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 engage in actions that have lasting consequences.
One example of a ceremony that is performed to bring about understanding is the horse dance. As Black Elk grows older, he becomes increasingly troubled by his inability to understand and act on the vision he had as a child. As a result, he continues to isolate from others and grow ill. His parents consult a medicine man named Black Road to help. At this point, Black Elk is so frightened and troubled by his inability to act on his vision that he tells Black Road everything. Black Road tells Black Elk, “Nephew, I know now what the trouble is! You must do what the bay horse in your vision wanted you to do. 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.” Black Road’s advice emphasizes the critical role that the horse dance—or, the ceremonial performance or display of Black Elk’s vision—plays in Black Elk’s path toward understanding and ultimately acting on his vision. After Black Elk and other members of his band perform the horse dance, reenacting Black Elk’s initial vision, he has another vision. He sees the “tepee built of cloud and sewed with lightning, the flaming rainbow door and, underneath, the Six Grandfathers sitting, and all the horses thronging in their quarters, and also [himself] upon the bay before the tepee.” Performing the ceremonial horse dance allows Black Elk to revisit the forces at play in his initial vision, which allows him to better make sense of them and know exactly what he has to do for his people. Black Elk explains, “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.” Here, Black Elk deems the ceremonial horse dance as a “darkened dream” and his vision as “the real.” Performing the ceremony allows Black Elk to realize the connection between ceremony and higher spiritual truths. The “darkened dream” of higher knowledge that ceremonies represent is gate to higher understanding. Performing the horse dance allows Black Elk to communicate his vision to his people in a way he hadn’t been able to before, as well as better understand his vision than he did before. As a result of the horse dance ceremony, Black Elk and his people are more understanding and accepting of his vision.
Another example of a ceremony that has real consequences is the Ghost Dance movement that develops among various tribes in the late 19th century. The Ghost Dance creates both positive and negative results: on the one hand, it revitalizes tribes, instilling within them a final hope that they could restore their increasingly stifled cultures and traditional way of life. But on the other hand, this resurgence of hope makes Wasichus (white people) feel threatened, and they respond with force to stop the Ghost Dance, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre. The Ghost Dance movement is started by a man from the Paiute tribe whom the Wasichus call Jack Wilson and the Indians call Wovoka. According to Wovoka—whom the Indians believe is a Wanekia, or messiah—the end of the world is near, and if the people put “sacred red paint” on their faces and “dance a sacred ghost dance,” then they will be able to access a better world, in which “there was plenty of meat, just like old times,” and in which “all the dead Indians were alive, and all the bison that had ever been killed were roaming around again.” In other words, by performing this ceremonial Ghost Dance, the culture, people, and animals that were all casualties of westward expansion could be restored, and the people could live in paradise. Black Elk first hears about Wovoka in 1889, after Black Elk’s father, brother, and sister have died, and by which point the Lakota people’s situation is dire: they have less land than ever before, they are ravaged by disease, and they are starving. For these reasons, the possibilities that Wovoka’s Ghost Dance ceremony represent—to save the Indians and resurrect their dead and their culture—are especially appealing. The Ghost Dance is promising for Black Elk, who comes to see the ceremony and its sacred symbols and thematic goals as parallel to those of his own grand vision.
Participating in the Ghost Dance movement gives Black Elk and many others a renewed sense of hope in their ability to restore their vanishing old way of life—but the Ghost Dance movement has dire consequences, as well. As the movement spreads across different tribes, the Wasichu strive to put an end to the ritual dance movement, for fear that it will lead to future revolts. They begin to enforce limits on when and how frequently Indians can participate in ghost dances. Tensions between Indians and Wasichus grow, culminating in the death of Sitting Bull, who is killed resisting arrest, and in the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which the U.S. Army massacre hundreds of Lakota after Lakota men refuse to give up their guns. The grim aftermath of the Ghost Dance movement shows that while ceremony offers the possibility of deeper understanding and community engagement, it can also lead to dire, unanticipated consequences.
The Transformative Power of Ceremony ThemeTracker
The Transformative Power of Ceremony 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.
“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!”
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 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.