Black Elk Speaks

by

John G. Neihardt

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Black Elk Speaks: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Wasichus take measures to prevent Indians from participating in Ghost Dances. When Good Thunder and Kicking Bear return from seeing the Wanekia, for example, the Wasichus at Pine Ridge imprison them. When people dance later that summer (1890) at No Water’s Camp on Clay Creek, a Wasichu agent tells them to stop dancing. Black Elk sees this as evidence that the Wasichus are afraid of the Wanekia. Black Elk later learns that the Brules, Big Foot’s people, and Sitting Bull’s people are also dancing. People everywhere are in despair and starving, and the movement is gaining traction.
The Wanekia threatens the Wasichus because his Ghost Dance restores the Lakotas’ former unity and strength. Prior to the Wanekia’s emergence, the Lakota had been weakened by displacement and starvation. Now, their hope and unity is restored through a shared faith in the Ghost Dance, and the promise of a better future the Ghost Dance offers.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
The Wasichus continue to lie to the Lakotas, giving them less than half of the food they promised them. While dancing with the Brules at Cut Meat Creek, Black Elk has a vision in which he sees the Flaming Rainbow and a tepee made of cloud. An eagle flies overhead and tells Black Elk, “remember this.” In retrospect, Black Elk sees the eagle’s words as a sign that he was making a mistake in following the lesser visions he had while dancing instead of following his initial, great vision.
As much as the Ghost Dance movement restores the Lakotas’ hope, it fails to exercise much control over how the Wasichus persecute them, as evidenced by how the Wasichus continue to decrease the Lakotas’ rations. Black Elk’s retrospective contemplation of the eagle’s words reflects the general sense of remorse he attaches to his vision: he sees the eagle as warning him that he is straying from the path he must stick to if he wants to realize his great vision and save his people. Black Elk’s contemplation suggests that if he hadn’t gotten distracted by the Ghost Dance, he might have been able to fulfill the destiny given to him in his initial vision.
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
Black Elk returns to the Ogalalas at Wounded Knee after dancing with the Brules. One day, they hear that soldiers from Pine Ridge are coming for them, so they move west, camping at Grass Creek and White Clay. Fire Thunder, Red Wound, and Young American Horse tell the Ogalalas that the Wasichu soldiers want to enforce regulations on the Ghost Dance, though they insist that they wouldn’t take it away from the Lakota; Black Elk’s people are skeptical. At Pine Ridge, Wasichus tell the Indians that they will only be allowed to dance three days a month.
The Pine Ridge soldiers to whom Black Elk refers are troops that were sent by President Harrison to occupy Pine Ridge in order to prevent Indian rebellion. On November 8, 1890, Daniel F. Royer, the government agent who presided over Pine Ridge, tried to make the Lakota give up the Ghost Dance. This scene underscores the growing tensions that the Ghost Dance created between the Wasichus and the Lakota.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
The next day, a policeman stops by to inform Good Thunder and Black Elk that the Wasichus are going to arrest them. That night, they flee to the Brule camp. Black Elk tells the Brules about his visions and the Wanekia. He urges them fight for their way of life and be guided by their dead relatives’ spirits. More Brules join them, and everyone moves down the Wounded Knee River to Smoky Earth River. There, a Catholic priest tries to tell them to go back.
Tensions continue to rise between Ghost Dancers and the U.S. government. The arrest that Black Elk references is an order issued by Agent Royer on November 25, 1890, for the arrest of Ghost Dance leaders. Black Elk’s speech exemplifies his attempt to realize his vision by passing along its wisdom to the public.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
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Black Elk and Good Thunder’s group continues on, moving toward the Badlands. There, they meet with two chiefs, American Horse and Fast Thunder, who force them to go back to Pine Ridge. Most of Brules refuse, but the Ogalalas obey the chiefs. On their way to Pine Ridge, they learn that Sitting Bull was murdered by policemen for resisting arrest. It’s now the end of December in 1890. Black Elk is 27 years old. His people hear that Big Foot and 400 Minneconjou people are coming down from the Badlands, where they had been hiding since Sitting Bull’s murder. Big Foot’s people are starving, and Big Foot is terribly ill, so they head back south. On their way, they’re intercepted by soldiers and taken to Wounded Knee. 
Big Foot’s people surrendered to a detachment of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry on December 28. Once the remainder of the Seventh Cavalry arrived, the Minneconjou were outnumbered by about 100 people. Wounded Knee is located roughly 18 miles east of Pine Ridge, the agency where Big Foot and his people were originally headed. Sitting Bull’s death and the capture of Big Foot and his people presents an even more dire situation for the Lakota, suggesting that in the face of unremitting attacks from the Wasichus, the Ghost Dance won’t be powerful enough to save their people—a second coming is unlikely.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon