Black Elk Speaks

by

John G. Neihardt

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Black Elk Speaks can help.

Black Elk Speaks: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Black Elk explains to his audience that someone who has had a vision can’t use it until he demonstrates his power publicly—he wasn’t able to practice as a medicine man and cure people by using the Spirits’ powers until after the heyoka ceremony. He also stresses that it’s not his power, but the Spirits’: had Black Elk operated under the believe that it was he who was curing the weak, the powers would cease to exist.
Black Elk reaffirms how crucial public ceremonies are to one’s ability to access their private visions and powers. He displays his humility and reverence for Lakota culture when he maintains that his powers belong to the Spirits rather than to him personally.
Themes
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Black Elk admits that until now, as he is telling his life story to Neihardt, he never told one person all of his vision—not even his friend, Standing Bear, or his son, Ben Black Elk. He wonders whether he will die, now that he has given his vision away by talking about it but decides it’s important for him to record it.
That Black Elk hasn’t been able to talk about his vision to anybody—even a close friend or a relative—shows how alienating his higher purpose has been, despite the moments of community with which the horse dance and the heyoka ceremony have provided him. Black Elk’s decision to tell his vision to Neihardt is motivated by the desire to save his culture: by recording his vision in writing through Neihardt, he can preserve the memory of his people and their culture that the Wasichus systematically tried to erase.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Alienation Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Black Elk resumes his narrative to describe how he performed the bison part of his vision. To perform the bison ceremony, Black Elk gets a wise medicine man named Fox Belly to help him. With Fox Belly’s and One Side’s help, Black Elk performs the bison part of his vision in a space inside a sacred tepee meant to look like a bison wallow. The bison wallow has the nation’s hoop in its center and a red road with bison tracks across both ends. Black Elk and One Side are painted red, like the man in his vision who was turned into a bison, and act like bison. After the bison ceremony, everyone drinks from the sacred cup, and Black Elk no longer doubts the meaning of his vision or his ability to heal others.
Each subsequent performance brings Black Elk closer to understanding his initial vision. The bison ceremony lets Black Elk access the part of his great vision in which the man painted red turns into a bison. It also represents Black Elk’s ability to direct his people away from the black road of hardship on which they’ve been walking and refocus them toward the red road of prosperity. If the heyoka ceremony affirmed Black Elk’s power as a healer, this ceremony affirms his power as a guide.
Themes
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The next summer in 1883, when Black Elk is 21 years old, he performs the elk ceremony, which symbolizes growth. He enlists Running Elk, Standing Bear’s uncle, to help. Six men are selected to be the elk, and four virgins to represent the four quarters of the earth. The elk men and virgins perform the elk ceremony, utilizing the sacred objects and colors featured in Black Elk’s first vision.
In Lakota culture, elk symbolize growth and male generative power. Performing the elk ceremony brings Black Elk even closer to understanding another aspect of his vision, as the sacred objects he visualized are being used in a ceremony that connotes growth and progress.
Themes
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Get the entire Black Elk Speaks LitChart as a printable PDF.
Black Elk Speaks PDF