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 of alienation from a more literal perspective through Black Elk’s homesickness for his people and their familiar way of life, as well as intellectually or symbolically, through the estrangement Black Elk feels when he is unable convey the full meaning of his spiritual vision to his closest family and friends. Neihardt’s literary examination of Black Elk’s life shows how internal and external forces contributed to Black Elk’s alienation, which frames alienation as the cost of a higher calling or social leadership.
The wisdom and higher level of understanding that Black Elk achieves through his spiritual vision separates him from others intellectually. Neihardt highlights how few people Black Elk has told of his vision early in the narrative. Black Elk explains that he didn’t tell people about his vision for two primary reasons: out of the fear that nobody would believe a child could have such a powerful vision—he was only nine years old at the time of his first, most significant spiritual vision—and that it was impossible for him to put such a significant vision into words. As soon as Black Elk returns from his spiritual journey, he recalls: “I was sad because my mother and father didn’t seem to know that I had been so far away.” The knowledge and wisdom Black Elk gains in his vision alienates him from others. Black Elk should be happy to be back with his family, but he can’t help but feel sad, knowing that his knew knowledge creates an intellectual, experiential barrier between him and his loved ones. This barrier is strengthened when Black Elk realizes he can’t tell anyone about his vision out of fear that they won’t believe him. Black Elk says: “I was very sad; for it seemed to me that everybody ought to know about [my vision], but I was afraid to tell, because I knew that nobody would believe me, little as I was, for I was only nine years old.” In other words, his reluctance to talk candidly with his family about his vision perpetuates his alienation. In addition to fear, inability also prevents Black Elk from sharing his vision with others. He states: “I could see [my vision] all again and feel the meaning with a part of me like a strange power glowing in my body; but when the part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like fog and get away from me.” Black Elk’s vision imbues him with a wisdom that transcends language. The higher level of understanding that Black Elk has access to and others do not further exacerbates his alienation.
Black Elk also recalls feeling like he “did not belong to [his] people” after experiencing his vision. He recalls that they seemed “almost like strangers.” Others speak to the transformation Black Elk seemed to undergo after his childhood illness and vision. A friend of Black Elk, Standing Bear, recalls that, after Black Elk recovered from what everyone else saw as his illness (but what Black Elk maintains was his vision), “he was not like a boy.” Standing Bear remembers hearing Black Elk’s father remarking that Black Elk “ha[d] queer ways and he [did] not like to be at home.” Black Elk’s vision might have given him greater power and a higher purpose in life, but the fear and inability to discuss these things with others resulted in Black Elk’s alienation.
A more concrete way that Black Elk Speaks explores alienation is through the homesickness Black Elk feels for his people when he is touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Black Elk decides to travel with Buffalo Bill in the first place to learn more about Wasichu culture so that he can help his people; in this way, his homesickness may be seen as the direct result of the obligation he has to help his people. Black Elk recalls that, once he became used to performing in these shows for Wasichus, he “was like a man who had never had a vision.” He continues, “I felt dead and my people seemed lost and I thought I might never find them again.” Being so physically and emotionally detached from his home alienates Black Elk from the people and cultural customs with which he is familiar. On a larger scale, Black Elk’s homesickness also reflects the alienation that the Lakota feel when they were forced to adapt to the new, unfamiliar customs of the Wasichus as they gained control of the lands that had once been the Lakota’s own. Black Elk explains how foreign and incomprehensible Wasichu culture is to him when he observes the greed inherent in it. He states: “I could see that the Wasichus did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation’s hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could ever use, while crowds of people had nothing at all and maybe were starving. They had forgotten that the earth was their mother.” This statement positions the Lakota culture as opposite that of the Wasichu culture. It emphasizes how out of place the Wasichu culture makes Black Elk feel when he realizes that the Wasichu culture in which he now finds himself immersed—and which continues to threaten the very existence of his own people and culture—has nothing in common with his own culture and beliefs.
Alienation Quotes in Black Elk Speaks
The next morning all the swelling had left my face and legs and arms, and I felt well as ever; but everything around me seemed strange and as though it were far away. I remember that for twelve days after that I wanted to be alone, and it seemed I did not belong to my people. They were almost like strangers. I would be out alone away from the village and the other boys, and I would look around to the four quarters, thinking of my vision and wishing I could get back there again. I would go home to eat, but I could not make myself eat much; and my father and mother thought that I was sick yet; but I was not. I was only homesick for the place where I had been.
He was a queer man. Maybe he was always part way into that world of his vision. He was a very great man, and I think if the Wasichus had not murdered him down there, maybe we should still have the Black Hills and be happy. They could not have killed him in battle. They had to lie to him and murder him.
I could not get along with my people now, and I would take my horse and go far out from camp alone and compare everything on earth and in the sky with my vision. Crows would see me and shout to each other as though they were making fun of me: “Behold him! Behold him!”
When the frosts began I was glad, because there would not be any more thunder storms for a long while, and I was more and more afraid of them all the time, for always there would be the voices crying “Oo oohey! It is time! It is time!”
“Nephew, I know now what the trouble is! You must do your duty and perform this vision for your people upon earth. You must have the horse dance first for the people to see. Then the fear will leave you; but if you do not do this, something very bad will happen to you.”
I looked about me and could see that what we then were doing was like a shadow cast upon the earth from yonder vision in the heavens, so bright it was and clear. I knew the real was yonder and the darkened dream of it was here.
The fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds appeared I was always glad to see them, for they came as relatives now to visit me. Everything seemed good and beautiful now, and kind. Before this, the medicine men would not talk to me, but now they would come to me to talk about my vision. From that time on, I always got up very early to see the rising of the daybreak star. People knew that I did this, and many would get up to see it with me, and when it came we said: “Behold the star of understanding!”
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.