Very little happens to Black Elk until he’s nine years old, and his people observe a relatively peaceful time: the Wasichus build their road along the Platte river and move away, and though the road causes the bison population to diminish, there remains enough for the Lakotas to hunt. Black Elk continues to hear the voices, though he doesn’t know what they want from him. The summer he is nine, his people move west, toward the Rocky Mountains.
The Wasichus’ road refers to the Union Pacific Railway, which was part of the First Transcontinental Railroad. By 1869, the line extended as far west as Promontory Point, Utah. The diminishment of the bison population (one of the Lakotas’ major food sources, as well as an important cultural symbol) that this project brings about is an example of one of the ways in which the Wasichus’ growing presence affects the Lakota’s ability to practice their culture.
One day, while eating with a man named Man Hip in his tepee, Black Elk hears voices calling to him. He leaves the tepee and his legs begin to hurt, and then the voices stop. The next day, his body begins to swell and he feels sick and in pain. One night, he sees the two men coming from the clouds that he had seen when he was four. The men tell him that his Grandfathers are calling him. Black Elk follows the men, and his legs stop hurting. A small cloud appears before him, scoops him up, and carries him away to a cloud world.
Given the important role that nature plays in Lakota culture and spirituality, Black Elk’s journey into a cloud world seems to have spiritual implications. The “Grandfathers” Black Elk is to meet are likely also beings that possess spiritual power. In this way, Black Elk seems to be somehow divine or chosen among his people, which could further exacerbate his feelings of alienation from them. The two men who summon forth Black Elk are the akichita of the north, or messenger geese turned into men.
The two men gesture toward a bay horse, who speaks to Black Elk. The bay horse points to the west where there are 12 black horses, to the north where there are 12 white horses, to the east where there are 12 sorrel horses, and to the south where there are 12 buckskin horses. All of the horses assemble behind the bay horse, who turns to the west and neighs, and the other horses respond with a storm of thunderous neighing. After this, the bay horse turns to the north, east, and south, and the other horses whinny and create colors in the air with their joyous sounds and dancing.
There are four groups of horses in Black Elk’s vision—four is an important ritual number in Lakota culture, as well as in other Native American tribes. Here, for instance, the four bands of horses are connected to the four directions of the world, and to four sacred colors: black, white, red (sorrel), and yellow (buckskin). The fact that these horses are central to Black Elk’s spiritual vision further emphasizes the Lakota’s reverence for nature.
The horses transform into many different kinds of animals before disappearing. Black Elk and the bay horse approach a cloud which transforms into a tepee with a rainbow for a door. There are six old men—the Grandfathers—in the tepee. The oldest Grandfather explains that they have summoned Black Elk to this council to teach him. Black Elk understands these men to be the Powers of the World. One by one, the Grandfathers present Black Elk with their powers and give him a sacred object.
The image of a tepee made of clouds is common in Lakota visions. The rainbow at the tepee’s door is a wígmuke, or “trap,” and is supposed to suppress rain. By presenting Black Elk with powers and sacred gifts, it seems that the Grandfathers are giving Black Elk some kind of spiritual responsibility or duty.
The first Grandfather presents Black Elk with a wooden cup of water that “[is] the sky,” which gives him the power to “make live,” and a bow, for the “power to destroy.” He tells him that “his body and his name is Eagle Wing Stretches” before transforming into an emaciated black horse.
The wooden cup of water gives Black Elk the power to “make live,” or to heal. The bow gives him the power to fight. When the first Grandfather tells Black Elk that “his body and his name is Eagle Wing Stretches,” he is giving his power—which, significantly, is tied to nature through the symbol of the eagle—to Black Elk.
The second Grandfather gives Black Elk a sacred herb. Black Elk feeds the herb to the black horse. The horse fattens and turns back into the first Grandfather. The second Grandfather explains to Black Elk that with “the power of the white giant’s wing, cleansing wind,” he will make the nation live. The second Grandfather then turns into a goose.
The four-rayed herb also has healing powers, as evidenced by its ability to restore the black horse. The second Grandfather gives Black Elk the herb and “the power of the white giant’s wing, cleansing wind” so that Black Elk may restore his nation to health. This may be taken literally, as in healing from sickness, or metaphorically, as in the collective healing of a nation from a state of fragmentation and displacement to a state of unity and cultural richness.
