Black Elk Speaks


BlackElk Speaks

BlackElk Speaks

Reading“Black elk speaks” reveals the spiritual encounters of a man whoresents the aliens for washing away the culture and tradition of hiscommunity. The story is actually an ethnographic tale through theeyes of Black elk. Black Elk’s actually says a lot about thegeneral perspective Native Americans of the conquest of west America. Being a traditional quest literary text, one would consider Blackelk as the main figure in the story speaking on behalf of the Siouxpeople. The trajectory of the story’s plot is embedded in BlackElk’s fulfilling his spiritual quest of communicating the visionshe has to his people. As one would expect, traditional quest storiesend with the main figure as the hero. The hero earns the status byfulfilling their divine or legitimate mandate on behalf of his peopleamid obstacles and challenges. However, “Black Elk speaks”presents a different narrative where Black Elk does not become theconventional hero of an epic ethnographic narrative due to theerosion of the culture and traditional fabric of his people as aresult of European conquering their lands and imposing their ownculture on the Sioux people. In fact, the background of the storyclearly shows that John Neihardt provided an opportunity for BlackElk to reveal the visions he had for the Sioux community as acultural mandate. Indeed, Black Elk would never have had such anopportunity because the Sioux community had been scattered and theircultures destroyed by foreign European culture as a result of theconquest of the west. Through Black Elk’s narrative, the view of anative America about the opening of west America to the rest of theworld is revealed. By extension, Black Elk’s spiritual encountersalso provide a vivid understanding of the issues surrounding theconquest of the west. Furthermore, for a community that has beenculturally alienated by mainstream America especially aftercolonization, Black Elk’s also offers an opportunity for the readerto experience, understand, and share the sentiments Indian Americansthrough Black Elk’s spiritual experience.

Inthe perspective of Native Americans such as the Sioux community, theopening of the west as a result of coming of Wasichus, as Black Elkcalls Europeans, destroyed their cultural fabric. In one of BlackElk’s visions, the traditional culture of oneness among the Siouxis symbolized by camping around a great circle. The vision shows thepeople living happily with plenty to celebrate. The land was alsobeautiful and the air was pleasant to breathe apparently due to theirrich culture that gives the community the power over its destiny. Oneof the aspects in the vision that shows that the Sioux culture wasthe source of their power is the “drying sacks with plenty of meat,the fat and happy horses, and the healthy tree in the middle of thegreat full of flowers”. Now, when the west was conquered, thegreater circular camps are destroyed. The Sioux no longer live andat in unity, but are scattered and the culture gradually coming underexternal destruction. As Black Elk puts in in the narrative, thepeople had abandoned the “good red road” and followed “blackroad”. They replace the traditional circle camps around thebeautiful tree and begin to live in “square boxes”. This visiondepicts the conquest of the west as one that sought to alienate andderogate local cultures. A Native American such as Black Elkconsiders the conquest of the west the source of misery and thedestruction of a generation that lost its pride and identity toanother culture. European conquests over the west were so imposingthat they succeeded in impeding passage Sioux culture from onegeneration to another and that explains why Black Elk lacked theopportunity to share his spiritual visions to his people.

Thebasic understanding of the conquest of the west is that it was brutaland racist in nature. The government was so determined to strip off acommunity of its culture, identity, and pride. It is also a sign ofthe greed that characterizes western civilization in the perspectiveof a native. The above vision is one of the examples of how the Siouxpeople were culturally displaced as a result of white Americansmoving westward due economic pressures. It is also vital to notethat displacement which began in colonial America continued evenlater because the same European cultures of white Americans continuedto take a toll on the Sioux culture they became incapacitated toeven hold onto their core traditions as depicted in Black Elk’ssacred visions. The most significant symbol of the culturalalienation is the sacred hoop. The sacred hoop embodies culturalpenchant of the Sioux people to live in a circular settlement. AsBlack Elk states in his narrative: “everything an Indian does is ina circle, and that is because the power of the world always works incircles, and everything tries to be round”. He further states that,“The wind blows in circular whirls and the life of a man is acircle from childhood to childhood”. Indeed, they were a culturedpeople and they would stop at nothing to protect and defend it. “Thebattle of the wounded knee” is manifest of the desire of NativeAmericans to preserve their indigenous culture in the wake of whiteaggression and encroachment on towards the west. The alarming aspectof the battle if the excessive force the government uses to crackdown a simple cultural event: the Ghost dance. Though the governmentviewed it as a possible threat to its authority, the Ghost dance isone of the definitive traditions of Sioux culture. Sioux leaderssuch as Sitting Bull lose their lives during the battle with anentire encampment under capture and control by the government. Men,women, and children lose their lives as well. The “Battle of thewounded knees” succeeds to suppress the Sioux people and eventuallydestroy the ghost dance tradition.

