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 peace to his people and their dying culture. In detailing Black Elk’s failure, the book underscores the tragedy of unrealized dreams, which for Black Elk is detrimental on both a personal and a societal level.
Black Elk’s initial vision bestows upon him the higher purpose to restore his people to the way they had been prior to the arrival of the Wasichus. Because Black Elk is so young when he receives his vision, however, he lacks the understanding and experience necessary to act on his vision meaningfully; in other words, Black Elk’s youth is a psychological obstacle that prohibits him from understanding his dream and fulfilling his duty. In his first vision, Black Elk is transported to a cloud world where “Six Grandfathers” show him the destruction of the once-prosperous Lakota people. He sees his people forced to march down a “black road” paved with violence and suffering. In Black Elk’s vision, the Grandfathers grant him the power he needs to restore his people. Before his vision ends, the oldest Grandfather tells Black Elk to “go back with power to the place whence you came, and it shall happen yonder that hundreds shall be sacred, hundreds shall be flames! Behold!” The vision provides Black Elk with foresight into the grim fate that awaits his people, but because Black Elk is so young at the time, he initially lacks the ability and experience to understand fully what was asked of him and how he was supposed to use his powers to restore his people. He recalls being unable to find the words to explain the meaning of his vision: “I could see it all again and feel the meaning with a part of me like a strange power […] 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 youth prevents him from articulating his vision to himself and to others, subsequently preventing him from fulfilling the destiny prescribed to him in the vision.
Even as Black Elk grows older and can grasp what the Grandfathers asked of him in his vision, his inability to use the powers the Grandfathers gave him in his vision to save his people in a meaningful, permanent way weighs heavily on him. Black Elk presents multiple occasions in which a strange feeling or “voice” alerts him to looming dangers. He recalls one instance in which voices alert him to the presence of Crows (enemies of Black Elk’s Ogalala band) in the vicinity of his people’s camp. He tells his people to flee. As they leave, they hear their enemies shooting into their abandoned tepees. Black Elk states: “I knew better than ever now that I really had power, for I had prayed for help form the Grandfathers and they had heard me and sent the thunder beings to hide us and watch over us while we fled.” Instances like these reaffirm Black Elk’s belief that he has power, but he remains unable to save his people from their gravest concern: being repeatedly forced off their land by the greedy Wasichus, having their community splintered, and witnessing the destruction of their most important cultural symbols and institutions. Black Elk might be able to save his people from small-scale attacks like these, but his people are still walking down a “black road” leading toward suffering and destruction.
Despite Black Elk’s eventual ability to assume his role as a medicine man and healer, the Wasichu forces are too strong, and his people’s situation is too dire, for Black Elk to fully realize his powers. In the end, the Wasichus are successful in stealing Native American lands and minimizing the presence of their culture in the mainstream. Increasingly, Wasichu soldiers have forced Indians off their native land, cut off their food supply and ability to live traditional nomadic lifestyles by killing of the nation’s once thriving bison population, and forced them to live on government agencies if they don’t want to risk starving to death. Black Elk sees how the once-united Lakota nation, unified around the sacred, symbolic “nation’s hoop” have broken apart, and feels despair. “I looked back on the past and recalled my people’s old ways, but they were not living that way any more. They were traveling the black road, everybody for himself and with little rules of his own, as in my vision.” Black Elk sees that his vision has come true and that he has done nothing about it.
Black Elk’s narrative ends after the Wounded Knee Massacre, a particularly bloody battle that resulted in the death of hundreds of Lakota people, most of whom were civilian women and children. In the final lines of his narrative, Black Elk laments his inability to realize his destiny and save his people from destruction: “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.” These final lines reinforce the anxiety and burden that has plagued Black Elk throughout the entirety of his narrative: that the powers the Great Spirit gave to him have been for nothing, and that he is defenseless in the face of evil, more powerful Wasichu forces. Because of circumstances that are beyond his control, Black Elk is ultimately unable to fulfill the higher purpose assigned to him in his vision, and he fails both himself and his people.
Unrealized Dreams ThemeTracker
Unrealized Dreams 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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!”
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 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.