Black Elk Speaks

by

John G. Neihardt

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Black Elk Speaks: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Black Elk sees that his people’s situation has gotten much more dire during his time abroad. Now, nothing will grow, and the Wasichus have killed all the bison. The most recent treaty that Three Stars forced them to sign took away half of the remaining Lakota land. Because Black Elk’s people are mostly confined to agencies, there is nothing they can do. Black Elk’s power went away while he was overseas, but his power returns once he is back, and he is able to keep curing people. Still, many people are sick with measles and whooping cough, and many young children die.
The treaty that Black Elk references was arranged in a commission headed by Three Stars (General Crook) in 1889. The treaty drastically reduced Sioux food rations. Despite the return of Black Elk’s powers, external circumstances like sickness and starvation are beyond his control, and his people continue to suffer despite his spiritual calling to save them.
Themes
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
The summer that Black Elk returns (1889), he hears talk of a Paiute man out west who has supposedly spoken to the Great Spirit in a vision and learned how to take back their country from the Wasichus. Black Elk’s people send Good Thunder, Brave Bear, and Yellow Breast to see if the man is telling the truth. That fall, they return bearing good news: they saw the Paiute man, whom the Wasichus call Jack Wilson but whose real name is Wovoka. The Indians believe that Wovoka is a Wanekia, or messiah. Wovoka told the men that there would be a second world coming, “just like a cloud,” that would crush everything in the dying world and restore things to how they had been in old times.
The imagery of Wovoka’s vision parallels the imagery of Black Elk’s great vision. Wovoka’s emergence provides a glimmer of hope for the increasingly subjugated, suffering Lakota people. In particular, the second world coming in “just like a cloud” connotes the idea that the Lakota’s spirituality (and particularly their reverence for the natural world) will somehow prevail over the Wasichus.
Themes
Nature Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Wovoka gave Good Thunder sacred red paint and two eagle feathers. He told them that they must paint their faces and perform a Ghost Dance to get to the other world when the time came. Performing the Ghost Dance would also make the Wasichus disappear. Black Elk had initially been skeptical, but he begins to see the similarities between his vision and Wovoka’s and wonders whether they could both come true and allow his people to get back on the red road.
The red paint and eagle feathers are additional examples of the sacred elements that Black Elk’s and Wovoka’s visions have in common. Wovoka’s vision is particularly intriguing to Black Elk because it provides him with a more concrete outline of what he needs to do to save his people: before, while he knew what he had to do, he didn’t know how he could accomplish this major task. The Ghost Dance presents Black Elk with a concrete action he can perform to save his people.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
That winter is a harsh one. Many people die from “the bad sickness,” including Black Elk’s father. Black Elk’s brother and sister died while he was overseas, and now it’s only his Black Elk’s mother and himself. He works at a Wasichu store so that they can afford to eat.
Again, Black Elk’s visionary powers are useless in the face of physical problems like sickness. Black Elk works as a clerk in a store in Manderson, the town he lived in at the time in which his interviews with Neihardt took place.
Themes
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
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That winter, more people journey out west to hear more about Wovoka. There is another meeting in 1890, and people insist that the sacred man is the son of the Great Spirit who was killed by the Wasichus long ago: in other words, he is a Wanekia, or messiah. They say that Wovoka’s “cloud in a whirlwind” will come the following spring, in 1891. Black Elk later hears that Kicking Bear performed the first Ghost Dance at the head of the Cheyenne Creek, and that people who danced saw their dead relatives. Black Elk hears about dancing being held at Wounded Knee Creek.
The emergence of Wovoka as a Wanekia gives the Lakota a renewed sense of hope that their suffering will end. Until now, their situation has worsened steadily, and has shown no sign of improving. Wovoka and his promise of an apocalyptic second coming gives the Lakota the strength to move forward, and the Ghost Dance provides them with a concrete way they can bring about change and restore their culture.  
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Although Black Elk doesn’t yet fully believe in Wovoka’s vision, Black Elk’s father’s death inspires him to think about it more deeply. He rides to Wounded Knee to see what the Ghost Dance is all about. There, he sees how closely the dance resembles his vision: for example, the dancers dance in a circle around a red-painted tree. The vision and the dance also have sacred objects in common, like the pipe and the eagle feathers. Black Elk is overcome with happiness and decides that he will participate in the dance to finally put his power to use.
Seeing the Ghost Dance confirms for Black Elk his suspicion that there is a connection between his vision and Wovoka’s prophecy. That it takes physically seeing the Ghost Dance for Black Elk to realize this connection reinforces the transformative power of ceremony.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon