following is taken from the book Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neihardt (New
York: Washington Square Press, 1972), originally published in 1932. The book is
Neihardt's recreation in English of the oral history that Black Elk, a medicine
man (or "shaman," of the Oglala Sioux Indians, recounted for him in
the Sioux language in 1931. I have selected those chapters and sections of
chapters that deal most directly with Black Elk's visions and this ritual
enactment of them for his tribe.]
Chapter 2: Early Boyhood
was four years old then, and I think it must have been the next summer that I
first heard the voices. It was a happy summer and nothing was afraid, because in
the Moon When the Ponies Shed (May) word came from the Wasichus [the White Men]
that there would be peace and that they would not use the road any more and that
all the soldiers would go away. The soldiers did go away and their towns were
torn down; and in the Moon of Falling Leaves (November), they made a treaty with
Red Cloud that said our country would be ours as long as grass should grow and
water flow. You can see that it is not the grass and the water that have
it was not this summer when I first heard the voices, but I think it was,
because I know it was before I played with bows and arrows or rode a horse, and
I was out playing alone when I heard them. It was like somebody calling me, and
I thought it was my mother, but there was nobody there. This happened more than
once, and always made me afraid, so that I ran home.
was when I was five years old that my Grandfather made me a bow and some arrows.
The grass was young and I was horseback. A thunder storm was coming from where
the sun goes down, and just as I was riding into the woods along a creek, there
was a kingbird sitting on a limb. This was not a dream, it happened. And I was
going to shoot at the kingbird with the bow my Grandfather made, when the bird
spoke and said: "The clouds all over are one-sided." Perhaps it meant
that all the clouds were looking at me. And then it said: "Listen! A voice
is calling you!" Then I looked up at the clouds, and two men were coming
there, headfirst like arrows slanting down; and as they came, they sang a sacred
song and the thunder was like drumming. I will sing it for you. The song and the
drumming were like this:
a sacred voice is calling you;
over the sky a sacred voice is calling.
sat there gazing at them, and they were coming from the place where the giant
lives (north). But when they were very close to me, they wheeled about toward
where the sun goes down, and suddenly they were geese. Then they were gone, and
the rain came with a big wind and a roaring. I did not tell this vision to any
one. I liked to think about it, but I was afraid to tell it.
3: The Great Vision
happened after that until the summer I was nine years old is not a story. There
were winters and summers, and they were good; for the Wasichus had made their
iron road along the Platte and traveled there. This had cut the bison herd in
two, but those that stayed in our country with us were more than could be
counted, and we wandered without trouble in our land.
and then the voices would come back when I was out alone, like someone calling
me, but what they wanted me to do I did not know. This did not happen very
often, and when it did not happen, I forgot about it; for I was growing taller
and was riding horses now and could shoot prairie chickens and rabbits with my
bow. The boys of my people began very young to learn the ways of men, and no one
taught us; we just learned by doing what we saw, and we were warriors at a time
when boys now are like girls.
was the summer when I was nine years old, and our people were moving slowly
towards the Rocky Mountains. We camped one evening in a valley beside a little
creek just before it ran into the Greasy Grass and there was a man by the name
of Man Hip who liked me and asked me to eat with him in his tepee.
I was eating, a voice came and said: "It is time; now they are calling
you." The voice was so loud and clear that I believed it, and I thought I
would just go where it wanted me to go. So I got right up and started. As I came
out of the tepee, both my thighs began to hurt me, and suddenly it was like
waking from a dream, and there wasn't any voice. So I went back into the tepee,
but I didn't want to eat. Man Hip looked at me in a strange way and asked me
what was wrong. I told him that my legs were hurting me.
next morning the camp moved again, and I was riding with some boys. We stopped
to get a drink from a creek, and when I got off my horse, my legs crumpled under
me and I could not walk. So the boys helped me up and put me on my horse; and
when we camped again that evening, I was sick. The next day the camp moved on to
where the different bands of our people were coming together, and I rode in a
pony drag, for I was very sick. Both my legs and both my arms were swollen badly
and my face was all puffed up.