The third Grandfather gives Black Elk a peace pipe with an eagle on its stem, and he tells Black Elk that it will heal sicknesses on Earth. He points to a man painted red. The man turns into a bison and gallops away with the herd of sorrel horses, which have also turned into bison.
The prevalence of bison in this vision and elsewhere in the book shows that they are spiritually significant to the Lakota. In giving Black Elk the peace pipe that can heal sickness, the third Grandfather gives Black Elk the power to heal sickness and, subsequently, a higher calling to help his people.
The fourth Grandfather gives Black Elk a red stick with branches sprouting from it. He tells Black Elk that the stick represents “the living center of a nation.” Black Elk suddenly sees a happy village circled around the stick, which has become a tree. Two roads diverge from the tree, one red and one black. The fourth Grandfather explains to Black Elk that the red road, which goes from north to south, is a good road. The black road goes from the west, where the thunder beings live, to the east, where the sun shines—this road is one of war. Black Elk will walk on both roads, says the Grandfather, and it will bring him the power to defeat his enemies in battle The Grandfather grows very tall and turns into an elk.
The red stick/blooming tree is important because it resonates with Black Elk’s remarks in Chapter 1 about “a holy tree that should have flourished […] and now is withered.” At this point, the tree is still alive and at the center of the village, so the reader might anticipate that it may “wither” or die later in Black Elk’s vision. The black and red roads—which represent a path of adversity and a path of fortune, respectively—represent the future of Black Elk’s people, as well as the paths he must go down to save them.
The fifth Grandfather—the oldest of them all and the one who sent for Black Elk—transforms into an eagle before telling Black Elk that birds will “be like relatives” to him. The sixth Grandfather has long, white hair. Black Elk watches as the Grandfather transforms from an old man into a young boy, who is Black Elk himself. He also gives Black Elk his power, which Black Elk he will need, as his nation is in trouble. The Grandfather exits through the tepee’s rainbow door, and Black Elk follows, riding the bay horse. A voice summarizes all the powers the horses have given Black Elk.
The Lakota already have a close bond with nature, and the fifth Grandfather strengthens this bond when he tells Black Elk that the birds will “be like relatives” to him. He seems to imply that Black Elk will have the power to have special, more nuanced relationships with birds and communicate with them better than other people in his tribe. The sixth Grandfather explicitly tells Black Elk what he can expect of his people’s future when he says that Black Elk’s nation is in trouble.
Black Elk hears a voice tell him to walk on the black road, and that all nations will fear him. Black Elk walks east down the road, followed by other troops on the backs of black, white, sorrel, and buckskin horses. The group approaches a blue man surrounded by flames, whom the troops try and fail to charge. Armed with the wooden cup of water in one hand and a spear in the other, Black Elk charges and kills the blue man, an act which he understands symbolizes rain killing the drought.
Black Elk’s position at the front of this procession suggests that his vision is telling him to be a leader among his people—in other words, his vision is giving him the duty to guide and protect his people as they fall upon harrowing times. Black Elk defeats the blue man with the aid of the wooden cup of water and the sphere that the first Grandfather gave to him, which proves that the objects are sacred.
After this, Black Elk approaches a village in a valley, which a voice tells him is his. The village is full of dead and dying people, but as Black Elk rides through the village, the people recover. A voice tells Black Elk that they have given him “the center of the nation’s hoop” to make the people live. Then, the voice instructs him to give the people the red stick, the sacred pipe, and the wing of the white giant.
That the sick people recover after Black Elk passes through their village foretells his future as a medicine man. The voice’s instruction for Black Elk to give the people the sacred objects outlines what he must use to heal his people. As before, it seems that “healing” can be interpreted to mean the physical healing a medicine man performs, or more symbolically, to mean the cultural healing that Black Elk must do to restore his people’s way of life.
Black Elk places the red stick in the middle of the nation’s hoop and pushes it into the earth. The stick turns into a tree, and the people and animals gather underneath it to live happily. The pipe flies in on eagle wings, and the white wind blows through the tree. The daybreak star rises, and a Voice says that it will bring the people wisdom. The great Voice tells the people to move camp and journey down the red road. The horse riders, the villagers, and the spirits of the dead follow Black Elk down the red road.
