Black Elk Speaks

by

John G. Neihardt

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Black Elk Speaks: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The fall after Black Elk performs the elk ceremony (1883), the Wasichus kill the last bison. Unlike the Lakotas, who hunted the bison for their meat, the Wasichus kill the bison for yellow metal, taking only the hides and sometimes only the tongues. Increasingly, Black Elk’s people are moving into the “square gray houses,” living within the boundaries allotted to them by the Wasichus. Black Elk is surrounded by sad, starving people and knows that the nation’s hoop is broken. The Great Father in Washington was supposed to send them money, but Black Elk presumes that the Wasichus must have stolen it and lied.
Because the bison plays such a central role in Lakota culture, the Wasichus’ destruction of the bison population symbolizes the destruction of Lakota culture more generally. Along these lines, being forced to move into “square gray houses” is especially difficult to the Lakota because it means giving up the circular shape of their old homes (tepees), which, as Black Elk explained earlier, is sacred to their people. 
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Related Quotes
Black Elk continues to cure people for three years. In 1886, he hears that the Wasichus want a band of Ogalalas for a show that will be put on “across the  big water.” Black Elk decides to go, hoping that by learning more about the Wasichu way of life, he might be able to help his people. He wonders if it’s possible that the Wasichus’ way of life is better than his people’s—although, in retrospect, he sees these thoughts as the product of despair. Still, his people’s old ways are no longer working, and they are well on their way down the black road. Black Elk hopes he can bring the sacred hope back together and make the tree bloom again in its center. His relatives beg him to stay back, but Black Elk ignores them.
Black Elk joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a traveling vaudeville performance featuring stereotyped depictions of American Indians, cowboys, and other elements associated with the American West. Black Elk realizes that while performing the horse, heyoka, bison, and elk ceremonies has allowed him to harness healing and leadership powers, he remains unable to restore his people to the way they were prior to Wasichu colonization. Black Elk’s decision to travel east may be interpreted as forced cultural assimilation: seeing how the old ways (ceremony, ritual) have failed to protect his people, he entertains the idea of assimilating to the new Washichu ways as a last ditch effort to save his people.
Themes
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Black Elk and about a hundred other men and women are sent on the “iron road” to increasingly larger towns across the country, putting on a show before traveling through the night to the next location. Black Elk is surprised by the big houses and the large amounts of people in the towns. He’s also struck by the bright lights in the towns at night, which shine so brightly he cannot see the stars. Black Elk performs in many shows that winter. He likes performing, but he dislikes the Wasichus’ involvement. He also has yet to find a way to help his people, observing that the Wasichus are greedy and don’t care about one another the way the Indians used to.
The “iron road” refers to the railroad, but it may also be interpreted symbolically as the black road from Black Elk’s vision, thereby suggesting that Black Elk can expect tragedy and hardship in his future. Black Elk positions the Wasichus’ bright lights (electric lights) as opposite of the stars—and, in so doing, he reinforces the Wasichus’ and Lakotas’ opposing relationships with nature.  Black Elk’s travels through Wasichu society confirm his initial belief that the Wasichus are fueled not by compassion, but by greed. 
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In the spring, some of the performers go home. Black Elk and the remaining performers accompany the Wasichus on a big fire-boat. The journey is long and miserable. One night there is a great storm. The Indians are sick and scared, and the Wasichus laugh at them. Black Elk and some others believe they will die, and nobody sleeps that night. In the morning, the wind is strong and the waves look like mountains. Some of the animals on board died in the night. The Wasichus throw a bison overboard, which makes Black Elk cry; to him, this act symbolizes how the Wasichus have thrown away his people’s power.
The ”fire-boat” that Black Elk refer to is the State of Nebraska, a steamship, which departed from New York on March 31, 1887. Black Elk is particularly affected by the Wasichus throwing the bison overboard because the bison is sacred to his people. In contrast, the Wasichus—motivated by greed—see the bison only in terms of its use value. Because the dead, unharvested bison can’t financially benefit the Wasichus, they discard it.
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Eventually, they reach the shore, where Black Elk sees houses that are very close together. The Indians spend the night on the boat. The next day, the Wasichus unload them and take them to the place where they will perform their next show, in a town called London, for “Grandmother England,” who owns Grandmother’s Land. Grandmother England arrives at the show in a “big shining wagon.” Black Elk’s people dance and sing for Grandmother. They all like her because she is kind to them, professing that if the Indians “belonged” to her, she wouldn’t parade them around in a show.
The closely-built houses are the opposite of the High Plains of Black Elk’s home: they are the embodiment of wealth, greed, and Wasichu society, and the rejection of Lakota culture and the natural world. Grandmother England refers to Queen Victoria of Britain.
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Grandmother England tells the Indian performers that they must come visit her, and they do so later that month. Black Elk’s people are brought to her enormous house. Black Elk sees seats arranged in a circle full of people yelling, “Jubilee!” The Wasichus put the Indians in a place near the bottom of the seats and they watch as other shining wagons pulled by horses arrive, carrying Grandmother and her relatives. Grandmother England arrives in the final wagon, wearing a “shining” dress and hat. The Indians sing a song to Grandmother England, and Black Elk wonders whether things might have been different for his people “if she had been our Grandmother.”
Black Elk and the other Wild West performers visit Grandmother England at Earl’s Court, in London, on May 11, 1887. The people yell “Jubilee!” because the performance is a part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of her ascension. Grandmother England’s “shining” clothing is a visible display of her wealth. The reader might compare Grandmother England’s “shining” appearance to the shining, “yellow metal” that has caused Black Elk and his people so much trouble. This passage therefore indicates that the Wasichus’ obsession with material wealth extends far outside Black Elk’s homeland. But despite her obvious wealth, Grandmother England’s kindness makes Black Elk wonder whether his people’s situation wouldn’t be so dire if Britain, and not the U.S., had assumed control of his land. Black Elk’s comment betrays his cynical, defeated stance that it was inevitable that his people would be conquered by some outside force.
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