Black Road asks a wise man named Bear Sings to help with the dance. The village sets up a sacred tepee that is painted with pictures from Black Elk’s vision. Black Road and Bear Sings purify Black Elk in a sweat lodge and dry him with sage. Black Elk teaches them songs he heard in his vision. They procure four sets of four horses to represent the north, south, east, and west, as well as a bay horse for Black Elk to ride. Four beautiful maidens and six old men are selected to take part in the vision, as well. Next, they paint and dress the humans and horses for the dance while singing a sacred song. Everyone looks beautiful but fearful. The Grandfathers paint the black and red roads in the middle of the tepee, and place the sacred objects from Black Elk’s dream around them.
The horse dance is important because it highlights the importance of ceremony in Lakota culture, as well as ceremony’s ability to bring about real consequences. The horse dance allows Black Elk to perform his private vision so that he and his people can understand its meaning, and in so doing, accept Black Elk’s status as a visionary. Sage is used in many Lakota rituals as a purifying agent.
Black Elk stands in the sacred tepee and holds a red stick. The dance begins with the Grandfathers singing and announcing the horse rider. As each band of horses is announced, they take their place behind the Grandfathers. Black Elk is struck by his vision and realizes that the dance is only a shadow of the spirit world his vision represents.
When Black Elk says that the horse dance is only a shadow of the spirit world that his vision represents, he means that there are essences of the spirit world that words cannot convey. Ceremony, therefore, is the next-best way for one to attempt to understand the mysteries of the spirit world.
Black Elk sees the Six Grandfathers before him in the cloud, as well as himself on the bay horse. A thunder cloud emerges and it begins to storm in the distance, but only a “little sprinkle” falls on the villagers. The virgins offer the holy relics to the sky. Sick people in the village approach the virgins, and afterward they feel cured and joyful.
Publicly performing his vision allows Black Elk to revisit the spiritual cloud world. Prior to this, Black Elk has only felt strange or uncanny feelings that remind him of his vision, briefly heard voices, or noticed thunder clouds that he associates with the vision. This direct engagement with the vision shows that the horse dance is working—that Black Elk is becoming better acquainted with what the vision means and what it asks of him.
The Grandfathers beat their drums. The four black horsemen lead a procession toward the western side of the village and all the riders join behind them. Each band of horses is given a chance to lead. The procession faces the west, east, south, and north, and at each direction, Black Elk prays to the spirits for wisdom and protection. When everyone is facing the sacred tepee, Black Elk cries out “hoka hey,” and everyone charges toward it. The horses are rubbed down with sacred sage. The Grandfathers sprinkled fresh soil on the nation’s hoop that was in the sacred tepee, and during the procession, the tiny pony hoofprints of the “spirit horses” from Black Elk’s vision had apparently appeared on the hoop.
The Grandfathers that Black Elk refers to now are the horse dance performers playing the role of the Grandfathers—not the actual Grandfathers in his vision. The nation’s hoop’s presence is important here because it reaffirms Black Elk’s most immediate task at hand: to restore his people, his culture, and the unification they had before Wasichu colonization. The presence of the “spirit horse” hoofprints implies that the ceremony caused both the spirit world and the physical world to converge.
Black Road takes the sacred pipe from a maiden and fills it with red willow bark, offering it to the Powers of the World. Then, the pipe is smoked and passed around to the whole village. Everyone is happy after the horse dance, and Black Elk no longer feels fear and anxiety. Before, the medicine men had refused to talk to him, but now they want to hear about his vision.
Smoking the pipe unifies Black Elk and his people. Symbolically, this implies Black Elk’s shift from alienation and social isolation to acceptance: he is now unified with his people, and they now accept him as a medicine man, all as a result of the ceremonial performance of the horse dance.