Black Elk begins his narrative, providing his audience with background on his family: he is a Lakota of the Ogalala band, and he is the fourth person of his family to be named Black Elk. He comes from a family of medicine men, and Black Elk’s father and Crazy Horse’s father were cousins. His mother’s name is White Cow Sees. Her father’s name is Refuse-to-Go, and her mother’s name is Plenty Eagle Feathers. Black Elk’s father’s father was killed by the Pawnees, and his father’s mother, Red Eagle Woman, died soon after. Black Elk was born in the Moon of the Popping Trees (December) on the Little Powder River in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed (1863). When he was three years old, his father broke his leg in the Battle of the Hundred Slain.
The Lakota are the western division of the Sioux nation, and the Ogalala are one of seven Lakota bands. Black Elk’s family history—notably, that his people are healers and warriors—informs his own experiences and gives further validity to his words. The Lakota refer to each month by moons named according the seasonal changes that occur within that month, which shows how extensively the Lakota orient their sense of the world around nature. Years are referred to as “winters” and are named after significant events that occurred within that year. The “Battle of the Hundred Slain” refers to the Fetterman Fight (1866), a battle during Red Cloud’s War (a conflict between allied Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes versus the U.S. in the Wyoming and Montana territories). In this battle, a group of warriors led by Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, among others, defeated a detachment of the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming.
As a young child, Black Elk hears much talk of how they must fight the Wasichus, who are going to take over their country. He later learns that the Wasichus and his people are fighting over “the yellow metal that makes [the Wasichus] crazy.” The Wasichus wanted to build a road through Black Elk’s people’s country to where they’d found the yellow metal, but the Ogalalas fear that a road would scare away the bison and attract even more Wasichus. The Wasichus insist that they don’t want much of the Oglala’s land, but the Ogalalas know better than to trust them.
The Wasichus’ (white people’s) fixation on “yellow metal,” or gold, is indicative of their greed and obsession with monetary gain. By describing the Wasichus’ obsession with gold as “crazy,” Black Elk implicitly criticizes the inherent greediness of Wasichu culture. The road that Black Elk refers to is the Bozeman Trail, a branch of the Oregon Trail that passed through Lakota hunting grounds along the Platte River and through Wyoming, and that was built to access Montana’s gold fields.
Once, Black Elk recalls, the “two-leggeds” and the “four-leggeds” had lived together harmoniously, and there had been much to eat—but this changed after the Wasichus arrived and destroyed and stole the land out of greed. Black Elk tells a story his father told him about Drinks Water, a Lakota holy man, who had a premonition of the future in which the four-leggeds go back to the earth and a “strange race” disrupts the harmony and community of the Lakota people. In Drinks Water’s dream, the Lakotas go to live in a “barren land” in “square gray houses” and starve. After his witnessing his vision, Drinks Water died of sorrow, which confirmed for the Lakota people that the grim fate Drinks Water foresaw in his dream will come true.
That the “two-leggeds” (humans) and “four-leggeds” (animals) could no longer live in harmony after the Wasichus’ arrival denotes the stark differences in the way the Lakota and the Wasichus regard nature. While Lakota see themselves and nature as interdependent parts of a larger picture, the Wasichus only see nature in terms of how they can exploit for financial gain. Drinks Water’s dream foreshadows the diminishment of American Indian food supplies and the displacement of America Indian peoples from their rightful lands to government agencies, where they’ll be forced to abandon their traditional lodging for the “square gray houses” of the Wasichus.
Black Elk introduces the audience to his older friend, Fire Thunder, to describe fighting in the Battle of the Hundred Slain. Fire Thunder explains that Chief Red Cloud had called together the dispersed Lakota bands in the Moon of the Changing Season (October) to wage war against the growing mass of Wasichu settlers. Fire Thunder describes a bloody battle in which even a dog is shot full of arrows. He notes that this is the battle in which Black Elk’s father injured his leg.
When Black Elk turns to Fire Thunder to verify certain parts of his narrative, he imbues his narrative with a heightened authenticity. The Lakotas’ success during the Battle of the Hundred Slain was due to their unity—something that has since been lost. This success also alerts the reader to the warrior culture for which the Sioux are famous.
After this battle, Black Elk recalls his mother warning him not to play too far away from their tepee, or else the Wasichus would find him. There isn’t much to eat that winter, and many of the bands migrating west, away from the Wasichus, get lost from the others, having gone snowblind.
It was common for Lakota parents to portray Wasichus as bogeymen to deter their children from misbehaving. The threat of white settlers causes Lakota tribes to disperse, which leads to the fragmentation of a once-unified community.
That summer, Black Elk’s people camp along the Rosebud. They are far away from the Wasichus, and things seemed peaceful. Black Elk and the other boys play war games, and he dreams of going into battle when he is older to defeat the Wasichus. Around the Moon When the Cherries Turn Black, another battle, the Attacking of the Wagons, occurs. Fire Thunder was in this battle, as well, and he tells the audience about how the Indian were unsuccessful, unable to compete against the Wasichus’ new, powerful guns.
From an early age, Black Elk feels a desire and sense of duty to defeat the Wasichus, recognizing the threat they pose to his people’s unified community and culture. As before, Fire Thunder’s interjection imbues Black Elk’s narrative with a verifiable authenticity.
Standing Bear, Black Elk’s friend who is four years older than him, tells the audience that they camped on the Powder that winter. Black Elk then explains that the following summer, when he was five years old, he first heard the voices, which scared him. He remembers this period as a time of relative peace: the Wasichus had retreated, and in the Moon of Falling Leaves (November), Red Cloud signed a treaty with the Wasichus that said the Indians could keep their land.
Black Elk sets up his early boyhood as something of a calm before the storm: he has very little to report from this time because the Wasichus’ presence has yet to disrupt the Lakota way of life or destroy the unity of their people in irreversibly destructive ways. The young Black Elk seems to regard the treaty that Red Cloud signs with the Wasichus optimistically. The reader should recall Black Elk’s somber opening remarks in Chapter 1, however, and know that the peaceful time Black Elk describes now won’t last for long.
When Black Elk is five, he is out shooting with a bow and arrows his grandfather made for him. Just as he is about to shoot a bird, the bird speaks to him and says “the clouds all over are one-sided.” Suddenly, from the clouds, Black Elk sees two men singing a sacred song and calling to him from “the place where the giant lives.” They came close to Black Elk before turning toward the setting sun and turning into geese. Black Elk is afraid to tell anyone about his vision.
“The clouds all over are one-sided” is a metaphorical message foretelling Black Elk’s victories in battle: the Lakota word for “one-sided: is wasánica, which also connotes “success.” In Lakota culture, geese are seen as messengers of the power of the north. Black Elk’s fear of telling others about his vision frame his visionary powers as an alienating force that makes it harder for him to connect with others.