Summary and Analysis
Chapter 3 - The Great Vision
In this unusually long chapter, Black Elk has a vision at the age of nine. There is nothing to report from his life between the ages of five and nine. During this time, the white men had moved away from Indian encampments to live along the newly built Union Pacific Railroad. The building of that railroad and its subsequent expansion into the Transcontinental Railroad (1869) had divided the huge grazing ground of the bison into a north and south half. Half of the herd was more than Black Elk's people could use anyway.
Black Elk is eating when he hears a voice telling him to hurry because his Grandfathers are waiting. He grows sick and cannot walk. His legs, arms, and face swell up. The Indians are moving camp, but he is so ill he has to be carried. When he is laid down to rest in his parents' tepee, he sees through the opening in the top the same men he had seen in the sky four years before. They call to him that his Grandfathers are waiting for him. A cloud takes him, following the men, to a place made of cloud in which he beholds an extraordinary, highly symbolic vision. Black Elk describes it in precise detail.
In cloud world, a bay horse greets Black Elk and tells him that he will tell Black Elk the life history of himself and others. The bay horse makes a circular turn in the four directions, north, south, east, and west. Twelve horses are in each direction, each group of 12 matching in color: the horses to the north are white, those to the south are buckskin, to the east, sorrel, and to the west, black. The bay tells him that the horses will take him to his Grandfathers. The sky then fills with dancing horses who change into diverse animals and flee as the bay and Black Elk walk on, leading a formation of the horses from the four directions. They come to a cloud that changes into a tepee with a rainbow for a door. Inside the tepee the six Grandfathers are waiting.
The first Grandfather tells Black Elk that his Grandfathers all over the world are having a council and that they will teach him. Black Elk then realizes that these are the Powers of the World. Each of the six Grandfathers in turn tells Black Elk something about himself and his people's future and gives him a symbolic object. The first Grandfather gives Black Elk a wooden cup of water that contains the sky, which is the power to live, and a bow, which is the power to destroy. He tells Black Elk that his spirit is Eagle Wing Stretches and then turns into a starving black horse. The second Grandfather gives him an herb that fattens the black horse, which becomes the first Grandfather again. The second Grandfather tells Black Elk that he will make a nation live and that he will have the power of the white giant's wing; he turns into a white goose. The third Grandfather gives him a peace pipe with a spotted eagle on it and tells him that he will make well whatever is sick. He points to a red man who turns into a bison and joins the sorrel horses that also turn into bison. The fourth Grandfather gives him a red stick, sprouted and with birds in its branches, saying that it is the living center of a nation and that Black Elk will save many. Black Elk thinks he sees in the shade of the stick a village of people lying like a hoop, the stick in the middle blooming like a tree at the intersection of a red road and a black road. The fourth Grandfather tells Black Elk that the north-south road (the red one) is good and the east-west road (black) is trouble and war. He says that Black Elk will walk with power on both and will destroy a people's foes. He then turns into an elk. The fifth Grandfather turns into a spotted eagle and tells Black Elk that he will have a special relationship with birds. The sixth Grandfather changes before his eyes, regressing in age until he is a boy who is Black Elk himself. He tells Black Elk that he will have his, the Grandfather's, power and that his nation will know great trouble. He gives him the name Eagle Wing Stretches.
After the Grandfathers finish speaking to him, a voice summarizes all he has been given. In his vision, he rides the bay horse until he comes across a blue man in a flaming river. White troops, red troops, and yellow troops try to charge the blue man, and are beaten. Black Elk succeeds in killing him, and knows that he has taken the form of rain and killed drought.
Black Elk sees a circled village and is told it is his. Everyone in the village seems to be dead or dying, but as he rides through, they revive. A voice tells him that it is the center of the nation's hoop that he has been given that made the people live. The voice tells him to give them the flowering stick, the sacred pipe, and the wing of the white giant. When he plants the stick in the center of the hoop, it grows immediately into a tree, under which all living things live happily. The sacred pipe flies in on eagle's wings, bringing peace. The daybreak star rises and the voice says that it will bring wisdom to all who see it. The entire group, including the spirits of the dead from the past, walk with Black Elk and the bay down the red road; the voice says they are walking in a sacred manner in a good land. They must climb four ascents, each one getting progressively steeper and more difficult. After the first, the people change into animals, and at the second, the animals are restless and the leaves are falling from the tree. The voice says that from here on, Black Elk must remember what he was given because his people will be in difficulties. They begin to walk the black road, and the nation's hoop is broken. The fourth ascent is horrifying, the people and their horses starving, and the voice that has been guiding them seems to weep. At this point, Black Elk sees a man painted red who changes into a bison near which a sacred four-rayed herb springs up. The herb blossoms in four colors that represent the four directions and is growing where the tree had been, in the center of the hoop. Black Elk sees fighting, gunfire, and smoke, and his people fleeing like swallows. His own horse is reduced to skin and bones, but he cures him with the herb.
