Black Elk Speaks


John G. Neihardt

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Black Elk Speaks Themes

Themes and Colors
Nature Theme Icon
The Transformative Power of Ceremony  Theme Icon
The Loss of Culture and Community  Theme Icon
Alienation Theme Icon
Unrealized Dreams  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Black Elk Speaks, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.


Black Elk Speaks tells the story of Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man, warrior, and spiritual leader, as he reflects on the increasingly violent conflicts between the Lakota and white settlers that were the backdrop for his spiritual development and coming of age. In addition to the horrible physical violence that white settlers and soldiers inflicted on the Lakota people, white settlers’ westward expansion also resulted in the clashing of two strikingly different cultures…

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The Transformative Power of Ceremony

Publicly performed ceremonies are an important part of Lakota culture: ritualized ceremonies like the sun dance are critical ways for Lakota people to acquire spiritual “power” and “endurance.” Black Elk Speaks frames ceremonies as more than symbolic, spiritual gestures, however. The ceremonies that Black Elk highlights in his narrative suggest that ceremony can elicit real change on the world by allowing its participants and observers to form new perspectives of reality, ultimately inspiring them to…

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The Loss of Culture and Community

At the time of Black Elk Speaks’s initial publication in 1932, westward expansion was still perceived as a heroic and admirable period of American history. Neihardt’s narrative rendition of Black Elk’s experience with the growing influence of Wasichu (white) culture complicates this prior narrative, explaining it from the perspective of the Lakota people who experienced subjugation as a result of westward expansion. Black Elk’s perspective paints westward expansion as a wholly negative…

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Alienation was a central feature of the Native American experience in the 19th century. As Wasichu (white) colonizers violently forced their ideologies and way of life on Native peoples, Sioux like Black Elk found it increasingly difficult to adhere to the cultural practices that gave their communities a sense of purpose and spiritual meaning. As Wasichu culture became the dominant culture, Indians felt like outsiders in their own land. Black Elk Speaks explores the idea…

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Unrealized Dreams

Black Elk’s status as a visionary and medicine man made him something of a mediating figure between the physical world and the spiritual world, but the growing physical presence of white settlers and colonizers on Indian land complicated this role. Repeatedly, Black Elk Speaks suggests that the Wasichus’ (white peoples’) presence, and the violence and setbacks that accompanied it, stood in the way of Black Elk’s task of realizing his vision and restoring…

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