Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 - At the Soldiers' Town
The six Lakota bands (Ogalalas, Brules, Sans Arcs, Black Kettles, Hunkpapas, and Minneconjous) who camped together, scattered after the bison hunt. Some Oglalas went to Fort Robinson (Soldiers' Town); others stayed behind with Crazy Horse, who wanted nothing to do with white men. Black Elk joined his relatives near Soldiers' Town, where he saw his first white man, and camped there all winter. He tells about playing with the other children on sleds made of bison jaws and ribs. At one point during their stay, soldiers threatened to punish the Indians because an Indian boy mischievously cut off the top of a flagpole at the fort, but Red Cloud intervened and made peace. Red Cloud was a great chief, but he quit fighting after the treaty of 1868, which was five years before.
Black Elk goes deer hunting with his father and feels back in the world of his vision when he hears the whistle of a spotted eagle. He tells his father that they need not pursue the deer because the deer will be brought to them, and that comes to pass; his father kills two deer.
During his time at Soldiers' Town, Watanye teaches Black Elk to spear fish. Watanye's mouth was covered with sores that bled when he laughed.
Black Elk begins to feel a little more comfortable thinking about his vision. He says that whenever he hears thunder, which was part of his vision, he feels happy. Later, however, he gets a "queer" feeling when he hears the whistle of a spotted eagle and he feels once more back in the world of his vision. This conflict contributes to the developmental aspect of the story: How will Black Elk grow into his role as a visionary when he lives in the ordinary world? He is happy in the world of hunting, fishing, and children's games, but he received a higher call from his vision. The eagle always reminds him of the name the Grandfathers of his vision gave him — Eagle Wing Stretches.
Black Elk describes fishing with his friends, kissing the fish as they are caught, throwing back those that are too small to use. The Indian relationship with the environment does not allow waste, especially as compared with the habits of the white men making their way westward. The Indians also have a kinship with the creatures of nature that the whites, who destroyed the bison herd, do not have. Black Elk's attempts to learn spear fishing from Watanye make for a humorous, if not slightly ghoulish, anecdote: Watanye laughed until his mouth bled when Black Elk fell into the water.
The Indians' stay near the fort is one of the last best times they had. During this time, Black Elk got used to the white soldiers at the fort, although, at first, he thought they looked sick. Black Elk's account of such pre-reservation experiences, when the Indians are still relatively free on the plains, is an especially valuable part of his narrative. The white man's encroachment, however, and his diminishment of the bison herds to make way for the railroad, seriously threatens the freedom that the Indians enjoyed before they were relegated to the reservations. During the time that Black Elk describes here, the Lakota still do the things that defined them as Indians, such as cutting tepee poles, fishing, and hunting. Like the bison hunt that Black Elk describes in the previous chapter, these are happy times for him because the Indians have not yet lost their traditional identity.