we had camped again, I was lying in our tepee and my mother and father were
sitting beside me. I could see out through the opening, and there two men were
coming from the clouds, headfirst like arrows slanting down, and I knew they
were the same that I had seen before. Each now carried a long spear, and from
the points of these a jagged lightning flashed. They came clear down to the
ground this time and stood a little way off and looked at me and said:
"Hurry! Come! Your Grandfathers are calling you!"
they turned and left the ground like arrows slanting upward from the bow. When I
got up to follow, my legs did not hurt me any more and I was very light. I went
outside the tepee, and yonder where the men with flaming spears were going, a
little cloud was coming very fast. It came and stooped and took me and turned
back to where it came from, flying fast. And when I looked down I could see my
mother and my father yonder, and I felt sorry to be leaving them.
there was nothing but the air and the swiftness of the little cloud that bore me
and those two men still leading up to where white clouds were piled like
mountains on a wide blue plain, and in them thunder beings lived and leaped and
flashed. Now suddenly there was nothing but a world of cloud, and we three were
there alone in the middle of a great white plain with snowy hills and mountains
staring at us; and it was very still; but there were whispers.
the two men spoke together and they said: "Behold him, the being with four
looked and saw a bay horse standing there, and he began to speak: "Behold
me!" he said. "My life history you shall see." Then he wheeled
about to where the sun goes down, and said: "Behold them! Their history you
looked, and there were twelve black horses yonder all abreast with necklaces of
bison hoofs, and they were beautiful, but I was frightened, because their manes
were lightning and there was thunder in their nostrils.
the bay horse wheeled to where the great white giant lives (the north) and said:
"Behold!" And yonder there were twelve white horses all abreast. Their
manes were flowing like a blizzard wind and from their noses came a roaring, and
all about them white geese soared and circled.
the bay wheeled round to where the sun shines continually (the east) and bade me
look; and there twelve sorrel horses, with necklaces of elk's teeth, stood
abreast with eyes that glimmered like the daybreak star and manes of morning
the bay wheeled once again to look upon the place where you are always facing
(the south), and yonder stood twelve buckskins all abreast with horns upon their
heads and manes that lived and grew like trees and grasses.
when I had seen all these, the bay horse said: "Your Grandfathers are
having a council. These shall take you; so have courage."
all the horses went into formation, four abreast--the blacks, the whites, the
sorrels, and the buckskins--and stood behind the bay, who turned now to the west
and neighed; and yonder suddenly the sky was terrible with a storm of plunging
horses in all colors that shook the world with thunder, neighing back.
turning to the north the bay horse whinnied, and yonder all the sky roared with
a mighty wind of running horses in all colors, neighing back.
when he whinnied to the east, there too the sky was filled with glowing clouds
of manes and tails of horses, in all colors singing back. Then to the south he
called, and it was crowded with many colored, happy horses, nickering.
the bay horse spoke to me again and said: "See how your horses all come
dancing!" I looked, and there were horses, horses everywhere--a whole
skyful of horses dancing round me.
haste!" the bay horse said; and we walked together side by side, while the
blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins followed, marching four by
looked about me once again, and suddenly the dancing horses without number
changed into animals of every kind and into all the fowls that are, and these
fled back to the four quarters of the world from whence the horses came, and
as we walked, there was a heaped up cloud ahead that changed into a tepee, and a
rainbow was the open door of it; and through the door I saw six old men sitting
in a row.
two men with the spears now stood beside me, one on either hand, and the horses
took their places in their quarters, looking inward, four by four. And the
oldest of the Grandfathers spoke with a kind voice and said: "Come right in
and do not fear." And as he spoke, all the horses of the four quarters
neighed to cheer me. So I went in and stood before the six, and they looked
older than men can ever be--old like hills, like stars.
