already defined. One of the first steps in this process is receiving the recognition of others. This happens almost immediately on the evening following his great vision, when the medicine man Whirlwind Chaser tells Black Elk's father that his son is sitting "in a sacred manner" and that he could see "a power like a light all through his body" (see Chapter 4). When Black Elk is about 18 and old enough to assume his role, the medicine man Bear Sings helps him perform the horse dance, an enactment of his vision (see Chapter 14); later, another medicine man, Few Tails, helps him conduct the lamentation ceremony in which he receives his dog vision (see Chapter 15) and another older man, Wachpanne, helps him enact the heyoka ceremony (see Chapter 16), after which he performs his first cure (see Chapter 17).
Even as a child, Black Elk exhibits special powers. Shortly after his great vision, when he is hunting with his father, he can sense where the deer are. He feels a special kinship with the animals that figured in his vision, especially the eagle; whenever he hears the whistle of an eagle, he is imaginatively transported to the world of his vision. But Black Elk also exhibits another aspect of the developing hero, the child of destiny, and that is a self-consciousness to the point of feeling disconcertingly different from those around him. He repeatedly describes himself as feeling "queer" during these early years and knowing that others think he has become strange; his friend Standing Bear confirms his judgment. He also develops a great deal of anxiety about fulfilling the mandate of his vision, an anxiety that grows into what he calls "the compelling fear." The Sioux are living in troubled times: The U.S. Government's attempts to annex Indian territory and contain the Indians on reservations was a persecution that amounted to cultural genocide as the Sioux were starved into submission, their weapons and horses confiscated. The tribal culture that would otherwise have supported Black Elk in his role as holy man has become fragmented and does not offer him a clear way to maintain the sacred hoop of his nation.
Like other heroes, Black Elk undergoes trials that test the quality of his character. Surviving the illness, during which he experienced his great vision, is his first such trial. In other trials, he participates in the suffering of his entire tribe: the Battle of the Rosebud ("the fight with Three Stars"), the Battle of Little Bighorn, at which he took his first scalp, the exile in Canada, the move to reservation life, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The lamentation ceremony during which Black Elk has his dog vision is a kind of crucible for him, a moment at which he undertakes the trials of all his people and, with fasting and the use of sacred ritual objects, begs for a vision that will show him how to fulfill his destiny (see Chapter 15). That vision does come, and the mandate is clarified: The white man is the enemy of the Sioux.
In traditional quest stories, the hero brings something back to the community. What Black Elk wants to bring back to his community is a restored sense of tribal identity, but the westward expansion of white Americans makes that impossible. In contrast to other such stories, Black Elk's story ends with his feeling that he was unworthy of his vision. He recognizes that as a healer he helped individual people, but mourns the fact that he could do nothing for his nation. Black Elk, then, appears to be a displaced hero, born to fulfill a role his culture could no longer support, and pitted against forces his community had no power to fight. The Author's Postscript contradicts Black Elk's conclusions, however, as the Great Spirit responds to Black Elk's invocation, and it rains.