Black Elk Speaks
The Oglala people were very spiritual and believed in another world and higher being. The Oglala Sioux Nation’s rituals, traditions, and ways of life are reflected through the story of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man, who shared his life stories with the poet John Neihardt in an attempt to preserve the history of the Sioux traditions. Neihardt’s book, Black Elk Speaks, also depicts the struggles of the Lakota Indians (Oglala Sioux Nation) as they defend their land against the “Wasichus,” or white-man, during the gold rush and they fight with the American government for their property and land. Through Black Elk’s accounts, the reader gains a knowledge of the Oglala traditions and witnesses how the culture evolves with the increase of westerners and the gold rush.
Since the book, Black Elk Speaks, is written primarily from Black Elk’s perspective, the reader gets a better understanding of Black Elk’s character and how he interacts with the Oglala people, being from the Oglala Nation himself. At the age of nine, Black Elk is granted a vision that empowers him to lead his people, and especially maintain the “sacred hoop”—their cultural identity and coherence as a tribe. Black Elk's growing anxiety about carrying out the promise of the vision is evident throughout the narrative, as he struggles to hold onto his Sioux culture throughout the battles for territory. In the immediate aftermath of the vision, he repeatedly felt "queer" because he had been marked for a special destiny, and this makes him feel separated from other members of the tribe. Black Elk develops a confident-but-modest sense of himself; and in his late teen years, enacts his great vision within a public ritual in order to validate his tribal role. He performs individual healings, but often, Black Elk specifies that the power he is given is not his own, and that he is only an instrument of much greater work. Black Elk once said, "I cured with the power that came through me. Of course, it was not I who cured, it was the power from the Outer World, the visions and the ceremonies had only made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds." This quote is an example of the Oglala belief, as well as Black Elk’s, that there is a higher being, and this is also evident in their traditions.
Unfortunately, with the encroachment of westerners in Native American territories, the Oglala Nation’s culture began to decline and be stunted with their growth. The end of the traditional Sioux hunting practices is a striking example of this loss of culture. The bison that roamed the prairie were considered sacred, and was a source of food that was a reminder of the providence of the Great Spirit. The Transcontinental Railroad, established when Black Elk was a child, split the bison herd into two halves. Even though the herd was half as small as it was before, it didn’t seem like much of a threat because, as Black Elk says, “…half of the herd was still more than they could use.” Every part of the bison was used, by Oglala traditions, after a hunter on horseback displayed their courage and bravery in the hunt. The butchering, food preparation, and the hide-and-bone-processing practices that followed the hunt allowed for the tribe’s sustenance. After every part of the bison has been utilized, the community celebrated with a feast, dancing, and singing. With the addition of the railroad system and settlement expansion, the “Wasichus” began to hunt the bison for sport, drastically decreasing the bison herd size. “They just killed and killed because they liked to do that,” said Black Elk, referring to the characteristic of the white-man hunting bison. Indians were ordered onto reservations on January of 1876, making food supply a way that the American government could control the Native Americans’ behavior. Native Americans were forced to rely on government rations with the bison herd diminishing and the confiscation...
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