oldest spoke again: "Your Grandfathers all over the world are having a
council, and they have called you here to teach you." His voice was very
kind, but I shook all over with fear now, for I knew that these were not old
men, but the Powers of the World. And the first was the Power of the West; the
second, of the North; the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the
fifth, of the Sky; the sixth, of the Earth. I knew this, and was afraid, until
the first Grandfather spoke again: "Behold them yonder where the sun goes
down, the thunder beings! You shall see, and have from them my power; and they
shall take you to the high and lonely center of the earth that you may see: even
to the place where the sun continually shines, they shall take you there to
as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames
of many colors over me.
there was a wooden cup in his hand and it was full of water and in the water was
this," he said. "It is the power to make live, and it is yours."
he had a bow in his hands. "Take this," he said. "It is the power
to destroy, and it is yours."
he pointed to himself and said: "Look close at him who is your spirit now,
for you are his body and his name is Eagle Wing Stretches."
saying this, he got up very tall and started running toward where the sun goes
down; and suddenly he was a black horse that stopped and turned and looked at
me, and the horse was very poor and sick; his ribs stood out.
the second Grandfather, he of the North, arose with a herb of power in his hand,
and said: "Take this and hurry." I took and held it toward the black
horse yonder. He fattened and was happy and came prancing to his place again and
was the first Grandfather sitting there.
second Grandfather, he of the North, spoke again: "Take courage. younger
brother," he said; "on earth a nation you shall make live, for yours
shall be the power of the white giant's wing, the cleansing wing." Then he
got up very tall and started running toward the north; and when he turned toward
me, it was a white goose wheeling. I looked about me now, and the horses in the
west were thunders and the horses of the north were geese. And the second
Grandfather sang two songs that were like this:
are appearing, may you behold!
are appearing, may you behold!
thunder nation is appearing, behold!
are appearing, may you behold!
are appearing, may you behold!
white geese nation is appearing,
now it was the third Grandfather who spoke, he of where the sun shines
continually. "Take courage, younger brother," he said, "for
across the earth they shall take you!" Then he pointed to where the
daybreak star was shining, and beneath the star two men were flying. "From
them you shall have power," he said, "from them who have awakened all
the beings of the earth with roots and legs and wings." And as he said
this, he held in his hand a peace pipe which had a spotted eagle outstretched
upon the stem; and this eagle seemed alive, for it was poised there, fluttering,
and its eyes were looking at me. "With this pipe," the Grandfather
said, "you shall walk upon the earth, and whatever sickens there you shall
make well." Then he pointed to a man who was bright red all over, the color
of good and of plenty, and as he pointed, the red man lay down and rolled and
changed into a bison that got up, and galloped toward the sorrel horses of the
east, and they too turned to bison, fat and many.
now the fourth Grandfather spoke, he of the place where you are always facing
(the south), whence comes the power to grow. "Younger brother," he
said, "with the powers of the four quarters you shall walk, a relative.
Behold, the living center of a nation I shall give you, and with it many you
shall save." And I saw that he was holding in his hand a bright red stick
that was alive, and as I looked it sprouted at the top and sent forth branches,
and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured and in the leaves the
birds began to sing. And then for just a little while I thought I saw beneath it
in the shade the circled villages of people and every living thing with roots or
legs or wings, and all were happy. "It shall stand in the center of the
nation's circle," said the Grandfather, "a cane to walk with and a
people's heart; and by your powers you shall make it blossom."
when he had been still a little while to hear the birds sing, he spoke again:
"Behold the earth!" So I looked down and saw it lying yonder like a
hoop of peoples. and in the center bloomed the holy stick that was a tree, and
where it stood there crossed two roads, a red one and a black. "From where
the giant lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road
goes, the road of good," the Grandfather said, "and on it shall your
nation walk. The black road goes from where the thunder beings live (the west)
to where the sun continually shines (the east), a fearful road, a road of
troubles and of war. On this also you shall walk, and from it you shall have the
power to destroy a people's foes. In four ascents you shall walk the earth with
think he meant that I should see four generations, counting me, and now I am
seeing the third.
he rose very tall and started running toward the south, and was an elk; and as
he stood among the buckskins yonder, they too were elks.
the fifth Grandfather spoke, the oldest of them all, the Spirit of the Sky.
