Summary and Analysis
Chapter 19 - Across the Big Water
The bison herds disappeared by this time (fall, 1883). White men killed the bison to sell only the hides or the tongues, or just for sport. Black Elk thinks this is irrational; the Indians killed only what they needed and used every single bit of a bison. Indians settle into the square houses on reservations. The nation's hoop breaks and people are deeply depressed. Black Elk continues to practice healing, but he is sad at the fact that he cannot restore his nation's hoop and the flowering tree. In 1886, Black Elk hears that Buffalo Bill wants to hire Indians to use in his Wild West Show. Thinking that perhaps this is a way for him to learn some of the things the Wasichus (whites) know, Black Elk is one of about one hundred Indians who travel by train through Omaha and Chicago to New York and appear in Madison Square Garden throughout the winter. He does not discover any secret Wasichu knowledge; such features of white civilization as prisons and parks dismay Black Elk. In the spring, the show travels to London. The ocean crossing, especially a dangerous storm that comes up, upsets the Indians. Among the people who come to see the show in London is Queen Victoria, whom he calls Grandmother England. She is kind to the Indians, and they later come to her residence for a command performance. Black Elk likes her and says that if she had been their Grandmother (and replaced their Grandfather, the U.S. President), his people would have been treated better.
This chapter sees Black Elk further displaced and entirely out of his element on a train and then on a ship. Observing Omaha, Chicago, and New York, he realizes that the white men do not have any secret knowledge. He is surprised that the lights of New York outshine the stars. He is dismayed by much of what he sees of white men's behavior: their greed, for example, and their treatment of the impoverished and those in prison. On ship, when the storm is threatening, the Indians are given life preservers or life jackets, but he says that they did not want them; they wanted to dress for death and die in a dignified way so that those in the spirit world would not be ashamed. To dress ceremonially was difficult, he explains, when they were nauseated from seasickness. The incident becomes a metaphor for the difficulty of maintaining Indian ways in a white world. Some of their elk and bison die, and the crew throws them overboard, which upsets Black Elk greatly. He says that he sees his people's power disappear with the dead animals.
Black Elk reports people in the audience shouting "Jubilee!" during their command performance for Queen Victoria; the year is 1887, when Victoria celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her succession to the throne. Black Elk describes in precise detail the black, grey, and buckskin horses that led the royal carriages. His attention to their color and formation may remind the reader of his first vision, with its herds of horses representing the four quarters of the earth. His interest in the horses reminds the reader of the sacredness of the horse in Indian culture, which Black Elk carries with him even into the alien world of London.
Black Elk's judgment of Queen Victoria — that she would have been a good Grandmother to his people — may seem ironic. Queen Victoria presided over the largest colonial empire in history; in 1876, the year of the Battle of Little Big Horn, she assumed the title of Empress of India. The Wasichus who were trying to subdue Black Elk's people were once fighting for their own independence against Victoria's grandfather, King George III of England. In little more than half a century, the United States would succeed Great Britain as the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world, a reputation partly built on the conquest of the Indians.
jubilee an anniversary, especially a fiftieth or twenty-fifth anniversary; a time for celebration and rejoicing.