The nation’s hoop—a sacred image that is central to Black Elk’s great vision—symbolizes the former unity of the Lakota people. After white settlers move west in search of gold and wealth, the Lakota are forced off their land and scattered across different agencies. Others, like Sitting Bull and Gall, flee to Canada to live in exile. The message Black Elk receives in his vision is to restore the nation’s hoop—in other words, the Spirits have called upon him to restore his people’s strength and unity, their culture, and their sense of community. Thus, when Black Elk mentions the nation’s hoop, he is gesturing not only toward his vision, but toward the compromised unity of his people as a whole.
More generally, the nation’s hoop also evokes the circle, which is an important symbol in Lakota culture, representing eternity and unbrokenness. The Lakotas turn to nature as proof of the circle’s sacredness, citing the circular shape of birds nests and the moon’s rotation, and they incorporate circles into many of their rituals, like the sun dance. The nation’s hoop has personal significance for Black Elk as well, as it emphasizes the book’s overarching themes of unrealized dreams. Black Elk frequently laments his failure to restore the nation’s hoop, which his vision calls on him to do. In this way, Black Elk’s frequent references to the nation’s hoop reinforce his anxieties about not fulfilling his higher purpose.
The blooming tree functions in a similar way, symbolizing both tribal unity as well as Black Elk’s anxieties about not being able to restore his people’s culture. The blooming tree, another key symbol in Black Elk’s initial vision, symbolizes the Lakotas’ unity prior to their displacement. In his vision, Black Elk plants a stick in the center of the unbroken nation’s hoop, and the stick turns into the blooming tree. Thus, the tree blooms and is sacred when the hoop is unbroken—that is, when the Lakotas are united. Outside of his dream, Black Elk evokes the image of the blooming tree—or the tree that should have bloomed but did not—to express his remorse for not saving his people and for the death of their culture.
The Nation’s Hoop and the Blooming Tree Quotes in Black Elk Speaks
But now that I see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.
So I took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation’s hoop I thrust it in the earth. As it touched the earth it leaped mightily in my hand and was a waga chun, the rustling tree, very tall and full of leafy branches and of all birds singing. And beneath it all the animals were mingling with the people like relatives and making happy cries. The women raised their tremolo of joy, and the men shouted all together: “Here we shall raise our children and be as little chickens under the mother sheo’s wing.”
I was fifteen years old that winter, and I thought of my vision and wondered when my duty was to come; for the Grandfathers had shown me my people walking on the black road and how the nation’s hoop would be broken and the flowering tree be withered, before I should bring the hoop together with the power that was given me, and make the holy tree to flower in the center and find the red road again. Part of this had happened already, and I wondered when my power would grow, so that the rest might be as I had seen it in my vision.
But in the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You may have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony is for.
It is from understanding that power comes; and the power in the ceremony was in understanding what it meant; for nothing can live well except in a manner that is suited to the way the sacred Power of the World lives and moves.
I did not depend upon the great vision as I should have done; I depended upon the two sticks that I had seen in the lesser vision. It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among those shadows men get lost.
And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth,—you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.