Black Elk Speaks tells the life story of Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man, visionary, and spiritual leader, as he reflects on the destruction of his culture as a result of American westward expansion, as well as his failure to enact his visionary powers to save his people and preserve their way of life. The book is based on transcripts from conversations held between the book’s author, John Neihardt, and Black Elk.
The narrative begins with Black Elk ceremoniously lighting the peace pipe. He offers the pipe to the Great Spirit and asks the Spirit for knowledge before passing it around to his audience. He tells his audience that the story he will tell isn’t only of his life, but of all life. Black Elk explains that he is a Lakota of the Ogalala band. He speaks of his early childhood years, which were darkened by the looming threat of the Wasichus (white people) moving westward in pursuit of gold and wealth. Black Elk grows up fearing that the Wasichus will take over his land, kill his people, and destroy their way of life.
Black Elk is five years old the first time he hears voices in the clouds, though he is too afraid to tell anybody about them. When Black Elk is nine years old, he becomes very ill. One night, he loses consciousness and has his first, great vision. In this highly symbolic vision, Black Elk is transported into a cloud world, where he meets Six Grandfathers in a tepee with a rainbow at its door. The Grandfathers explain that they summoned forth Black Elk to give him sacred objects and the power to heal and to save his people. In his vision, Black Elk sees his people being forced to march down a black road of war and destruction. The Grandfathers send Black Elk back to earth and tell him to use his power and knowledge to help his people and restore their nation’s sacred hoop.
Black Elk regains consciousness and finds himself in his tepee with his parents, who tell him he’s been sick for 12 days, but that a medicine man named Whirlwind Chaser, who is Standing Bear’s uncle, cured him. Whirlwind Chaser tells Black Elk’s parents that there is something special about him. Black Elk isn’t the same after his vision: he feels lost and confused by the higher calling given to him in the vision, and he’s also afraid to tell anybody what he’s seen, for fear that they won’t believe him.
As Black Elk grows up, he continues to receive advice from voices, which often alert him to the presence of dangers lurking nearby. Still, Black Elk grows increasingly forlorn when he isn’t able to fully act on the powers given to him in his vision. Tensions continue to mount between the Indians and the Wasichus as Black Elk grows older, with more Wasichus moving west in search of wealth. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the development of the Transcontinental Railroad ultimately leads to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, a war waged between Plains Indians and U.S. Army. The battle is a success for Black Elk’s people, but their problems continue nonetheless.
Backed by the U.S. government and a series of broken treaties, Wasichus continue to take over Indian land and, increasingly, Indians are forced to either live on government agencies or starve to death. Crazy Horse, a Lakota chief, warrior of great renown, and Black Elk’s second cousin, is murdered by Wasichus in 1877 while resisting arrest. After Crazy Horse’s death, Black Elk and some others move north to Canada, known as “Grandmother’s Land,” joining others such as Sitting Bull and Gall, who have chosen to live in exile rather than live on Wasichu agencies.
Motivated by the higher calling he assumes after his initial vision, Black Elk returns to his homeland. A medicine man named Black Road tells Black Elk that he must perform his vision publicly if he wants to activate its powers. After a series of public ceremonies—such as the horse dance, the dog vision, and the heyoka ceremony—Black Elk realizes his vision and takes ownership of his power. His people now accept him as a medicine man, and he is 19 years old when he performs his first healing. Black Elk might be capable of healing individual people, but he remains unable to help his people reclaim their stolen culture and land, and the nation’s hoop remains broken. Out of desperation, he joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in order to gain insight into Wasichu culture, reasoning that a familiarity with his oppressor’s culture might help him know how to help his people.
Black Elk tours with Buffalo Bill’s show throughout the U.S. and in Europe, where he meets Queen Victoria, whom he calls Grandmother England. Black Elk sees nothing of value in Wasichu culture, which he sees as motivated by greed, and he decides that it was only out of desperation that he thought his journey abroad could help his people. Black Elk becomes friendly with a Wasichu girl while he is in Paris, and she invites him back to her family home. While visiting the girl’s family, Black Elk falls ill and has another vision in which he travels across the Atlantic Ocean on a cloud and sees his family, who are suffering. Black Elk regains consciousness to find the girl’s family hovering over him and learns that he had been near death for several days.
Black Elk returns home after recovering from his illness to find his people displaced, suffering, and living on agencies. Their condition has worsened during his time abroad: the bison are mostly dead, and everyone is cold and starving. Shortly after he returns to his native land, Black Elk hears about a new movement, the Ghost Dance, started by a Paiute man named Wovoka, who many believe to be a Wanekia (messiah). According to Wovoka’s premonitions, dancing the Ghost Dance will help Indians gain entry into an afterlife in which they have defeated the Wasichus, their culture is restored, and they are able to see their deceased relatives. Black Elk is initially skeptical of the Ghost Dance movement but starts to believe in it after recognizing many similarities between the Ghost Dance and his initial “great vision.” Black Elk participates in the movement, hoping that it will allow him to finally act on vision and save his people.
The Ghost Dance movement reinvigorates the Plains Indians, reigniting the rebellious efforts that had dwindled as their displacement and suffering grew more widespread. Wasichu soldiers recognize the Indians’ renewed strength and become intimidated by the threat that the Ghost Dance poses to their power. As a result, they enforce guidelines that limit when and where dances can occur. Tensions grow, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, in which many Lakota people—half of whom were women and children—are murdered by U.S. cavalrymen.
Black Elk wants to seek revenge after the Wounded Knee Massacre, but Chief Red Cloud ultimately convinces Indians that their situation is too dire and that it is in their best interest to surrender. In the aftermath of this defeat, Black Elk laments his inability to act on the powers given to him in his initial vision and mourns the destruction of his people.