Black Elk’s people stay in the Soldiers’ Town until the Moon When the Ponies Shed (May). Black Elk’s father tells them they will go back to Crazy Horse and fight with him to keep their country: it’s up to them to do so, as “cheap” chiefs like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail would prefer to sell the land to the Wasichus. Black Elk’s aunt gives him a six-shooter gun to use in battle. Black Elk feels like a man, even though he is still quite young. Black Elk and a small band set out toward Crazy Horse.
Black Elk and his people align themselves with Crazy Horse, and Black Elk’s father explicitly admonishes “cheap” chiefs like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail for being too cooperative with the Wasichus. These details provide further evidence of how ideologically divided the Lakota are becoming over how to respond to colonization.
On their way to Crazy Horse, they come across a group of Wasichus on the Bozeman Trail. Black Elk’s people attack, and Black Elk resigns to die in battle. When the Wasichus see the Indians approaching, they form their wagons into a circle, get inside them, and start shooting. The Indians can’t get at the Wasichus in their wagons, so they retreat. They head forward, traveling quickly to avoid danger. They meet other small bands as they travel to the Rosebud to meet Crazy Horse. In the Moon of Making Fat (June), the gathered tribes perform a sun dance led by Sitting Bull, an important medicine man.
Black Elk is so committed to his culture, his people, and the duty given to him in his vision that he is prepared to die for them—even at such a young age. Despite the division between relatively passive leaders like Red Cloud and war leaders like Crazy Horse, this battle represents an uplifting moment in the narrative where bands of Lakota come together to defeat a common enemy and threat to their collective way of life.
Black Elk explains how the sun dance works: a holy man finds the holy tree and calls others to dance and sing around it. After this, a celebrated warrior hits the tree and gives gifts to the less fortunate. Young maidens bearing axes sing around the tree before chopping it down and removing its branches. Chiefs carry the sacred tree back home, giving thanks along the way. Soldiers on horseback charge at place in the center of the village where the tree will stand, which is now a sacred place. After this, everyone feasts.
Thus far, the book has generally conveyed that ceremony is important to the Lakota—but this passage is the first opportunity for the reader gain insight into what kind of ritual objects and gestures are involved in a Lakota ceremony. Like Black Elk’s vision, the sun dance is rife with symbolic imagery and elaborate ritual gestures. The sun dance parallels Black Elk’s great vision: both feature unified communities gathered around a sacred tree. The sun dance is important to Black Elk as he tells his life story because it reminds him of a time when his people were unified and his cultural practices were untouched by outside influence.
The next day, holy men plant the tree at the center of the village. The following morning, mothers bring their babies to the tree, and soldiers pierce young children’s ears around it. The day after, after purifying themselves in a sweat lodge, participants are painted by holy men. The men’s backs or chests are cut, and they are tied to the tree by strips of rawhide. The men dance, pulling at the rawhide until the pain is too bad or their flesh tears.
Traditionally, individuals were required to have their ears pierced to be considered Lakota. The tree in the sun dance is similar to the red stick and blooming tree in Black Elk’s initial vision; the presence of these objects in Black Elk’s vision and in the sun dance reaffirms that they are sacred.
Black Elk resumes his narrative. After finishing the sun dance, scouts tell the village that there are soldiers camping up the river, preparing to attack. Black Elk’s friend Iron Hawk, a Hunkpapa Indian who was 14 and with Crazy Horse during the battle, describes the scene: two parties set out to fight the Wasichus, who were joined by Crow and Shoshone Indians. A fierce battle ensued. Iron Hawk’s pony was injured, so he retreated into the forest, where he found some Lakotas feasting on a bison they caught. He joined them until evening, when another Lakota scolded them and made them return to battle. Iron Hawk returned to the battle, and the scene was too chaotic for him to tell who was winning. The warriors left when it was dark to look after the women and children, and the Wasichus didn’t follow.
The battle that Black Elk and Iron Hawk describe here is the Fight with Three Stars (General Crook) and his troops, which occurred on June 17, 1876. Joined by Crow and Shoshone warriors, Crook’s forces attacked Lakota and Cheyenne Indians along the Rosebud River. Within the context of the book, the Fight with Three Stars is important because it gives the reader direct insight into Sioux people’s relationship to war and violence: Iron Hawk readily and easily describes his involvement in the battle, which implies a comfort with or acceptance of war and violence. The battle also shows the lengths that the Sioux must go to protect their land from the U.S. troops, who are not above attacking Indian camps unprovoked in order to continue in their westward expansion.
Standing Bear offers his own perspective on the battle, though he didn’t fight in it. He recalls that the morning after the warriors returned, he and some others investigated the sight of the battle and found a pile of dead soldiers wrapped in blankets. There was a ring with a white stone on the finger of one corpse. Standing Bear cut of the corpse’s finger so that he could have the ring, and he kept it for a long time. Another man scalped a dead Wasichu and carried the scalp home on a stick. They stayed at camp for several days before breaking camp and moving to the Greasy Grass.
From a literary perspective, one might interpret Standing Bear stealing the white stone off the corpse’s finger as a metaphorical reclaiming of what’s been stolen from them. The Indians have suffered immensely as a result of the Wasichus’ greed, and now the tables have turned: the Indians not only the defeat the Wasichus in battle but also steal back an item that representatives their obsession with material wealth. The Greasy Grass refers to the area around the Little Bighorn River.