Black Elk is going to tell his audience (whom he directly refers to as “you”) the story of his life. He’ll focus on his vision, which he failed to realize, and on “a holy tree that should have flourished […] and now is withered” that belonged to his people, who have been destroyed.
The ”you” that Black Elk addresses refers to Neihardt, the book’s author, who wrote the book based on a series of conversations he had with Black Elk. Other tribal members were also present during their conversations. Neihardt’s decision to present Black Elk Speaks as a first-person narrative gives the account a layer of authenticity. In theory, the reader can trust that Black Elk Speaks is authentic because it is presented as Black Elk’s own words (though the conversations were translated from Lakota to English by Black Elk’s son and transcribed by Neihardt). Black Elk addresses a specific audience when he tells his story, but the narrative perspective (addressing his audience as “you”) can also give the reader the impression that Black Elk is telling his story directly to them. The story’s first-person narrative perspective also emphasizes the significance of oral tradition (cultural ideas and stories passed down through spoken word) in Lakota culture. Lastly, Black Elk introduces the “holy tree” as a symbol of his culture’s destruction.
Black Elk asks for help from the “Spirit of the World” to see the truth. He gestures toward a sacred pipe, which he fills with red willow bark. He explains the pipe’s meaning, noting its four ribbons, which symbolize the four quarters of the universe. Black is for the west, where the “thunder beings” live. White for the north and the “cleaning wind.” Red for the east, where light comes from and where the morning star, who gives men wisdom, lives. Yellow symbolizes summer and growth. Black Elk gestures toward an eagle feather on the pipe that also gives humans wisdom. He points to the bison hide on the pipe’s mouthpiece, which symbolizes the earth, where all living beings originate.
The “Spirit of the World” is a collective term that designates all that the Lakota believe to be sacred. Black Elk’s offering of the sacred pipe introduces the reader to the important role that sacred objects and gestures play in Black Elk’s people’s culture. That the four quarters of the universe are represented as wind, and have natural connotations attached to them, shows the reader how largely nature factors into Lakota culture. The presence of the eagle feather and bison hide also reinforces nature’s importance.
Black Elk discusses the pipe’s origins: a long time ago, two scouts were looking for bison when a woman approaches them from the north. The first scout speaks inappropriately of the woman. The second scout scolds him for speaking this way about a “sacred woman.” As the woman approaches the scouts, they see that she is very beautiful and wears a white buckskin dress. The woman can hear their thoughts and tells the inappropriate scout to come forward. He does so, and a white cloud appears, engulfing them both. The woman steps out of the cloud and blows it away to reveal that scout is now only a skeleton crawling with worms.
When Black Elk tells Neihardt about the sacred pipe’s origins, he further emphasizes the importance of oral tradition to Lakota culture. This story also gives the reader insight into which objects and elements are important to Lakota culture. For example, Black Elk specifies that the woman approaches from the north, which reinforces to the reader the significance of the four quarters of the world and the natural elements they represent.
The woman turns to the remaining scout and tells him to have his village build her a tepee. Later, the woman enters, singing a sacred song. A white cloud appears as she sings, and she gives a sacred pipe to the chief. The woman promises that the pipe will bring good fortune to the nation. As the people watch her go, she transforms into a white bison. Black Elk doesn’t know if any of this really happened, but he knows that it is nonetheless true. He lights the pipe, offers it to the Great Spirit, or “Grandfather,” and asks for the strength to understand the world. Then, Black Elk and his audience smoke the pipe.
The woman’s sacred song shows how important public performance and ceremony are to Lakota culture. According to the Lakota, smoking the sacred pipe connects its participants to one another and makes their relationship good-spirited. By passing around the pipe, Black Elk establishes an environment of unity among his listeners. Neihardt uses the terms “Great Spirit” and “Spirit of the World” interchangeably.