Summary and Analysis
Black Elk makes it known that he intends to tell John Neihardt the story of his life, especially his early vision, which Black Elk says he failed to fulfill. In ritual fashion, Black Elk and Neihardt smoke the red willow bark in Black Elk's holy pipe as an offering to the Great Spirit. Black Elk tells a story about a sacred woman who appeared to two men and offered them a pipe, and then offers an invocation before proceeding with the story of his life and vision.
In this initial chapter, Black Elk endorses John Neihardt as the person through whom he will tell his story, which is part autobiography, part spiritual revelation, and part tribal history. He emphasizes that his own life story is also the story of his tribe and that, in fact, it would not be worth telling if it were only his personal story. This statement indicates the communal nature of Indian experience; Black Elk thinks of himself almost entirely in the context of his tribe or band, and he embodies the values of his people. In that respect, he is like the heroes of classical literature, Odysseus and Beowulf.
This chapter also establishes the style of the narrative. Black Elk tells his story in the first person; he is the narrator and refers to himself as "I." The language is simple, partly because the story is told through an interpreter (Black Elk's son Ben). The tone of the narrative is elegiac, a lament for a time that has gone and for what Black Elk sees as his personal failure in not enacting the vision he was granted (see Chapter 3 for more on the vision).
Black Elk Speaks is the transcription of personal conversations between Black Elk and Neihardt. This format was not new; narrated Indian autobiographies were popular at least as early as 1833 when Black Hawk: An Autobiography was published. Consistent with the practice of many different American Indian tribes, which had a long tradition of storytelling, Black Elk intersperses his narrative with anecdotes, folk stories, and sometimes chant and prayer. For some tribes, written language was not important. Sioux history, for example, including the years of Black Elk's life, was memorized and passed down orally from father to son for several generations.
From time to time, Neihardt uses a footnote to clarify something that Black Elk says, but unlike Black Elk, Neihardt is not a character in this story. He seems to be completely absent from Black Elk's story, but scholars have begun to study Neihardt's manuscript in order to understand how much editing and revising of Black Elk's words Neihardt actually did. Such analysis is beyond the scope of this book, but readers should understand that Neihardt may not be as unobtrusive in Black Elk's narrative as he seems.
This chapter also begins to establish Black Elk's character. Appearing modest, even self-critical, Black Elk says that he was too weak to actualize his vision and perhaps save his people. Seeing himself as an instrument of a higher power, Black Elk emphasizes that the power of the vision manifested itself through him. He does not claim to be a special person with extraordinary powers. He experiences self-doubt and reflects on his life in a way that is characteristic of mature people.
This chapter introduces some of the themes and symbols of Sioux culture that recur throughout Black Elk's narrative. The four ribbons tied to the pipe that he and Neihardt smoke represent the powers of the four quarters of the universe: black for the west, the source of rain; white for the north, the source of cleansing wind; red for the east, the place of the morning star that gives wisdom; and yellow for the south, the place of summer and growth. These four directions and the colors and qualities associated with them recur throughout the narrative, especially in the story of Black Elk's vision (see Chapter 3). All four powers unite in one Great Spirit, which is represented by the eagle feather, also a recurrent symbol in the story. Black Elk's explanation offers the reader some understanding of the Sioux notion of divine power or Great Spirit, its manifestations in the natural world, and the symbolism associated with it. The story Black Elk tells about the sacred woman who brought the pipe to the Sioux emphasizes the symbology he elaborates on in his vision, such as the four quarters of the universe and the sacredness of the bison and the eagle who represent the earth and the sky. Every ritual or sacred object is attached to a story. Inviting Neihardt to smoke his pipe with him as an indication of friendship and trust, Black Elk concludes the chapter with a prayer to the Great Spirit, whom he also calls Grandfather. The Great Spirit of Black Elk's belief appears to be the equivalent of the Judeo-Christian God, the divine power that oversees everything on earth, characterized here as kind and loving.
two-legged/four-legged a poetic way of describing bipeds (humans) and quadrupeds (animals).
Great Spirit in Sioux belief, the divine power that created the world, whose presence can be perceived in daily life; comparable to the Judeo-Christian idea of God.
Hetchetu aloh it is so indeed.