Black Elk Speaks is an autobiography of a Sioux Indian that shared his story to author John Neihardt. As you read through this novel it becomes clear that Black Elk gave Neihardt the gift of his life’s narrative, including the visions he had and some of the Sioux rituals he had performed. Black Elk tells a story about his family, his tribe, his people, and the circle of life. But most of all Black Elk speaks about his life and his spiritual journey. This is a story of a Lakota holy man that, as he speaks, we go deeper and deeper into his visions.
From his colorful words we are able to catch a glimpse of Native American religion and their spirituality. By the symbols and Black Elk’s words, we are able to get an idea what his religion is about and how it affects them in their daily life. But Black Elk Speaks is not just the story of one man. Black Elk himself said that if it were, it would not be a story worth telling. It is also the history of the Sioux during his lifetime: 1863-1950. Since Black Elk wasn’t old enough for some of the early battles described in the book, he gives the chance to other Lakota Indians to share their experiences.
Black Elk Speaks covers the Sioux’s transition from pre-reservation life to reservation life. Black Elk speaks about his culture and how the traditional Sioux Indian’s way of life created interdependence between man and nature. Appreciating nature, giving thanks to mother earth and taking care of their own was what the Native American lived for, unlike the white man or “Wasichus” as Black Elk called them, who came to America looking to take control of the Sioux land, using all the natural resources while looking for their precious metal, gold.
The Native American was about balance and only taking enough so there would be more for tomorrow. Appreciating earth and nature is where most of their religion and symbols came from. Respect for the cycle of the seasons and the animals’ lifevwas necessary in order to secure food, clothing, and shelter. The Native American not only celebrates nature, but spirits as well. The buffalo hide is a symbol for the Spirit of the Earth which entails all the good things in life.
They use all parts of the buffalo and bison for everything from the food they eat, to the clothing they wore and the tepees in which they lived. The Indians do not waste anything. When the Indians lived in cooperation with nature, those necessities were available to them in such abundance, that their very existence seemed proof of the care the One Great Spirit or Spirit of the Sky, symbolized by the eagle feather, which had taken care of them for so long. They celebrate the west, signified by the color black and a wooden cup filled with water and a bow.
It symbolizes thunder, rain and giving or destruction of life. The north is the color white which symbolizes a cleansing wind and special herbs used in spiritual rituals for healing. The east or morning light is symbolized by the color red and the sacred peace pipe. When the pipe was filled and smoked among the Indians it was said to bring wisdom to those who partook of it. The south is the color yellow and it represents summer and a sacred tree of which represents the tribe community as a whole. These are the six spirits signified by the grandfathers in Black Elk’s vision.
In this novel it showed how when the westward expansion of the Wasichus destroyed that interdependence, it violated the Sioux’s take on their scared traditions as well as their old way life, which seemed more distant with everyday past. In traditional expedition stories, the hero brings something back to the community. What Black Elk wants to bring back to his community is a restored sense of tribal identity, but the westward expansion of Wasichus makes that impossible. Though treaties were made throughout the early years of the invasion they were not honored.
Many Indians coerced into signing only after being secretly given an intoxicating liquor. Other treaties were made by honorable Wasichus but were not carried out by their fellow soldiers. The Indians were told that as long as the grass grew and the water flowed the land would belong to them, but the Wasichus were not faithful or trustworthy people. In contrast to other adventure stories, Black Elk’s story ends with a feeling of pity and despair, so much to the point that he felt he was unworthy of his great vision because the sacred tree had died and the Indians circle of life was broken.
He recognizes that as a healer he helped individual people, but mourns the fact that he could not restore his nation to its original purity. As I read this novel I came to admire Black Elk for the unfailing respect he had for his elders and the earth although, I found it hard to relate to some of his beliefs and difficult to grasp the descriptions of his various visions. Some details were very tedious and it was hard to go on. Getting a small taste of the what the Indians experienced during that time period, definitely depresses me in some ways making me think that this land is not even our own.
The appreciation, respect and recognition of the earth and it resources by the Sioux was amazing to read about because not much of that reverence is seen today. I had a narrow view of the Indian culture before reading this book and had no idea of the extreme measures taken which have brought the Indians to near extinction. Although somewhat monotonous in places, Black Elk Speaks was a decent first-hand account of a well-traveled, very wise holy man that tried to re-establish his broken tribe. I definitely have a greater understanding and respect for the Sioux Indians now that had their culture and land ripped out from underneath them.