Black Elk Speaks

by

John G. Neihardt

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Black Elk Speaks: Chapter 24 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The morning of the incident, Black Elk hears shooting in the distance. He puts on his sacred shirt, grabs his bow, and he and some others head toward Wounded Knee. The party is intercepted by another man on horseback, who told them that “they have murdered him!” They reach the top of a ridge near the town that is now called Battle Creek and see a chaotic scene in the town beneath them. There is shooting and crying everywhere. Cavalrymen shoot at crowds of women and children trying to escape.
Tensions between the U.S. government and the Sioux— created by the Ghost Dance and exacerbated by Big Foot’s presence at Wounded Knee—culminates in a gruesome massacre, known as the Battle of Wounded Knee, or the Wounded Knee Massacre. Members of the U.S Seventh Cavalry murdered over 100 Lakota, most of whom were women and children. Perhaps more than any other event in Black Elk’s narrative, this incident exemplifies the brutality of the Wasichus and the violent force with which they decimated the Lakotas and their culture.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Black Elk and the others ride over the ridge and fight the cavalrymen. As they make their way along the dry gulch, they see a horrific scene of dead and wounded women, children, and babies who tried to escape. Seeing all this carnage, Black Elk wishes that he, too, were dead.
Black Elk is especially affected by the gruesome scene that lies before him because the visions he has received throughout his life convince him that it was his job to prevent this massacre from happening, and that he failed to do so. Black Elk’s wish for death reflects his refusal to recognize that the massacre was beyond his ability to control.
Themes
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
After the soldiers leave, Black Elk’s friend Dog Chief tells him how the trouble began: that morning, soldiers started to take Big Foot’s people’s guns away. People were stacking their guns and knives in a pile by the tepee where Big Foot laid ill. Soldiers surrounded the Big Foot people completely, and a soldier started to wrestle the gun away from Yellow Bird, which caused the gun to go off. The Wasichus insist that the gunshot was intentional, but Dog Chief, who was right there when it happened, vows that it was an accident. Immediately after the officer was killed, another officer shot and killed Big Foot, and the battle began. Yellow Bird died during the battle. After the fighting was over, a blizzard swept across the lands, burying the dead women, children, and babies in a snowy mass grave.
The Ghost Dance’s transformative power proves to be ineffective in the face of the physical threats (the U.S. Army) directed at the Lakota. Ceremony might be spiritually transformative, but it’s no match for the cavalrymen with their greater forces and deadly weapons, as evidenced by the Wounded Knee Massacre. Positioned at the top of a hill overlooking the Indian camp, the Seventh Cavalry attacked with four Hotchkiss guns, mounted, highly effective guns used by the U.S. Army in the late 19th century.
Themes
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
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