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. The Lakota people organize their lives around nature: their months are named after natural occurrences (August is “the Moon When the Cherries Turn Black,” for example), and they see themselves as part of a larger picture of natural forces created by one “Great Spirit.” Beyond showing how significantly nature figures into Lakota spirituality and customs, Black Elk Speaks emphasizes the strikingly different way that Wasichus (white people) relate to nature. Whereas the Lakota see the natural world as sacred and have an interdependent relationship with it, the Wasichus see themselves as separate from nature, and their relationship to the natural world is one motivated by greed and the desire to control and exploit it.
Lakota people view themselves as united with the natural world, making no hierarchical distinction between humans and nature. Nature is involved in their daily life, cultural symbols, and spirituality. Black Elk, the book’s narrator and protagonist, makes this clear in his opening remarks when he describes the story he is about to tell as not only “the story of my life,” but “the story of all life […] and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things.” Black Elk’s opening remarks situate humans (“two-leggeds”) as a part of the larger picture of the natural world. To the Lakota, there is no line where the natural world ends and humans begin—rather, all aspects of the earth, whether they be plants, animals, or people—“are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.” The Lakota’s interdependence with nature is reflected in their respect for animals. For example, while the Lakota hunt bison, Black Elk explains that they “kill only what [they] needed.” The Lakota’s reverence toward nature is also reflected in the way animals are incorporated into their spirituality. Animals feature prominently in Black Elk’s initial prophetic vision, which includes four groups of 12 horses representing the north, south, east, and west. The vision also features a man painted red who turns into a bison before turning into the sacred “four-rayed herb” that Black Elk will later incorporate into his healing practices. The transformation of the man into an animal, and later a plant, further emphasizes the Lakota’s interdependent relationship with nature.
In contrast, Wasichu culture situates the natural world as separate from humans. Wasichus strive not to be a part of the natural world, but to control and benefit financially from nature. Early in the book, Black Elk explains that the main reason his people and the Wasichus are fighting is because “the Wasichus had found much of the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy.” Black Elk recalls one particular time in his childhood (1874) when his people had been camping in the Black Hills, which had been allotted to them in an 1868 treaty with the Wasichus. Despite the fact that this land was reserved for the Lakota people, the Wasichus began mining the Hills illegally after discovering that there was gold there, forcing Black Elk’s band out of their sacred land. Black Elk explains: “our people knew there was yellow metal in little chunks up there, but they did not bother with it, because it was not good for anything.” While the Lakota revere nature and only take from it what they know they can use, the Wasichus take more than what they need so that they can exploit it for financial gain.
The Wasichus also demonstrate a comparable lack of reverence toward animals. By 1883, Black Elk laments, “they say, the last of the bison herds was slaughtered by the Wasichus.” Unlike the Lakota, who only killed as many bison as they needed to survive through the winter, the Wasichus “did not kill them to eat; they killed them for the metal that makes them crazy, and they took only the hides to sell.” Just as the Wasichu exploited the sacred Black Hills—which had been home to the Lakota people—for the gold buried underground, so, too, did they dishonor and destroy the animals that had been an important cultural symbol and critical food source for the Lakota people. Another example of the Wasichus’ disrespect for the natural world occurs when Black Elk is on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean to be a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a traveling production that featured performances by cowboys, Sioux, and other things stereotypically associated with the “Wild West.” When a destructive storm kills several animals, including a bison, the Wasichus carelessly throw the dead animal overboard. Black Elk recalls that he “felt like crying, because [he] thought right there they were throwing part of the power of [his] people away.” It is unthinkable for Black Elk to carelessly waste the life of a sacred animal and throw it into the sea as though it were nothing—it is akin to “throwing part of the power of [his] people away.” But for the Wasichu, a bison is simply an object to be used and disposed of. Overall, Black Elk Speaks criticizes the Wasichus’ dispassionate relationship with nature, which fuels their greed and allows them to destroy symbols that are central to Lakota spirituality and daily life. Their perceived superiority to the natural world pardons the destruction of nature that would be morally and spiritually unforgiveable to the Lakota people.
Nature Quotes in Black Elk Speaks
It is the story of all life that is holy and good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and of green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.
Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us. But the Wasichus came, and they have made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed.
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.”
But only crazy or very foolish men would sell their Mother Earth. Sometimes I think it might have been better if we had stayed together and made them kill us all.
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!”
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.
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 can remember when the bison were so many that they could not be counted, but more and more Wasichus came to kill them until there were only heaps and heaps of bones scattered where they used to be. The Wasichus did not kill them to eat; they killed them for the metal that makes them crazy, and they took only the hides to sell. Sometimes they did not even take the hides to sell. Sometimes they did not even take the hides, only the tongues; […] they just killed and killed because they liked to do that. When we hunted bison, we killed only what we needed. And when there was nothing left but heaps of bones, the Wasichus came and gathered up even the bones and sold them.