It’s now the summer of 1874, and Black Elk is 11 years old. His people have been camping in the Black Hills. One evening, a thunder cloud approaches from the west. The cloud reminds Black Elk of his vision, which upsets him. The next day, Black Elk and his friends are hunting squirrels when he hears a voice tell him to go back. When they return to camp, everyone is packing up because Chips, a medicine man, heard a voice telling him to leave, as something is about to happen.
Black Elk is upset by the thunder because it reminds him that he has yet to respond to the higher calling the Grandfathers bestowed upon him in his great vision. In this way, nature seems to act as a kind of higher spiritual authority that can inspire fear and shame in people as well as awe and reverence.
Black Elk and his friends head out around sundown and travel all night toward Spring Creek, and then south along the Good River. Scouts warn them that there were a lot of soldiers in the Black Hills, which was what Chips foresaw. They continue toward Smoky Earth River. Later on, Black Elk learns that it was Pahuska (Custer) and his soldiers who were in the Black Hills and who had no right to be there, as it was the Lakota people’s country. Custer and his people had broken their promise because they found “yellow metal” in the Hills. Black Elk’s people already knew there was yellow metal in the Hills, but they left it there, as they had no use for it.
George Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874, which resulted in the discovery of gold on the land. Pahuska is a Lakota word meaning “long hair”—use of this name was not exclusive to Custer. Black Elk’s people don’t care about the “yellow metal” (gold) because they have no immediate use for it: they can’t eat it, nor can they make anything useful with it. In contrast, the Wasichus are interested in the gold because they can use it to amass more wealth.
Black Elk’s people spend the winter in the Soldiers’ Town because more Wasichus are coming from the Missouri River to find the yellow metal in the Black Hills. Black Elk’s people make plans to put an end to the metal digging. Red Cloud says that the soldiers are keeping the diggers out, but Black Elk’s people don’t believe him—they call Red Cloud’s people “Hang-Around-the-Fort” and accuse them of siding with the Wasichus.
Black Elk’s people want to put an end to the metal digging because they know that the Wasichus are “crazy” for it and will stop at nothing to acquire more. The contentious relationship between cooperative chiefs like Red Cloud and more rebellious Lakota like Black Elk’s people shows how the growing Wasichu presence creates ideological separation between previously unified, ideologically harmonious tribal communities.
Black Elk’s people have a sun dance in the Soldiers’ Town that summer, during the Moon of Making Fat (June), though few participate. In the Moon When the Calves Grow Hair (September) there is a council with the Wasichus and people from the Lakota, Shyela, and Blue Cloud tribes to discuss the gold-digging. The talk is unsuccessful: Black Elk’s father tells him that the Grandfather at Washington wants to lease the Hills to the Wasichu to dig for the yellow metal, because the Wasichus would just take it anyway if the land wasn’t given to it to them.
The “Grandfather at Washington” refers to the U.S. president and to the U.S. government, more generally. The government’s decision to let the Wasichus dig in the Hills would represent a severing of the Laramie Treaty of 1868. Black Elk presents the Wasichus’ need to dig for gold as almost pathological, implying that he sees their fixation with gold—and, by extension, greed—as unnatural and problematic.
After the council, the Wasichus arrive in droves and build villages in the Hills. In response, Black Elk’s people decide to go to Crazy Horse in his camp on the Powder. On their journey, Black Elk sometimes wanders off alone and tries to summon back his vision so that he can figure out a way to save his people’s land, though he is repeatedly unable to do so. Black Elk wins some “black medicine” (coffee) from competing in a pony race with a boy named Fat, and he believes that the “white wing of the wind” given to him by the second Grandfather gave him the power to win.
Black Elk develops a conflicted attitude toward his vision. On the one hand, his inability to act on his vision and help his people frustrates him. On the other hand, he also sees the vision as helping him in other, smaller aspects of life, as in this instance, where the “white wing of the wind” helps him win the pony race.
Black Elk’s people run into some of the Hang-Around-the-Fort people, who retreat to the Soldiers’ Town when they hear that Black Elk’s people are going to meet Crazy Horse: they suspect that Crazy Horse will want to fight, and they don’t want trouble. Black Elk is anxious to see his cousin Crazy Horse, who is a skilled warrior who can protect his people from their growing troubles.
Specifically, “Hang-Around-the-Fort people” was the name given to an Ogalala and Brule Lakota band formed in the 1850 around Fort Laramie. Many of the women of this band married white soldiers. Black Elk respects Crazy Horse because he sees him as a restorative figure: someone who, unlike the Hang-Around-the-Fort people, will work to preserve his people’s way of life.
Crazy Horse was the first chief in Black Elk’s family, having become one after he had a vision in boyhood. Crazy Horse’s vision gave him power in every battle; in fact, until he was murdered by the Wasichus on White River, he was wounded only twice. Black Elk reflects that if the Wasichus hadn’t murdered Crazy Horse, his people would probably still have the Black Hills. Everyone is a little afraid and intimidated of Crazy Horse when he’s still alive, as he’s somewhat strange and secluded.
Black Elk’s depiction of Crazy Horse as someone who is tormented by his visions seems to draw a parallel to his own life thus far: both Black Elk and Crazy Horse are from the same family, and both have had visions that cause them to self-isolate. Perhaps some of Black Elk’s anxiety about not fulfilling the destiny dictated to him in his vision derives from wanting to live up to Crazy Horse—someone who received a vision and used it to succeed in battle.
When Black Elk’s people set up camp on the Powder River, they take extra precautions to protect themselves against the Crows, building a corral for their horses to protect them from the Crows, who were known horse thieves. Still, a Crow tries to steal a horse, and a Lakota horse guard shoots and kills him. Black Elk explains the “counting coup” ritual, in which women cut up and scatter the dead man’s body parts and everyone participates in a “kill dance.”
The reader should recall the Crow horse thieves from the “High Horse’s Courting” story. Here, Black Elk reinforces that the Crow are the Lakota’s enemies and known horse thieves. Black Elk’s inclusion of the “counting coup” and “kill dance” rituals reinforces ceremony’s importance in Lakota culture.
That winter, Wasichu runners come to Black Elk’s people to order them to come to the Soldiers’ Town immediately, or there will be trouble. Black Elk’s people refuse, as they’re on their own land and it would be too dangerous to make the journey. In the Moon of the Dark Red Calves (February), the snow thaws, and they head over to the Soldiers’ Town. Crazy Horse stays behind with 100 tepees. In the Moon of the Snowblind (March), Wasichu soldiers storm Crazy Horse’s sleeping camp. They steal horses murder as many people as they can, and light tepees on fire. Crazy Horse assembles warriors and fights back.
This incident refers to the morning of March 16, 1876, in which Colonel Reynolds and six companies of cavalry attacked Crazy Horse’s village. This development reinforces Crazy Horse as a character who stands his ground and fights back on behalf of his people and his culture. It also illustrates with new, vivid detail the gruesomeness and inhumanity with which white people treated the Lakota.