Four virgins enter, carrying some of the symbolic objects Black Elk has been given by the Grandfathers. They dance and the horses dance. He looks down upon his people and the earth is restored and they are happy once again. Still on his horse, he sees the whole world as one, the hoops of many nations united in one hoop, with one mighty tree sheltering everyone as the children of one father and one mother. He saw that it was holy. Two men fly in and give him the sacred herb to plant. The voice tells him he will go back to his six Grandfathers and he follows the two flying men who change into flocks of geese. Black Elk rides through the Grandfathers' tepee, made of cloud, rainbow, and lightning, and they welcome him in triumph. The Grandfathers tell him he will go back empowered and restore his people. They give him the sacred gifts they gave him before. He sees himself among his people, lying as if he were dead, which his Grandfathers call a sacred manner. As Black Elk leaves the Grandfathers, he is lonely and looks back to see the spotted eagle. The rainbow tepee disappears and he sees his own village and hurries toward it. He enters his tepee and sees his parents attending a sick boy who is himself. He then regains consciousness and is sad because his parents do not understand where he has been.
This is by far the longest chapter in the book and it presents the central event of Black Elk's life, his vision. It was common among many Indian tribes, including the Sioux, to induce a vision by means of fasting and sweating, at the time of initiation into adulthood. What Black Elk experiences here is different. The vision came to him, rather than being induced, indicating that he is singled out to receive something extraordinary. It is important that other special individuals in the band, holy men and medicine men, recognize the unique experience of Black Elk and support him in claiming the tribal role that the vision directs him to. Black Elk's vision is partly apocalyptic, that is, it deals with the end of history or the human race in the imaginable future. Apocalyptic visions are not unusual during a time of crisis in a culture; historically, concerns that the world as it is known is about to end have even been precipitated by the turn of a century or of a millennium, such as the Y2K scare in the late 1990s. The Judeo-Christian tradition also features an apocalyptic phenomenon, especially the concept of the final judgment or judgment day as it is represented in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Black Elk's vision presents a condensed history of mankind, from its innocent and blissful beginnings, similar to a garden of Eden, through the difficult present and horrific near-future, into a final return to prosperity and happiness similar to its beginning state.
The vision comprises a coherent system of images (an iconography) that have commonly understood meaning among the Sioux. The numbers four and twelve have major significance, for example. The number 12 is used in the number of virgins, horses, and bison. There are four directions (north, south, east, and west), four seasons, four ages of a person's life, and four ages (ascents) of tribal history. Different colors and qualities, as well as sacred objects are associated with the four directions that mark out the four quarters of the world, as follows:
white giant's wing
cup of sky
It is apparent that the circle shape is sacred as well. Like many American Indian tribes, the Sioux did not use the wheel for practical purposes until they began to adopt the technology of the whites. For example, the "pony drag" that Black Elk frequently refers to, a kind of horse-drawn sled used to move people and equipment, was used instead of a wagon or cart with wheels. For Black Elk, the number four denotes a circle, not a square, as the four directions denote the earth. The sacred hoop of his nation that he refers to is the integrated and united community of his people, imagined as within a circle. The base of the tepee is circular, and an encampment of tepees was usually arranged in a circle. Black Elk's vision of the horses in the four different directions has visual similarities to a mandala, a circular design with geometric components originally used in Hinduism and Buddhism to express spiritual wholeness.
The cup that contains the sky, the sacred pipe, the four-rayed herb, and the flowering stick are sacred objects that will recur in Black Elk's later visions. He will incorporate them into his healing practices and the rituals he performs for the community as a holy man. The bison, which the Sioux discovered on the plains when they migrated from the woodlands of the upper Midwest in the eighteenth century, and horses, introduced by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century, were sacred animals to the Sioux, as were eagles. The eagle might almost be considered a totem for Black Elk — an animal that is especially significant to him. He is given the name Eagle Wing Stretches, and throughout the rest of the narrative, he reports feeling pulled back into the world of his vision when he hears the whistle of an eagle.
Black Elk's vision foreshadows the destiny of the Sioux, who were once prosperous and free but who now, with the coming of the whites, have lost their sense of community, their coherence. As his story proceeds, the accuracy of this vision is revealed, which may raise questions as to whether Black Elk has shaped his vision in hindsight. That is a question that simply cannot be answered; the narrative asks the reader to accept the validity of mystical experience. How much Neihardt's editing and Black Elk's conversion to the Catholic faith later in his life influenced the description of the iconography of his vision is difficult to know. Certainly, its number symbology can be compared to that of the Judeo-Christian tradition; the symbolic objects (the cup, the flowering stick) have even been compared to designs in the Tarot deck. Perhaps the early psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who theorized that certain symbols and images (archetypes) have meanings common to all human beings, however unconscious we may be of them, advanced the more accurate interpretation.
Greasy Grass a translation of the Lakota term for the area around the Little Bighorn River.
bay a reddish-brown horse; the reddish-brown color of such a horse.
buckskin a yellowish-grey horse; the yellowish-grey color of such a horse.
sorrel a light reddish-brown horse; the light reddish-brown color of such a horse.
Nation's hoop (also subsequently called "sacred hoop") an imagined circle, representing the traditional community identity and the social and cultural coherence of the Sioux nation.
counting coup the Sioux ritual of striking an enemy who has fallen, wounded or dead; the first person to count coup is considered bravest of the group, almost as brave as the one who has brought the enemy down.
drouth a variant spelling of drought.
waga chun rustling tree, cottonwood.
tremolo a vocal call made by a repetitive wavering of the voice.
four-rayed having four branches or leaves radiating out from a central point.