Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8 - The Fight with Three Stars
Black Elk's father tells his son that Red Cloud and some other chiefs will sell out to the white men and that the rest of the Indians must fight from now on for their land. Many small bands of Indians join together. Black Elk's aunt gives him a six-shooter and he feels like a man, although he is not big physically. Some Indian scouts report that white men shot at them on the Bozeman Trail, which a treaty was supposed to have closed since 1868. Black Elk's people ride out to attack. The whites circle their wagons and shoot at the Indians. Black Elk feels very brave, but the Indians eventually leave because they cannot penetrate the circled wagons. They join other scattered tribes of Indians and travel quickly to the Rosebud River to meet with Crazy Horse. When they are gathered together, the Indians hold a sun dance, presided over by Sitting Bull. First a tree is found that will occupy a place in the middle of a big circle. Pregnant women are the first to dance around it. A very brave warrior counts coup upon the tree and gives away gifts. Young maidens chop the tree down and warriors charge into the center where the tree had stood, which is now a sacred spot. This act ensures their safety in battle. Everyone feasts. The next day, the tree is planted in the center of the dancing place. Nursing babies are laid at its base. Young children's ears are pierced. The next day the dancing begins. Dancers are tied to the tree by a thong of rawhide inserted through the skin of their backs or chests. They dance, pulling at the strip of rawhide until they cannot bear it or until their flesh rips. The young children, such as Black Elk, amuse themselves by teasing the adults, who are supposed to tolerate anything that day.
When the sun dance is over, Indian scouts enter the camp and report that Crazy Horse has routed soldiers who were camping up the river, prepared to attack during the sun dance. Black Elk's friend Iron Hawk, a Hunkpapa who was with Crazy Horse that day, relates the story of the battle:
Two war parties went out to fight the white men, who were joined by Crow and Shoshone Indians in a fierce battle that lasted all day. The Indians almost lost heart until someone exhorted them to remember those at home. As Iron Hawk leads his injured pony away from the battle, he comes upon three Lakota who were roasting and eating a bison that they had killed. He joins them for the feast. One of the men treats his injury. Another Lakota enters the scene and shames them for eating while others are fighting. Iron Hawk rides back to the scene of battle where it is difficult to tell who is winning. When it is dark, they ride back to camp to guard the women and children, and the whites do not follow.
Standing Bear adds to the report. He was one of many who were not in the fight. The next day, they rode out to the scene of the battle and dug up the white soldiers' bodies and took the blankets they were buried in; he himself cut the finger off a dead man to take his ring. He describes one of the bodies as "a black Wasichu," which Neihardt identifies as a "Negro." One of the Indians scalped a body. They returned to the camp, where they stayed for several days before moving on to the Greasy Grass (the Little Bighorn River).
Many topics that Black Elk discusses in his narrative are of ethnographic interest: they provide readers with detailed cultural information that could otherwise be obtained only through careful anthropological research. His description of the sun dance is such a topic. The sun dance, which continues to be performed by the Sioux in the present day, is a deeply sacred ritual performed around a tree placed at the center of an area representing the nation's hoop. The dancers' flesh is pierced, usually on the chest and/or back, and rawhide thongs are drawn through the piercings and attached to the tree. The dancers dance around the tree, sometimes for hours, pulling on the thongs until they break through the flesh. In a related sun dance ritual, men would carve small pieces of flesh from their bodies as an offering to the Great Spirit, an act called leaving a piece of flesh. (At least one-account reports that Sitting Bull left 100 pieces of flesh at the sun dance Black Elk describes here.) The dance is performed during the full moon in June or July, when it is often quite hot, and the dancers undergo purification rituals and do not eat or drink during the dance. Thus, the sun dance is partly a test of physical endurance, but more importantly it symbolizes the dancers' desire to break the bonds of flesh in order to access the spirit.
Some of the symbology of the sun dance is similar to that of Black Elk's earlier vision (see Chapter 3) because both rely on traditional Sioux imagery. The flowering tree of the sun dance creates a representation of the original state of the innocence and prosperity of all things and is similar to the flowering stick of Black Elk's vision. The circular path of the dancers around the tree invokes the powers of the four quarters of the earth. Pregnant women and nursing mothers represent fertility as well.
The battle with General Crook that is reported here took place on June 17, 1876, just eight days before the Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer's Last Stand). The Indians are increasingly threatened; they are not only being displaced and contained, they are being assaulted. The attitude of the U.S. Government is that national prosperity and expansion can be bought at the expense of the Indian population — highly ironic in a country that fought to free itself from the dominion of another nation exactly 100 years before.
Three Stars General Crook.
six-shooter a revolver having a cylinder that holds six cartridges; specifically, such a revolver with a long barrel and of relatively large caliber of the kind usually used in the western United States in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Bozeman Trail the trail through Sioux country that was cleared by whites as a means of reaching goldmining operations in Montana.