Summary and Analysis Chapter 17



Digressing from his story to refer to the present (that is, as he is talking to Neihardt), Black Elk expresses distaste for living in square houses that lack the power and sacredness of the circular tepee. He calls his people prisoners of war and fixes his thoughts on the world of the spirit. He notes that boys don't come into manhood now as early as they used to, which he sees as a further sign of the degeneration of Indian culture. He then returns to his story.

Black Elk thinks about the four-rayed blossoming herb he saw in his first great vision and in the dog vision. He and One Side go out to find it and, after singing a sacred song, Black Elk sees it growing in a gulch. He digs it up and brings it home. Cuts-to-Pieces comes and asks him to attend to his little boy, who is seriously ill. Black Elk performs his first healing, using the herb and a cup, a pipe, and an eagle bone whistle, representing the sacred objects of his early vision. Singing, he calls on every power he knows to heal the sick boy. He feels great grief passing through him, and he sees that the boy has recovered. Cuts-to-Pieces gives him a horse in return for curing his son, although Black Elk says he would have done it for nothing. Black Elk is nineteen; his reputation as a healer begins.


Black Elk's explanation of the power (which also means sacredness) of circles is an interesting glimpse into the Sioux imagination, and it echoes some of his earlier descriptions of the symbology of his visions. The greatest circular structure of all is the sacred hoop of the nation, which signifies the integrated and coherent community. The four quarters of the earth, an important symbol of Black Elk's great vision, recorded in Chapter 3, also inscribe a circle. Black Elk points out here that the orbits of the sun and moon are circular, and so is the cycle of the seasons, which return to their beginning. He explains that the circular structure of the tepee resonates with the power of all these other sacred circles, and it is thus especially disorienting, and even profane, for the Indian to live in the square houses built for them at the agencies.

Black Elk's view of his people as prisoners of war is, in fact, probably the most accurate description of the Sioux at this time. The United States has assumed an imperialist stance regarding most Indian tribes, which means that the Indians must be at least controlled and perhaps eliminated because their occupation of the land and their way of life stand in the way of the prosperity of the dominant culture. The two parties are at war: The United States has stopped making treaties and virtually dropped all pretense of accommodating the Indian population. Any Indian resistance to expansionist efforts is interpreted as hostility and insurrection. Any Indian attempt to escape the containment imposed upon him is regarded in the same way as an escape from prison might.