"My boy," he said, "I have sent for you and you have come. My
power you shall see!" He stretched his arms and turned into a spotted eagle
hovering. "Behold," he said, "all the wings of the air shall come
to you, and they and the winds and the stars shall be like relatives. You shall
go across the earth with my power." Then the eagle soared above my head and
fluttered there; and suddenly the sky was full of friendly wings all coming
I knew the sixth Grandfather was about to speak, he who was the Spirit of the
Earth, and I saw that he was very old, but more as men are old. His hair was
long and white, his face was all in wrinkles and his eyes were deep and dim. I
stared at him, for it seemed I knew him somehow; and as I stared, he slowly
changed, for he was growing backwards into youth, and when he had become a boy,
I knew that he was myself with all the years that would be mine at last. When he
was old again, he said: "My boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours,
and you shall need it, for your nation on the earth will have great troubles.
rose and tottered out through the rainbow door, and as I followed I was riding
on the bay horse who had talked to me at first and led me to that place.
the bay horse stopped and faced the black horses of the west, and a voice said:
"They have given you the cup of water to make live the greening day, and
also the bow and arrow to destroy." The bay neighed, and the twelve black
horses came and stood behind me, four abreast.
bay faced the sorrels of the east, and I saw that they had morning stars upon
their foreheads and they were very bright. And the voice said: "They have
given you the sacred pipe and the power that is peace, and the good red
day." The bay neighed and the twelve sorrels stood behind me, four abreast
horse now faced the buckskins of the south and a voice said: "They have
given you the sacred stick and your nation's hoop, and the yellow day and in the
center of the hoop you shall set the stick and make it grow into a shielding
tree, and bloom." The bay neighed, and the twelve buckskins came and stood
behind me, four abreast.
I knew that there were riders on all the horses there behind me, and a voice
said: "Now you shall walk the black road with these; and as you walk, all
the nations that have roots or legs or wings shall fear you."
I started, riding toward the east down the fearful road, and behind me came the
horsebacks four abreast--the blacks, the whites, the sorrels, and the
buckskins--and far away above the fearful road the daybreak star was rising very
looked below me where the earth was silent in a sick green light, and saw the
hills look up afraid and the grasses on the hills and all the animals; and
everywhere about me were the cries of frightened birds and sounds of fleeing
wings. I was the chief of all the heavens riding there, and when I looked behind
me, all the twelve black horses reared and plunged and thundered and their manes
and tails were whirling hail and their nostrils snorted lightning. And when I
looked below again, I saw the slant hail falling and the long, sharp rain, and
where we passed, the trees bowed low and all the hills were dim.
the earth was bright again as we rode. I could see the hills and valleys and the
creeks and rivers passing under. We came above a place where three streams made
a big one--a source of mighty waters--and something terrible was there. Flames
were rising from the waters and in the flames a blue man lived. The dust was
floating all about him in the air, the grass was short and withered, the trees
were wilting, two-legged and four-legged beings lay there thin and panting, and
wings too weak to fly.
the black horse riders shouted "Hoka hey!" and charged down upon the
blue man, but were driven back. And the white troop shouted, charging, and was
beaten; then the red troop and the yellow.
when each had failed. they all cried together: "Eagle Wing Stretches,
hurry!" And all the world was filled with voices of all kinds that cheered
me, so I charged. I had the cup of water in one hand and in the other was the
bow that turned into a spear as the bay and I swooped down, and the spear's head
was sharp lightning. It stabbed the blue man's heart, and as it struck I could
hear the thunder rolling and many voices that cried "Un-hee!," meaning
I had killed. The flames died. The trees and grasses were not withered any more
and murmured happily together, and every living being cried in gladness with
whatever voice it had. Then the four troops of horse men charged down and struck
the dead body of the blue man, counting coup; and suddenly it was only a
see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had come to earth as rain, and
it was drought that I had killed with the power that the Six Grandfathers gave
me. So we were riding on the earth now down along the river flowing full from
the source of waters, and soon I saw ahead the circled village of a people in
the valley. And a Voice said: "Behold a nation; it is yours. Make haste,
Eagle Wing Stretches!"
