Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (2002), Black Elk (1863-1950) was a Native American religious leader of the Oglala Lakota band of the Sioux tribe. Black Elk, who at the age of 17 had a vision of the Lakota people rising up and freeing their lands from the white settlers, tried to find ways of reconciling his people's traditions with Christianity and the encroaching reality of white dominance. This vision was a famous one among the Sioux in which the Powers of the World told Black Elk of a "fearful road, a road of troubles and of war. On this road you shall walk, and from it you shall have the power to destroy a people's foes" (Neihardt, p. 29). Reality, unfortunately, would prove to be quite different. The whites were eventually successful in obliterating the Native Americans' way of life and subjugating the peoples.
This reality, however, was not easily accepted by Black Elk or by any of the Native American tribes. (For the purposes of this paper, the focus is on the Oglala Lakota Sioux, but many feelings and attitudes can be attributed to most of the Native American tribes.) For Black Elk, his first frame of reference with regards to the white man, or "Wasichu," was the Battle of the Hundred Slain. This battle took place on December 21, 1866, and although a Captain Fetterman and 81 of his men were wiped out in this battle near Fort Phil Kearney, Black Elk recalled that "every one was saying that the Wasichus were coming and that they were going to take our country and rub us all out" (Neihardt, p. 8). Although the battle was a victorious one for the Sioux, "a hundred Wasichus was not much if there were others and others without number where those came from" (Neihardt, p. 8). Thus, the reality of what the Sioux were about to face was beginning to sink in.
Sure enough, the Sioux were not successful in the next battle. Known by the Sioux as the Attacking of the Wagons and by whites as The Wagon Box Fight, this battle took place about six miles west of Fort Phil Kearney on August 2, 1867. Of the battle, Black Elk says, "It made me afraid again, for we did not win that battle as we did the other one, and there was much mourning among the dead" (Neihardt p. 16).
The Sioux had a difficult time understanding the white man's culture, especially when it came to his relationship with the earth and its creatures. To the Sioux, everything was alive, the rocks, the wind, the trees, the animals. There was no ownership of land per se, because the Native Americans believed that it was impossible to own air, water, even blades of grass. Every single thing, including the Sioux, was connected in a circle. In fact, the circle is considered a highly sacred shape among the Sioux, as well as most other Native American tribes. When Black Elk reported the elaborate circular ritual that takes place in his famous vision, he was, in fact, expressing a sentiment already several hundred years old (Ballantine, p. 195-6).
However, the Sioux's way of life and culture was just as alien to most white Americans and settlers of this time. During the 1800s and the period of Manifest Destiny, Americans were moving westward, a migration that grew in numbers following the Civil War. (Manifest Destiny refers to the belief prevalent at this time that territorial expansion of the United States was not only inevitable, but divinely ordained.)
Thus, for many Americans, moving west was the fulfillment of the American Dream: owning land that was far from the cities, where the nearest neighbor was at least a half a day's ride away. However, what white settlers did not take into consideration was the fact that when they moved onto these lands, they were encroaching upon land already occupied by the Native Americans, land that had been sustaining their way of life for perhaps thousands of years.
White Americans tended to view Native Americans as either beasts or children -- and both needed taming and instruction in the ways of "civilization" and in Christianity. However, there were some whites who did not share in the prevailing attitude of the day. Mormon leader Brigham Young's attitude of tolerance and respect towards Native Americans, for example, and his successful attempts at cooperation and peaceful coexistence with the tribes living in Utah, was virtually unique in the settlement of the West.
The next pivotal event in Black Elk's life was the Battle at Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. The battle was fought on June 25, 1876, in what is now Montana, between a regiment of the Seventh United States Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and a force of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors.
The discovery of gold in the nearby Black Hills in 1874 led to an influx of white prospectors into Native American territory and to attacks on the prospectors by the Sioux, under the direction of chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse (Black Elk's cousin), and Gall. Of the gold, Black Elk says, "Our people knew there was yellow metal in little chunks up there [the Black Hills]; but they did not bother with it, because it was not good for anything" (Neihardt, p. 79).
Interestingly enough, of his cousin, Crazy Horse, who was revered by the Sioux and feared by the whites for his nearly supernatural powers and prowess in battle, Black Elk says, "I think it was only the power of his vision that made him great" (Neihardt, p. 86). This is a significant statement because it shows that Black Elk was aware of his relative's humanity. He was afraid of him and felt that he was queer, but he was still a great man and marveled that the Wasichus "could not have killed him in battle...they had to lie to him and murder him...and he was only about 30 years old" (Neihardt, p. 87). (The United States Army began a relentless pursuit of Crazy Horse after the battles of Rosebud Creek and Little Big Horn; he finally surrendered in Nebraska on May 6, 1877. A few months later, while reportedly resisting confinement, he was killed by a soldier.)
Black Elk was thirteen years old when the Battle at Little Big Horn took place and as he watched the fighting from his village, noted, "A big dust [was]whirling on the hill, and then the horses began coming out of it with empty saddles" (p. 402). The fight was over in less than half an hour.
In order to understand more about the white man's culture, Black Elk joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and toured the United States and Europe. He said, "I thought I ought to go, because I might learn some secret of the Wasichu that would help my people somehow" (Neihardt, p. 214). Although he undertook this journey with a serious intent, he was probably unaware that in the eyes of promoters like Buffalo Bill Cody, Native Americans were considered "exotic" and were hired to appear in Wild West shows as curiosities. It is unlikely that he gained any more understanding about white man's culture through this experience -- at least not any understanding that could have helped him prevent the decimation of his culture.
In describing the end of this period of his life, Black Elk said, "I was in despair, and I even thought that if the Wasichus had a better way, then maybe my people should live that way. I know now that this was foolish, but I was young and in despair...I did not see anything to help my people. [The Wasichus] had forgotten that the earth is their mother" (Neihardt, p. 215, 217).
When Black Elk returned home, he saw that his people were worse off than when he had left. People were starving, there was no food, crops wouldn't grow, and "the Wasichus had slaughtered all the bison and shut us up in pens...the people were pitiful and in despair" (Neihardt, p. 230-1).
Then came the disaster of the Ghost Dance movement, which swept through Native American communities in the late 1800s. At this time, the Sioux began practicing a religion taught by Wovoka, a Paiute prophet who promised that performing the ritual Ghost Dance would result in the return of native lands, the rise of dead ancestors, the disappearance of the whites, and a future of eternal peace and prosperity. They would be made invincible to the white man's bullets, and thereby be able to throw out the white settlers from their land.
The Ghost Dance was part of what is known as the "Messianic Craze," a great Messianic dream that came to the desperate Indians in the mid-80s of the nineteenth century (Neihardt, p. xv). When Black Elk finally decided to go and see a Ghost Dance for himself, not believing in the message or the hope it offered,…