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 force that robbed the Lakota people of their traditions and sense of community.
American westward expansion resulted in the depletion of natural resources that were central to Lakota people’s way of life. One example of this is the depletion of the country’s bison population. Prior to the arrival of the Wasichus, the bison that roamed the plains “were so many that they could not be counted.” Not only did bison provide the Lakota people with a steady food supply, the “great bison hunt” that Black Elk recounts in Chapter 4 presents the hunt as a culturally significant event in which young men can demonstrate their bravery and hunting prowess. Black Elk reinforces the bison hunt’s significance by emphasizing how it brings the village together: the hunters sing songs together as they return to camp with their butchered meat, and the women make drying racks on which to hang the meat. Little boys have a “war” and “endurance” games that they traditionally engage in after a hunt. In one such game, boys form their own play “village” away from camp and are tasked by a lead boy or “advisor” with stealing small pieces of drying meat from the adults’ village. Black Elk describes the traditions associated with the bison hunt to show that bison were not just a food source for his people: they were integral to important cultural and social practices of his people. Thus, when the Wasichu moved westward and began killing large numbers of bison for sport or to make money from their hides, the Lakota were deprived not only of food but of a key cultural component.
The dwindling bison population resulted in the loss of the Lakota people’s nomadic lifestyle, as well, emphasizing the negative domino effect of the Wasichus’ westward expansion. Black Elk states that by 1883, “the last of the bison herds were slaughtered by the Wasichus.” Prior to the Wasichus’ arrival in the west, the Lakota had practiced a nomadic lifestyle, moving camp to follow the bison herds and other primary food sources. After they could no longer rely on bison for food—and after the Wasichus had confiscated their horses, limiting their ability to travel great distances to hunt—the Wasichus were forced to rely on the Wasichus for food, which meant that they had to live on government-run agencies and give up their nomadic lifestyle.
Life on government agencies—the parcels of land that the U.S. government allotted to Native American tribes to live on after colonizers stole Native lands in the process of westward expansion— resulted in the loss of important spiritual symbols, as well. The Lakota used to live in tepees, whose circular bases reflected the larger symbolic, spiritual importance the Lakota people place on the circle. According to Black Elk, “everything an Indian does is in a circle […] because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.” The Lakota people form this idea from their culture’s interdependence on nature, citing, for example, the roundness of Earth and the moon, the circular shape of bird nests, and the circular movement of the changing seasons as evidence that all of nature—including humans, who are part of the larger natural world—is meant to live and act in circles. As the Wasichus killed off the bison upon which the Lakota depended for food and bought more of their rightful land, the Lakota people were forced to live on government agencies if they wanted to survive and, subsequently, forced to abandon the symbols, such as the circle, that had been integral to their culture and spiritual beliefs. That the Indians had to give up their circular homes for “square boxes” favored by the Wasichus represents a loss of tradition and spiritually significant symbolism.
Beyond the loss of cultural practices and traditional symbols, westward expansion also resulted in the loss of a unified Lakota people. Black Elk foresees the destruction of his culture and the splintering of his people in his “great vision” in Chapter 3, in which he is transported to a cloud world and witnesses his people forced to walk down a “black road” of war and violence. When Black Elk’s people walk down this road in the vision, Black Elk sees that the “nation’s hoop,” which symbolizes the unity of his people, is “broken like a ring of smoke that spreads and scatters and the holy tree seemed dying and all its birds were gone.” Black Elk’s vision anticipates the literal splintering of his people across different government-run agencies and across different, opposing alliances. While some Lakota leaders like Crazy Horse remain resistant to Wasichu forces (Crazy Horse is ultimately killed resisting arrest in 1877), other leaders, like Red Cloud, decide to stop fighting, give up their rightful land, and yield to the invading Wasichu forces. This example illustrates a dual loss of community and culture: because of the Wasichus’ westward expansion, the Lakota lost both their traditional sense of unity as well as the cultural symbol—the “nation’s hoop”—used to portray that unity.
The Loss of Culture and Community ThemeTracker
The Loss of Culture and Community 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
How could men get fat by being bad, and starve by being good? I thought and thought about my vision, and it made me very sad; for I wondered if maybe it was only a queer dream after all.
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.
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.”
And now when I look about me upon my people in despair, I feel like crying and I wish and wish my vision could have been given to a man more worthy. I wonder why it came to me, a pitiful old man who can do nothing. Men and women and children I have cured of sickness with the power the vision gave me; but my nation I could not help.
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 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.
I was in the air, with outstretched arms, and floating fast. There was a fearful dark river that I had to go over, and I was afraid. It rushed and roared and was full of angry foam. Then I looked down and saw many men and women who were trying to cross the dark and fearful river, but they could not. Weeping, they looked up to me and cried: “Help us!” But I could not stop gliding, for it was as though a great wind were under me.
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.