Black Elk Speaks

by

John G. Neihardt

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The Nation’s Hoop and the Blooming Tree Symbol Analysis

The Nation’s Hoop and the Blooming Tree Symbol Icon

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

The Black Elk Speaks quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Nation’s Hoop and the Blooming Tree. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Nature Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the University of Nebraska Press edition of Black Elk Speaks published in 2014.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker), The Six Grandfathers
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker), The Six Grandfathers, Crazy Horse
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker), The Six Grandfathers
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker), The Six Grandfathers
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 25 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Black Elk (speaker)
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Nation’s Hoop and the Blooming Tree Symbol Timeline in Black Elk Speaks

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Nation’s Hoop and the Blooming Tree appears in Black Elk Speaks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: The Offering of the Pipe
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...life. He’ll focus on his vision, which he failed to realize, and on “a holy tree that should have flourished […] and now is withered” that belonged to his people, who... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Great Vision
Nature Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...Black Elk suddenly sees a happy village circled around the stick, which has become a tree. Two roads diverge from the tree, one red and one black. The fourth Grandfather explains... (full context)
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...A voice tells Black Elk that they have given him “the center of the nation’s hoop” to make the people live. Then, the voice instructs him to give the people the... (full context)
Nature Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
Black Elk places the red stick in the middle of the nation’s hoop and pushes it into the earth. The stick turns into a tree, and the people... (full context)
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...afraid near the end. Black Elk sees that the leaves are falling from the holy tree. The Voice tells the people they will “walk in difficulties” from now on. Black Elk... (full context)
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...and turns into a bison. A sacred four-rayed herb appears in the place where the tree had been before. Black Elk sees that the people below him are crying—it’s a chaotic... (full context)
Nature Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...one holds a white wing, one holds a pipe, and the last holds the nation’s hoop. They sing and dance in a sacred manner. Black Elk looks at his people, and... (full context)
Chapter 8: The Fight with Three Stars
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Chapter 14: The Horse Dance
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...horses are rubbed down with sacred sage. The Grandfathers sprinkled fresh soil on the nation’s hoop that was in the sacred tepee, and during the procession, the tiny pony hoofprints of... (full context)
Chapter 18: The Powers of the Bison and the Elk
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...sacred tepee meant to look like a bison wallow. The bison wallow has the nation’s hoop in its center and a red road with bison tracks across both ends. Black Elk... (full context)
Chapter 19: Across the Big Water 
Nature Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
...the Wasichus. Black Elk is surrounded by sad, starving people and knows that the nation’s hoop is broken. The Great Father in Washington was supposed to send them money, but Black... (full context)
Chapter 22: Visions of the Other World
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...to eat. Then, he floats over the tepees and lands in the center of the hoop, in the middle of which stands a tree in full bloom. (full context)
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...the men’s holy shirts. Black Elk returns to his body. He expects to see the tree blooming in the hoop, like in his vision, but it is dead. (full context)
Chapter 25: The End of the Dream
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...inability to act on the vision he was given as a young child. “The sacred tree is dead,” he states frankly. (full context)
Chapter 26: Author’s Postscript
Nature Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
...this, Black Elk tells the Spirit, he has been unable to save his people: the tree has never bloomed. Black Elk asks the Great Spirit for a final opportunity to help... (full context)