Summary and Analysis
Black Elk participates in the well-known Battle of Little Big Horn. Although Crazy Horse fought with the white men on the Rosebud River, it was only to prevent them from attacking at the sun dance. During this time, the Indians just wanted to be left alone because they were, after all, on their own land. Feeling increasingly threatened, Black Elk relocates with his people to a big camp near the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn River).
The medicine man Hairy Chin dresses and paints Black Elk as a bear to participate in a curing ceremony for Rattling Hawk, who was shot in the hip at the Battle of the Rosebud the week before. When Black Elk dresses as a bear, he regains some sense of his vision and can feel that danger is approaching. Rattling Hawk is healed, and Black Elk and the other boys go swimming later to wash their paint off. Everyone around them is having "kill talks," recounting the brave deeds that have recently been performed, and dancing.
His father tells him to guard the horses and to be prepared to come back quickly to camp. As the day goes on, he gets hot and goes swimming. As he is in the water, with his cousin watering the horses nearby, criers from various camps ride in and warn that chargers (the U.S. Seventh Cavalry on horseback) are advancing. His father orders him to take a gun to his brother, who rode to join the Hunkpapas. They join many of the Hunkpapas who take refuge in the woods, where soldiers shoot at them (Neihardt notes that these soldiers are with Major Marcus Reno's detachment). The cry goes up that Crazy Horse is coming. The scene is one of pandemonium with Indians, whites, and horses grappling with each other and fighting in the water. A Lakota shoots a white man (probably Captain French, Neihardt notes) who was very brave. Black Elk is ordered to scalp a man who is down, and Black Elk shoots him in the forehead. Far off, Indian warriors are in a whirl of dust; Custer has attacked from the north end, Neihardt notes. Black Elk goes home to show his mother his first scalp. Standing Bear adds to the story: Sixteen years old at the time, he was in the Minneconjou camp, the third from the south of the seven Indian camps along the Little Big Horn River. He had eaten and was swimming when his father told him to look after the horses. He saw Reno and his men riding into the Hunkpapa camp just south of the Minneconjous. He, his brother, and his uncle ride out to fight Custer's detachment coming from the north. The battle scene was chaotic. There were so many Indians that Standing Bear says they needed no guns; the horses' hooves would have done enough damage. They were all crazy and regretfully tell of one Indian scalping another dead Indian. The battle continued until sundown when the Indians drove the soldiers into the hills. It resumed the next day when Indians and soldiers shot at each other as the soldiers came out of the hills to get water. The Indians finally rode back to their camps when General Terry's troops came to the aid of the survivors. The troops did not pursue the Indians.
Iron Hawk, who was fourteen years old at the time, adds to the story: He, too, dressed and painted himself for battle, armed with only a bow and arrow. He tells of a Shyela Indian who was so sacred that he rode into battle in the thick of bullets firing at him, but the soldiers could not hurt him. Iron Hawk says that he was so angry thinking about the Indian women and children who were frightened that he beat to death a soldier he had shot. When the soldiers were beaten and had retreated, the Indian women closed in and began to strip the bodies. One of the soldiers pretended to be dead, until the women tried to castrate him. He then jumped up and fought them, but they stabbed him, and he died. Iron Hawk says it was funny to see.
Black Elk continues. He and some other boys rode around the scene of the battle, shooting arrows into the wounded soldiers. He stole a watch from one. His cousin, called Black Wasichu, was severely wounded in the battle. His father and Black Elk's father were so angry that they butchered a white man. Black Elk says that the white man was fat, and his meat looked good, but they did not eat any. He and some other boys surround a soldier who has hidden in a bush and kill him. Black Elk's mother joins them. Black Elk scalps a soldier for another Indian boy. He says that he is not at all sorry for participating in the battle because the Indians were in their own land, doing no harm, and were attacked without provocation. The Indians danced and sang all night.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn (June 25, 1876) is popularly known as Custer's Last Stand in reference to General George Armstrong Custer, the commander of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, who was killed and whose forces were defeated in this attack. He had presidential ambitions, and one of his reasons for conducting this battle was the hope of a dramatic victory that would put him in the public eye. To this end, he engaged a newspaper reporter to accompany him. Custer committed at least two great wrongs in this battle: Not only was he participating in what became a genocidal mission, quelling hostile Indians for the U.S. Government, but, without adequate information, he led his own men into a battle that they could not possibly survive, purely to further his personal ambitions.
It is estimated that as many as 12,000 Indians, of whom 4,000 were warriors, gathered near the Little Big Horn River, in what is now Montana, to meet with Sitting Bull. The encampment included Lakota bands (Oglalas, Brules, Sans Arcs, Minneconjous, and Hunkpapas) as well as Cheyenne and Blackfeet. The Sioux had a reputation as warriors, and this chapter gives us a glimpse of some of their practices, including war cries, horsemanship, and scalping. This chapter clarifies the position that women held in battle, which was to encourage the warriors and later to carry off the spoils of war. The Sioux, thinking of the helpless people at home that they were defending, willingly faced death in battle.
Black Elk's account also reveals how the cavalry attack, which occurred while the Indians were swimming and eating, surprised the Indians. The seven Indian camps were ranged along the west bank of the Little Big Horn River. Shortly after 3 p.m., General Marcus Reno attacked the south end of the Indian encampment from the east; within the hour, Custer advanced from the north to attack the camps on the north end. By 4:40 p.m., the defeated cavalry troops were forced into retreat.
The Battle of Little Big Horn dominates this chapter, but recognizing that Black Elk's first participation in a healing ceremony is recorded here as well is important. In his development as a tribal healer, that event is significant. Although the Indians will suffer further losses as the whites retaliate for their defeat at Little Big Horn, Black Elk seems to be advancing in his journey to claim the powers granted in his vision.
charger a horse ridden in battle or parade.
fronters Indian warriors placed in the front line of battle.