BlackElk’s intention to participate in the “Buffalo Hill’s Wild WestShow” to understand the culture of white people gives the reader aninsight of the conquest. Elk’s experience shows that what whitepeople were doing to the Sioux was an extension of theirindividualist and greedy culture. Elk learns that the Wasichus havelittle regard for one another and forcefully take possessions fromeach other the same way theydid to his community. He also realizesthat the greed that characterizes the white society creates a classof people where few have too much for themselves while rest vast livein poverty at the service of the rich. He also learns that thesquare houses they introduce in the reservation camps were a replicaof the houses they live in. an independent judgment portrays as anextension of western imperialism while a Native American considersthis a deliberate move by white people to destroy the culture ofminorities.

Theother cultures that the Sioux community lost due to the coming of theWasichus


Thebison were considered sacred to the community and they existed inunending supplies as a symbol plenty among the Sioux. The Siouxpeople had a traditional bison hunting tradition in which men ridingon horsebacks showcased their bravery and courage in hunting and alsoin defense of the community from external aggression. Just before hisvision, Elk takes part in one of the bison hunting traditions wherestanding bear kills an adult buffalo. This would be considered an actof courage and the attainment of his manhood. White come in with anew culture of hunting bisons as a sport. The whites do socarelessly. As Black Elk states: “They just killed and killedbecause they liked to do that”. The community later lost theirhunting rights after the government ordered them to get intoreservations. One only wonders why a nation founded on the idea offreedoms and rights would violate its own creed and perpetratecolonial aggression. The Indians were natives and the conquest ofthe west was an indication of the determination of whites to subduethe minorities. The bison herd was eventually eliminated and so wasits sacredness to the Sioux. A part of their independence andidentity was gone.


Theagency-governed reservations administered by the government brought anew way of life for the Sioux community. The reservations restrictedmovement and they lost their close associationwith nature. Before theconquest, the Sioux hunted for the bison herd, gathered root crops,fished, and harvest wild plants. With the destruction of socialstructures in reservations, the community’s culture was replacedwith an immobile way of life that strictly followed foreignmannerisms.

Inthe perspective of Native Americans, the red Indians, the opening ofthe west a racist affair that perpetuated the notions of whitesupremacy that motivated colonialism. The irony is that while thegovernment comprised of Europeans from different culturalbackgrounds, it went ahead to deliberately annihilate the culturewhich was the identity of every community. The persecutionexperienced by the Sioux people justifies the resentment of NativeAmericans over the actions of white people during the conquest of theWild West. It is also proof of the romanticized notions of whitesupremacy that were common during the colonial era, which wentfurther to divide America for the greater part of its independenceafter the revolution. The economic pressures that brought about bythe imperialist whites pushed to the west. During that time, therewere many culturally insensitive racist and ethnocentric narrativesabout Native Americans. Even scientists went out of their way to givescientific justifications of considering natives as biologicalinferior to white people. Perceptions of indigenous people such asthe Sioux were greatly shaped by the myths, legendary tales, andpseudohistorical accounts. The entrenched stereotypes at that timeare create the general understanding of “Black Elk speaks” as astory of a community that fell victim to the them. The government’sdesire to destroy a culture was probably motivated by thestereotypical view of natives.