From ‘Black Elk Speaks’

· Articles & Essays · ,

as told through John G. Neihardt

After the conclusion of the narrative, Black Elk and our party were sitting at the north edge of Cuny Table, looking off across the Badlands (“the beauty and the strangeness of the earth,” as the old man expressed it). Pointing at Harney Peak that loomed black above the far sky-rim, Black Elk said: “There, when I was young, the spirits took me in my vision to the center of the earth and showed me all the good things in the sacred hoop of the world. I wish I could stand up there in the flesh before I die, for there is something I want to say to the Six Grandfathers.”


So The Trip to Harney Peak
was arranged, and a few days later we were there. On the way up to the summit, Black Elk remarked to his son, Ben: “Something should happen to-day. If I have any power left, the thunder beings of the west should hear me when I send a voice, and there should be at least a little thunder and a little rain.” What happened is, of course, related to Wasichu readers as being merely a more or less striking coincidence. It was a bright and cloudless day, and after we had reached the summit the sky was perfectly clear. It was a season of drought, one of the worst in the memory of the old men. The sky remained clear until about the conclusion of the ceremony.


“Right Over There,”
said Black Elk, indicating a point of rock, “is where I stood in my vision, but the hoop of the world about me was different, for what I saw was in the spirit.”

Having dressed and painted himself as he was in his great vision, he faced the west, holding the sacred pipe before him in his right hand. Then he sent forth a voice; and a thin, pathetic voice it seemed in that vast space around us:

“Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Hey-a- a-hey! Hey-a-a-hey! Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the wings of the air and all green things that live. You have set the powers of the four quarters to cross each other. The good road and the road of difficulties you have made to cross; and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in and day out, forever, you are the life of things.

“Therefore I am sending a voice, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, forgetting nothing you have made, the stars of the universe and the grasses of the earth.

“You have said to me, when I was still young and could hope, that in difficulty I should send a voice four times, once for each quarter of the earth, and you would hear me.

“To-day I send a voice for a people in despair.

“You have given me a sacred pipe, and through this I should make my offering. You see it now.

“From the west, you have given me the cup of living water and the sacred bow, the power to make live and to destroy. You have given me a sacred wind and the herb from where the white giant lives—the cleansing power and the healing. The daybreak star and the pipe, you have given from the east; and from the south, the nation’s sacred hoop and the tree that was to bloom. To the center of the world you have taken me and showed the goodness and the beauty and the strangeness of the greening earth, the only mother—and there the spirit shapes of things, as they should be, you have shown to me and I have seen. At the center of this sacred hoop you have said that I should make the tree to bloom.

“With tears running, O Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather—with running tears I must say now that the tree has never bloomed. A pitiful old man, you see me here, and I have fallen away and have done nothing. Here at the center of the world, where you took me when I was young and taught me; here, old, I stand, and the tree is withered, Grandfather, my Grandfather!

“Again, and maybe the last time on this earth, I recall the great vision you sent me. It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds. Hear me, not for myself, but for my people; I am old. Hear me that they may once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road, the shielding tree!”

Photo by Thanwan Singh

Photo by Thanwan Singh


We Who Listened
now noted that thin clouds had gathered about us. A scant chill rain began to fall and there was low, muttering thunder without lightning. With tears running down his cheeks, the old man raised his voice to a thin high wail, and chanted: “In sorrow I am sending a feeble voice, O Six Powers of the World. Hear me in my sorrow, for I may never call again. O make my people live!”

For some minutes the old man stood silent, with face uplifted, weeping in the drizzling rain.

In a little while the sky was clear again.


Black Elk (1863-1950) was a healer of the Oglala Lakota tribe who participated in the Ghost Dance Movement alongside Sitting Bull and Chief Crazy Horse. His conversations with John G. Neihardt recounting his life are recorded in Black Elk Speaks.

John G. Neihardt (1881-1973) is the Poet Laureate in Perpetuity of Nebraska.

Reproduced from Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition by John G Neihardt. Reprinted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. Copyright © 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Original printings copyright 1932, 1959, 1972 by John G. Neihardt. Copyright 1961 by the John G. Neihardt Trust

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