Black Elk describes his participation in the Battle of Little Big Horn. After fighting the Wasichus along the Rosebud, Black Elk’s people camp along the south side of the Greasy Grass, where they are joined by many other tribes. The river waters are high from the snow melt on the Bighorn Mountains. The day before the battle, a medicine man named Hairy Chin dresses Black Elk and some other boys as bears for the curing ceremony of Rattling Hawk, a man wounded in the fight on the Rosebud. Being painted as a bear makes Black Elk thinks of his vision, and he suddenly feels that something horrible will happen. Rattling Hawk improves after this ceremony. The boys run to the river to wash off their paint, and then they return to the camp, where the Black Elk’s people have “kill talks.”
Rattling Hawk’s curing ceremony is an example of the ability of ceremony or ritual gesture to elicit real change: in this case, the healing ceremony results in Rattling Hawk’s recovery. The healing ceremony that Black Elk participates in is the Bear ceremony; according to Lakota, the Bear spirit gives men the power to heal wounds. Black Elk’s participation in the healing ceremony is important to his character development as well as to the narrative arc that traces his journey toward being able to use the healing powers given to him in his initial great vision. “Kill talks” are when warriors boast of their victories and bravery in battle. Within the context of the narrative, kill talks reinforce the importance of warrior culture to the Sioux— and thus, the importance of defending their culture.
The next day, Black Elk feels ill. Just as Black Elk and some other boys are greasing themselves to go for a swim in the river, a crier from the Hunkpapa camp announces that the Wasichus are coming. Everyone gets their horses and prepares to fight. Black Elk’s father tells Black Elk to bring a gun to his brother, who went off with some of the Hunkpapa to fight. Black Elk sees the soldiers appear on the big horses. The soldiers shoot at the Indians.
Black Elk’s ill feeling seems to be evidence of his visionary powers warning him of the impending danger. The Soldiers shooting at the Indians that Black Elk references are Major Marcus A. Reno’s detachment of Custer’s forces. Reno’s detachment attacked the south end of the Indians camped along the Little Bighorn River. Black Elk’s eagerness to fight reflects the Sioux warrior culture in which he's been raised, his personal disdain for the Wasichu forces that threaten his people and their culture, and his anxiety to fulfill the duty to his people dictated to him in his vision.
Black Elk finds his brother, who tells him to go back. Black Elk follows his brother and the Hunkpapas into the timber while the women and children flee downstream. Soldiers shoot at Black Elk, his brother, and the Hunkpapas from above. Black Elk stays in the woods and thinks about his vision, which makes him strong: he imagines his people are thunder beings and that they will defeat the Wasichus.
Black Elk’s vision and faith in the interdependence of humans and the natural world fuels his bravery in battle, as evidenced by his instinct to imagine his people as thunder beings.
Suddenly, somebody announces that Crazy Horse is coming, and the valley grows darker as the fierce battle continues. The soldiers run upstream, eventually riding into the river, where they continue to fight. A warrior orders Black Elk to scalp a Wasichu, so Black Elk shoots the Wasichu in the forehead and takes his scalp. He sees the Indian warriors fighting around the Santee camp in a cloud of dust. Black Elk returns to the Ogalala camp to show his mother his first scalp, and she “[gives] a big tremolo” in response.
Black Elk’s mother’s reaction to his first scalp—a “tremolo,” or celebratory call made by emitting a wavering vocalization, suggests to the reader that the role of women within the Sioux warrior culture is to encourage and support the men.
Standing Bear recalls the battle from his perspective. He had been in the Minneconjou camp along the Little Big Horn River, eating in his tepee, the morning of the battle. Standing Bear’s uncle calls him to help with the horses. They meet up with Standing Bear’s brother and cross the Greasy Grass, where they see troops approaching the river to attack the Hunkpapa camp. Standing Bear’s group moves out to meet the second band of soldiers—General Custer’s. A crazy, chaotic battle ensues. Standing Bear’s group mistakenly scalps a friend’s corpse. The warriors fight until sundown, when the Wasichus retreat into the hills. The next day, the warriors head out to fight the remaining Wasichu soldiers.
The troops that Standing Bear references are Maj. Reno’s detachment—the same troops that Black Elk described earlier. Standing Bear’s group’s mistake of scalping one of their own reflects the intensity of the battle—their mistake makes it seem as though they are literally blind with rage. This scene also gives the reader additional insight into Sioux-specific battle customs, such as scalping.
Iron Hawk, who was 14 during the battle, elaborates on Standing Bear’s recollection, describing how a crier entered the Hunkpapa camp to announce that the soldiers were approaching. At this, Iron Hawk and the others dressed for battle and headed out to fight. He remembers seeing a Shyela who ran right into the middle of the shooting. The Shyela was so sacred that the soldiers’ bullets couldn’t hurt him.
Iron Hawk’s and Standing Bear’s input lends an element of authenticity and excitement to Black Elk’s depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn. One might also interpret their stories from the battle as a literary version of “kill talks.” Neihardt includes these “kill talk” type stories to present the reader with a firsthand account of a ceremony, thereby emphasizing the importance of such practices in Lakota culture.
The battle grew bigger, and there was shooting everywhere. Iron Hawk shot a soldier with an arrow and was too mad thinking about the innocent women and children to care about killing. Toward the river, he saw a group of women and children crowding around dead soldiers, cheerfully stripping the soldiers’ clothing. He saw two fat women approach a Wasichu soldier, who was wounded and playing dead. The women attempted to castrate the soldier, who immediately jumped up and tried to fight the women. One of the women stabbed and killed the soldier with her knife. Iron Hawk found the interaction very humorous.
Thinking of the innocent women and children they were defending allowed Indians to enter into battle expecting to die, and it fueled their motivations to fight. Iron Hawk’s recollection of the women trying to castrate the wounded soldier gives this chapter a human element, and it provides some comic relief in an otherwise strategic, cold depiction of war.
Black Elk continues with his narrative: after showing his mother the Wasichu’s scalp, Black Elk stays with the women. Although they can’t see the battle, they know their people are killing many Wasichus. Eventually, Black Elk and some other young boys return to the battle on horseback. When they arrive, most of the Wasichus are dead. Black Elk takes a watch that is hanging from a dying soldier’s belt and hangs it around his own neck.
Custer’s troops were drastically underprepared to face the Indians, and the Battle of Little Bighorn was the U.S. Army’s worst defeat since the Fetterman Fight. Black Elk’s stealing of the golden watch is thematically similar to when Standing Bear steals the ring off the corpse’s finger: both acts are a symbolic, ceremonial taking-back of the Wasichus’ greed.
The women come over and everyone goes to the top of the hill, where they find dead horses, dead Wasichus, and dead warriors. Black Elk sees Chase-in-the-Morning holding up the body of Black Elk’s cousin, Black Wasichu, who has been shot. Some people try to give the injured Black Wasichu medicine. Black Wasichu’s father and Black Elk’s father are so upset that they butcher a Wasichu soldier. The soldier is fat and his meat looks tasty, but they don’t eat any. Warriors chase the soldiers back to their mules. Black Elk says he didn’t feel bad about killing the soldiers because they tried to take his people’s land and had attacked them first. The village breaks camp and flees the next night, making their way up the Greasy Grass. They make camp, dance, and feast.
Black Elk’s father’s and uncle’s response to retaliate against the Wasichus for Black Wasichu’s death conveys a deep sense honor or respect for one’s own. The dancing and feasting that follows the Battle of Little Big Horn establishes this kind of ceremony following some kind of test or trial (war or a hunt, for example) as a routine occurrence for Black Elk’s people.