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Literature / Black Elk Speaks

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"What is good in this book is given back to the Six Grandfathers and to the great men of my people."
Black Elk's dedicatory.

"Black Elk Speaks" is a book originally published in 1932, written by John G. Neihardt (though most of the book is just a transcription of what Black Elk said). In it, Lakota holy man Black Elk tells the reader his life story, spiritual travels and participation in several historical events, and with it, the tale of his tribe and the entire Native American people towards the end of the 19th century. To this day the book is considered one of the most important pieces of Native American literature, for the priceless insight the book gives in the cultural and religious traditions of the Lakota, as well as the historical details contained in it.

But make no mistake, the book is a major Tear Jerker from start to finish (particularly if you have Native American blood), as Black Elk holds no punches when it comes to talking about the horrible suffering of the Native Americans and the injustice they suffered in the late 19th century from their finest hour at the Battle of Little Bighorn to their darkest at the Massacre of Wounded Knee. The reader gets to see, through Black Elk's eyes, the slow destruction of all the Native American people held dear until the cold, bitter end.

Today, Black Elk Speaks is considered one of the most fundamental books when it comes to understanding Native American history and culture in the 19th century, and it's often read at schools.

Tropes present in Black Elk Speaks

  • Armies Are Evil: Understandably, Black Elk despises the American Army, as they were the ones who murdered his people.
  • Badass Native: Absolutely everywhere. The biggest one, according to Black Elk himself, was Crazy Horse.
  • Battle Cry: "Hoka-hey!", used by all Indian warriors.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The description of the Battle of Little Bighorn is about three chapters long and it has several additional accounts of Black Elk's friends.
  • Blatant Lies: The Lakota don't believe in the American Government's agreements for even a second, and they just so happen to be entirely correct.
  • Blind Seer: Black Elk is a real life example. He was a Lakota holy man, nearly blind in his old age.
  • Blood Knight: Crazy Horse.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: "Crazy Horse was a very queer man" according to Black Elk.
  • Cavalry Officer: The very worst of them are frequent adversaries.
  • Child Soldiers: A part of the cultural divide between the Native Americans and the Government. Indian children often go to battle.
  • The Chosen One: Black Elk is, in his own description, a failed example. The Spirits chose him to guide his nation to prosperity and plentifulness, but at the end of the book, Black Elk tearfully describes how he failed the spirits and his people.
  • Death Seeker: Black Elk by the end of the book is seeking to go to the Spirit World, where there is no pain or suffering.
  • Divine Intervention: Every time Black Elk asks for the Spirits's help, he describes one. The reader, of course, may interpret it differently.
  • Downer Ending; The book ends with the tribes wiped out or imprisoned. The last chapter not counting the author's postcript, (which details Black Elk's last request to the gods, which also fails) ends with these words:
    "I did not know when and how much was ended, when I look back from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the Crooked Gulch as plain as I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: The main form of prophetizing Black Elk does.
  • During the War: Most of Black Elk's memoirs are during the Sioux Wars.
  • End of an Age: Black Elk witnesses the downfall of the Indian traditions and lifestyle, forever.
  • Fainting Seer: Black Elk would faint most of the times he had his visions.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: They don't get it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Everyone with a passing knowledge of history knows how it will all turn out, which makes the entire tale all the more heartbreaking.
  • From Bad to Worse: After the Battle of Little Bighorn, things just go downhill at a terrifying pace for Black Elk and his tribe, as well as all Indian nations.
  • Injun Country: Since the entire story is told by the perspective of a Lakota, of course.
  • Karma Houdini: Black Elk laments how "Three Stars" (General Reno) not only survived, but continued to oppress them freely.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the postscript the author lampshades many readers will see the more fantastic elements as "extraordinary coincidences".
  • Memetic Badass: In-Universe, Black Elk goes on at lengths about how awesome Crazy Horse was. (They were related.)
  • Mission from God: To save the Indian nations is Black Elk's. He never succeeds.
  • Nicknaming the Enemy: See Only Known by Their Nickname.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Crazy Horse is described as being unkillable in battle. Black Elk rationalizes he was only killed later on because he was caught off-guard and stabbed in the back.
  • Old Soldier: Standing Bear, who helpfully provides with vivid accounts of the battles he participated in.
  • One-Man Army: Crazy Horse again. One story goes that Crazy Horse once battled an entire Crow regiment and repelled them, alone.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Lakota call all Non-Indian people by a variety of nicknames. Col. Custer was "Long Hair", Gen. Reno was "Three Stars", A Catholic Priest is "Black Robe". Most versions of the book have little footnotes to clarify who they're talking about.
  • Perspective Flip: The book provides one for the Battle of Little Bighorn, showing the Lakota perspective.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Depressingly subverted. Several things the spirits tell Black Elk actually do happen as they said, but the biggest prophecy of all, that Black Elk would save the Indian nation from destruction, never happens.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Lakota. All of them.
  • Queen Victoria: Late in the book, Black Elk and some companions meet with her. Black Elk describes "Grandmother England" as one of the kindest women he ever met. Here's his description of how she greeted them at her own Golden Jubilee parade:
    When she came to where we were, her wagon stopped and she stood up. Then all those people stood up and roared and bowed to her; but she bowed to us.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: While the laws and customs of war didn't quite exist back then, the sheer amount of times Black Elk describes the Army butchering villages of non-combatants and killing children as they fled is very unsettling.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: All the blood shed, all the lives sacrificed, all the suffering and all the effort to save the Native Americans are for naught, and they're wiped out or broken by the end of the book.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Black Elk describes something very similar to PTSD when he talks about how he feels about the battles he fought in.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Crazy Horse. Black Elk makes note there were several legends about him and tales of his great deeds, most notably one that he was bullet-proof.
  • Sink the Lifeboats: Every single time a battle with the American Army is described, the Army slaughters women and children and surrendered opponents.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: The atrocities of the American Army are laid bare here.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: The Lakota are clearly warriors, while the American soldiers are...well...soldiers. Black Elk clearly sides with the warrior lifestyle.
  • Token Good Teammate: It is very depressing to note Black Elk only describes encountering four kind-hearted white people in his entire life (Queen Victoria, the book's author, Buffalo Bill and a Catholic Priest who tried to help his people).
  • Vagueness Is Coming: The spirits are not very detailed when telling Black Elk what's about to happen.