Summary and Analysis
Black Elk is eleven years old. It is 1874, and his people are camped in the Black Hills, in what is now South Dakota. At times, Black Elk remembers his vision. He sees a flock of swallows before a storm, for example, and cannot stone them as other boys are doing because he remembers that the Grandfathers of his vision told him that he is a relative of the birds. One day, he goes hunting for squirrels with the other boys, and he hears a voice telling him to go back. He and his friends return and find that their people are breaking camp because Chips, the medicine man, heard a voice telling him that the Indians are being threatened, and they must move. They move camp several times, finally locating at Fort Robinson (Soldiers' Town).
Later, Black Elk learns that the threat came from General Custer (whom he calls Pahuska or Long Hair) who had entered the Black Hills. The terms of the 1868 treaty that Red Cloud signed with the U.S. government, giving the land to the Sioux, forbade Custer's advance into the Black Hills. But Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills and the Indians hear that white men from around the Missouri River came to the Black Hills looking for gold. The Indians are divided as to how to respond. Red Cloud, who is at Fort Robinson, is more moderate than Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who are in different locations, and the Indians at Fort Robinson think that Red Cloud and his people are defending the Wasichus; they call them the "Hang-Around-the-Fort" people.
In the spring (1875), when Black Elk is 12 years old, more soldiers come up from Fort Laramie and go into the Black Hills. Neihardt adds in a footnote that Col. Dodge with 400 men and 75 wagons came on a geological expedition and stayed through October.
In June (the Moon of Making Fat), a sun dance takes place. In September (the Moon When the Calves Grow Hair), there is a big meeting between the whites and the Indians, including Cheyenne and Arapahoe as well as Lakota. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull do not attend. Black Elk's father tells him that the "Grandfather at Washington" (U. S. President Ulysses Grant) wants to lease the Black Hills in order to mine for gold, and the white men say that if the Indians do not consent, they will take the hills anyway. Hearing that many white men are coming into the hills and establishing towns, the Indians decide to join Crazy Horse. They move to where he is on the Powder River, making several camps along the way. Black Elk, saddened, tries to regain some of his vision, but cannot. Winning some coffee in a pony race with an Indian named Fat cheers him. He thinks hard about his vision, and that the white wing of the wind that the Second Grandfather gave him empowered his pony.
Black Elk's people meet some of Red Cloud's people, who soon leave for the safety of the whites when they discover that the others are going to meet Crazy Horse. As they continue on their way, they find a dead Lakota, who seems to have died of old age as he was going to visit his relatives.
Black Elk grows eager to meet his relative Crazy Horse, whom he has seen often and about whom he has heard many stories. He relates a tale of Crazy Horse's bravery in rescuing his brother from the Crows. He says that Crazy Horse was always with Hump, the greatest warrior of their people up until then, and that he must have learned from him. Crazy Horse was the first chief to come from Black Elk's family, which had a tradition of holy men, and Crazy Horse became a chief because of the power he received from a vision when he entered the spirit world. Crazy Horse can easily re-enter the spirit world and his behavior is sometimes odd. He doesn't have much to do with other people except children. He has been friendly to Black Elk, calling him into his tepee. Wounded only twice, he is a powerful warrior. Black Elk states that if the whites had not murdered Crazy Horse, the Indians would still own the Black Hills. The whites did not kill Crazy Horse in battle, but lied to entrap him.
When Black Elk's people meet up with Crazy Horse, they camp some distance away and build a corral to guard their ponies from the Crow Indians. But, still, a Crow is caught attempting to steal a horse in the dead of the night, and then killed. The "counting coup" ritual is explained. The women cut up the dead Crow Indian with axes and scatter his parts around, and they all join in the "kill dance." They move camp. The guard paints his face black to indicate that he was ready to kill the enemy. They meet one of Red Cloud's people who says that the Crow Indians killed all in his band except him.
During that winter, white runners come and tell Black Elk's people that they must come back to Fort Robinson or there will be serious trouble, but they do not return because it is too cold to move and they are on their own land anyway. During a thaw in February, Black Elk's people start for Fort Robinson. Crazy Horse stays behind on the Powder. In March, the U.S. Cavalry raids Crazy Horse's village, killing men, women, and children, and stealing horses. Crazy Horse mobilizes a band of warriors and fights back, eventually regaining the horses. Black Elk states that he and his people did not learn of this for some time, but when they did hear it, they painted their faces black.
This chapter records an important passage in the history of the West as tension between the Indians and the whites continued to mount. The U.S. Government began making treaties with the Sioux in 1851, but in 1871 Congress stopped recognizing the Indian tribes as sovereign nations with treaty-making prerogatives. The treaty of 1851, between Red Cloud and the U.S. government, recognized the Black Hills as Indian territory. But that land became too valuable for American empire-builders to ignore. With the help of Martha Jane Canary, commonly known as Calamity Jane, General George Armstrong Custer led the Black Hills Gold Discovery Expedition in 1874. (Custer's personal vanity prompted him to wear his blonde hair longer than most men did at the time, hence the name Long Hair.) His discovery of gold brought many adventurers and settlers to the area. The Sioux did not especially value gold and the whites' obsession with it bemused them. They soon realized, however, that the whites' greed for gold and for land would mean the end of their own freedom. The Transcontinental Railroad also meant the appropriation of Indian land.
Economic motives combined with misguided humanitarian and missionary efforts to civilize the Indians. The U.S. government began to establish agencies to manage the Indian population. They built houses for the Indians, taking away the power of the circular tepee, and began to confine the nomadic Indians to areas that would be known as reservations (Rosebud, Pine Ridge, and so on). Some Indians are far more cooperative than others and do not resist the efforts of the whites to contain them. Red Cloud was such an "agency chief" who tried to reconcile his fellow Indians to their new life. Red Cloud's efforts appear to be pragmatic, trying to guarantee his people food and shelter as the whites took more and more of their land, but some Indians saw him as a collaborator with the whites and a traitor to the Indian cause. Many times throughout his story, Black Elk stops to reflect on how the greed of the white man has displaced the Indians. The dead Lakota, lost while searching for his relatives, seems like something of an omen to Black Elk and foreshadows the numerous deaths that will occur among the increasingly displaced Sioux tribe.
Black Elk offers a rather detailed portrait of Crazy Horse, an enigmatic figure in Indian history, who Black Elk thinks was the greatest of all Sioux chiefs. Unlike Red Cloud, Crazy Horse resists the whites' efforts to contain the Indians. He refuses to negotiate with whites and remains unreconciled to the imposed changes in the Indians' way of life. He will prove to be a ferocious warrior, but his reputation as a chief rested on his powers as a holy man.
Black Elk continues to express frustration and sadness at not being able to implement his vision. He is fighting the greed of the white man, and as the Indians are culturally displaced and have to contend with subsistence-level concerns, such as food shortages, there is little support for him to develop into the holy man or leader his vision seems to call him to be.
sweat tepee a structure used by the Sioux for purification rituals, in which an individual was induced to perspire profusely in steam generated by pouring water on heated rocks.
Kill dance a ritual dance designed to intensify enthusiasm for battle.