Summary and Analysis
Chapter 21 - The Messiah
Black Elk comes back to see that hunger and disease ravaged his people. The treaty of 1889 left the Indians with even less land, the bison are gone, crops will not grow, the food that the white men promised to send is not forthcoming, and measles and whooping cough are taking lives. Black Elk himself is suffering: His father dies; his younger brother and sister have died while he was gone. He works in a store for the white men. He says that his power was dead while he was gone and he thought it was gone forever, but now that he is back, he continues to work as a healer. Rumors of a man among the Paiutes who would save the Indians and bring back the dead and the bison, circulates among the Indians. The Oglalas send three men to investigate, and they come back with the news that a man named Wovoka, whom the whites call Jack Wilson, is a Wanekia (a great spirit, "One Who Makes Live"). This Wanekia had a vision and says that the Indians might be saved if they perform a "ghost dance." Black Elk thinks that perhaps this man had the same vision he did and that he was meant to help him. Through the year, rumors grow about the redemption the Wanekia promises. Some believers claim to have seen their dead relatives. Black Elk is puzzled because this is not like his vision at all. The first ghost dance is held. Another is to be held at Wounded Knee Creek and Black Elk goes to see it. He sees a ceremony that is like his vision after all — a circle, with a flowering stick, and the faces of the dancers painted red. He feels sad that he has not been able to enact his own vision, but then becomes happy that perhaps the time has come to do so. He plans to dance with them.
The premise of the ghost dance religion, or "Messiah craze," as it was sometimes called, was the belief in an imminent apocalypse — a belief that the end of the world was near and that goodness would be restored and evil destroyed. Apocalyptic beliefs often occur among people who are living in duress, as the Sioux were, or among people who fear they might be. (The reader might consider the fright that often attends the turn of a century.) The best defenses of the Sioux seemed ineffective against the overwhelmingly destructive onslaughts of the whites. They are left with making a grand appeal to divine power and hoping against hope that their present world will come to an end, returning them to their original state of happiness and prosperity.
The appropriation of tribal lands, the relocation of the population to reservations, the eradication of the bison herd, and the shocking decrease in the Indian population (from an estimated 5 million in the sixteenth century to about 210,000 in 1910) substantiates the Sioux's fear that life as they know it has come to an end. The Dawes Act of 1887 had established reservations and the allotment of land to individual Indians, but the principle of allotment was ignored in many places and the land opened to homesteaders. When the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the frontier closed in 1890, it was announcing the fact that there was no longer any territory in the United States that was not under the control of whites.
Messiah a professed or accepted leader of some hope or cause.