Summary and Analysis
Chapter 4 - The Bison Hunt
Black Elk regains consciousness after experiencing his vision and feels as if he has returned home after a journey. His parents tell him that he was deathly ill for twelve days and that Whirlwind Chaser, the medicine man, cured him. Black Elk's father gives Whirlwind Chaser a horse to express his gratitude. Black Elk wants to tell people about his experience, but he feels that the meaning of the vision cannot be put into words; he is afraid that he will be misunderstood. Whirlwind Chaser tells Black Elk's parents that there is something special about him, which makes Black Elk afraid that he knows about the vision.
Black Elk feels alienated from those around him and wishes he were back in the place of his vision. He goes hunting to forget about the vision, but cannot shoot a bird because he remembers that the Grandfathers of his vision told him he would be a relative of the birds. He does shoot a frog, however, and then weeps at having killed it.
Standing Bear speaks to affirm that Black Elk suffered his illness while the Indians were moving camp. He says that after he recovered, Black Elk was not himself and seemed more like an old man than a young boy. Standing Bear goes on to say that the big bison hunt, which took place shortly after Black Elk recovered, distracted people such that they did not notice Black Elk's strangeness anymore.
Black Elk continues his story about the bison hunt. A crier came to the Indians one day and told them to break camp because a large herd of bison could be hunted nearby. Standing Bear remembers that the hunt was in July and that, at the age of thirteen, he killed his first mature buffalo. Black Elk describes the great celebration after the successful hunt and the games the young boys played, including endurance trials, as part of the festivities.
As Black Elk grows older, the meaning of his vision becomes clearer to him, but he felt alienated as a boy because of his unique experience of the vision. Black Elk frequently feels as if he is pulled back into the world of his vision when he sees or feels something that reminds him of the vision — in this case the birds his father is hunting. At these times, Black Elk often says he feels "queer" (disconnected from the present reality) and longs to be in the world of his vision. Whirlwind Chaser recognizes Black Elk as someone who participated in the sacred, however, and alerts his parents, using language similar to the Grandfathers' language in Black Elk's vision. The adults marked the child's destiny and nurtured his special gift. The acknowledgment of intuitive or extrasensory experience is an outstanding aspect of Indian culture. Indians placed value on this kind of experience and did not think it pathological or criminal.
For the most part, however, this is a straightforward chapter about cultural practices after the more abstract relation of the dream vision. Some of this chapter's content is of almost anthropological interest. A crier alerts the Indians that bison are to be hunted close by, pointing out that the Indians did not keep livestock for food; they relied on animals in the wild. They had scouts to look for those animals, just as they might have scouts keeping track of an enemy. They break camp to go to where they might find the animals. The crier guides them on their way, even directing them when to let their ponies rest, to dig some turnips they come upon, and to be watchful of their children. The scouts come to the council tepee, smoke, and reveal the location of the bison herd. The crier had all the hunters ride out to kill bison. The hunters rode almost naked, outfitted with bows, arrows, and sharpened knives. The Sioux, great warriors, borrowed much from their war practices for hunting.
Standing Bear's story about killing his first mature bison makes it understood that the hunt was a demonstration of manhood as well as a result of the necessity for food. Until that day, he had killed only a calf, but he was determined, at the age of 13, to show that he was a man and kill a yearling. The reader might remember this story when Black Elk states, toward the end of his narrative, that an indication of the degeneration of Indian society is how late boys become men. Standing Bear also says that the women are making the tremolo of joy at the hunt, the same kind of vocal cry that they use to cheer a war party.
Butchering took place at the site of the hunt, and the fresh meat was loaded onto the horses as they went home. The little boys, too hungry to wait for the feast later in the evening, ate as much fresh liver as they could. When the hunters returned home, the advisors ate first, and then they invited others into their tepee to eat. The women make drying racks out of branches and sticks to dry the meat for long-term preservation. Everyone is happy at the feast that night, which included dancing and singing. These events that Black Elk identifies as happy times have to do with the traditional life of the Indians; the Indians are happy as long as they can pursue life freely engaged in their traditional cultural practices. Sharing the meat reveals the communal nature of Indian life. The advisors do not hunt, but they are the first to enjoy the meat from the hunt because their wisdom is so important to the others. Their invitation to all others to partake of what is a gift to them exhibits their generosity. In a children's game, associated with the hunt celebration, the boys act out stealing the meat. Black Elk really tries to steal a bison tongue and is badly frightened when he thought he was caught; in another game, the young boys compete for the distinction of having the most chapped breast — in other words, having suffered the most exposure to the elements; in another, the boys put sunflower seeds on their wrists and endure the pain of their being burned off. If they cry, they are called women. These games illustrate the importance of the hunt and the value the Sioux placed on physical bravery.
Throughout these events, Black Elk is reminded of the world of the Grandfathers when he sees animals or birds that were in his vision or hears a sound, such as thunder or the whistle of an eagle that he associates with his vision.
Minneconjou one of the six bands that made up the Lakota Sioux tribe, of which the Oglala , Black Elk's band, is also one.
crier an official who shouts out announcements.
scout a person sent out to observe the tactics of an opponent.
chacun sha sha the bark of the red willow.