When Black Elk places the red stick in the center of the nation’s hoop, he enacts the destiny the vision outlines for him: to restore unity and happiness to his people. In Lakota culture, the daybreak star symbolizes wisdom—more specifically, a wisdom that unites all living elements of the world. Thus, the daybreak star’s presence highlight’s the book’s (and this vision’s) larger idea of unity, and the harmony of humans and the natural world.
As the group journeys down the red road, the Voice tells Black Elk they are walking on a good road in a “sacred manner.” Black Elk looks ahead and sees that they must climb four ascents, each one increasingly steeper and more harrowing. The group passes the first ascent with no difficulties. The people turn into animals; Black Elk is an eagle. The group makes it through most of the second ascent, but they become restless and afraid near the end. Black Elk sees that the leaves are falling from the holy tree. The Voice tells the people they will “walk in difficulties” from now on. Black Elk sees the black road before them, and black clouds forming in the sky. The group carries on along the black road, walking the third ascent, and the nation’s hoop is broken.
The reoccurrence of the number four is significant, as it further emphasizes the importance of four as a sacred number for the Lakota. These four increasingly difficult ascents represent the increasingly difficult threats that the Lakota will face during Black Elk’s lifetime. When the nation’s hoop breaks before the final ascent, it symbolizes the rupturing of his people’s culture and community. If Black Elk’s people are destined to “walk in difficulties,” it is Black Elk’s responsibility to lead them through those difficulties so that they complete them unscathed—in other words, it is his responsibility to fix the nation’s broken hoop.
Black Elk sees that the fourth, final ascent will be difficult. The animals turn back into sickly, starving people. A sacred man, painted all in red, lays down in the center of the people and turns into a bison. A sacred four-rayed herb appears in the place where the tree had been before. Black Elk sees that the people below him are crying—it’s a chaotic scene. Black Elk transforms back into human form and feeds the herb to his own starving horse, which revives the animal.
The animals’ sickly, starving state implies that Black Elk’s people will also experience sickness and food scarcity. That Black Elk heals the starving horse with the four-rayed herb is further evidence that he will be a healing force among his people, and it also affirms that the herb is a sacred object.
Next, four beautiful virgins appear: one virgin holds a wooden cup, one holds a white wing, one holds a pipe, and the last holds the nation’s hoop. They sing and dance in a sacred manner. Black Elk looks at his people, and everyone is happy. He sees the universe as one, and the hoop of his people becomes one of many hoops, all formed around the tree. He sees this as holy. The two men from earlier appear and give Black Elk the sacred herb to plant on Earth. The Voice tells Black Elk he will return to his six Grandfathers now. Black Elk follows the men back to the Grandfather’s tepee, and the men turn into geese. Black Elk arrives, and the Grandfathers congratulate him and present him with the sacred objects from earlier.
The virgins, who symbolize fertility or growth, present Black Elk with the sacred objects that the Grandfathers gave to him earlier. It seems as though these sacred objects have restored Black Elk’s people’s former happiness, as evidenced by their joyous singing and dancing. The “many hoops” that form around the tree transforms Black Elk’s vision from one concerned solely with the Lakotas’ future to one that may be read universally. In other words, the vision proposes the possibility of a harmonious future for humanity as a whole.
The oldest Grandfather tells Black Elk he must return to Earth with the power and wisdom they have granted him. Black Elk looks down and sees his own village below him. He sees his body lying limp and lifeless on the floor, which the Grandfathers see as “a sacred manner.” Black Elk leaves the tepee, feeling lonely. An eagle calls to him, and he sees that the tepee has disappeared behind him. Homesick, Black Elk returns to his own tepee, where he finds his parents tending to his sick body. He feels sad because his parents don’t seem to know where he’s been.
When the oldest Grandfather tells Black Elk to return to Earth, he means that Black Elk should return to Earth with the purpose of sharing his new wisdom with his people and using the powers the Grandfathers gave him to restore their culture’s health. The sadness Black Elk feels when he returns home reflects his changed psychological state: he feels lonely because he realizes that his parents cannot understand the place he’s been and the things he’s learned there.