entered the village, riding, with the four horse troops behind me--the blacks,
the whites, the sorrels, and the buckskins; and the place was filled with
moaning and with mourning for the dead. The wind was blowing from the south like
fever, and when I looked around I saw that in nearly every tepee the women and
the children and the men lay dying with the dead.
I rode around the circle of the village, looking in upon the sick and dead, and
I felt like crying as I rode. But when I looked behind me, all the women and the
children and the men were getting up and coming forth with happy faces.
a Voice said: "Behold, they have given you the center of the nation's hoop
to make it live."
I rode to the center of the village, with the horse troops in their quarters
round about me, and there the people gathered. And the Voice said: "Give
them now the flowering stick that they may flourish, and the sacred pipe that
they may know the power that is peace, and the wing of the white giant that they
may have endurance and face all winds with courage."
I took the bright red stick and at the center of the nation's hoop I thrust it
in the earth. As it touched the earth it leaped mightily in my hand and was a
waga chun, the rustling tree, very tall and full of leafy branches and of all
birds singing. And beneath it all the animals were mingling with the people like
relatives and making happy cries. The women raised their tremolo of joy, and the
men shouted all together: "Here we shall raise our children and be as
little chickens under the mother sheo's wing."
I heard the white wind blowing gently through the tree and singing there, and
from the east the sacred pipe came flying on its eagle wings, and stopped before
me there beneath the tree, spreading deep peace around it.
the daybreak star was rising, and a Voice said: "It shall be a relative to
them; and who shall see it, shall see much more, for thence comes wisdom; and
those who do not see it shall be dark." And all the people raised their
faces to the east, and the star's light fell upon them, and all the dogs barked
loudly and the horses whinnied.
when the many little voices ceased, the great Voice said: "Behold the
circle of the nation's hoop, for it is holy, being endless, and thus all powers
shall be one power in the people without end. Now they shall break camp and go
forth upon the red road, and your Grandfathers shall walk with them." So
the people broke camp and took the good road with the white wing on their faces,
and the order of their going was like this:
the black horse riders with the cup of water; and the white horse riders with
the white wing and the sacred herb; and the sorrel riders with the holy pipe:
and the buckskins with the flowering stick. And after these the little children
and the youths and maidens followed in a band.
came the tribe's four chieftains, and their band was all young men and women.
the nation's four advisers leading men and women neither young nor old.
the old men hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth.
old women hobbling with their canes and looking to the earth.
myself all alone upon the bay with the bow and arrows that the First Grandfather
gave me. But I was not the last; for when I looked behind me there were ghosts
of people like a trailing fog as far as I could see--grandfathers of
grandfathers and grandmothers of grandmothers without number. And over these a
great Voice--the Voice that was the South--lived, and I could feel it silent.
as we went the Voice behind me said: "Behold a good nation walking in a
sacred manner in a good land!"
I looked up and saw that there were four ascents ahead, and these were
generations I should know. Now we were on the first ascent, and all the land was
green. And as the long line climbed, all the old men and women raised their
hands, palms forward, to the far sky yonder and began to croon a song together,
and the sky ahead was filled with clouds of baby faces.
we came to the end of the first ascent we camped in the sacred circle as before,
and in the center stood the holy tree, and still the land about us was all
we started on the second ascent, marching as before, and still the land was
green, but it was getting steeper. And as I looked ahead, the people changed
into elks and bison and all four-footed beings and even into fowls, all walking
in a sacred manner on the good red road together. And I myself was a spotted
eagle soaring over them. But just before we stopped to camp at the end of that
ascent, all the marching animals grew restless and afraid that they were not
what they had been, and began sending forth voices of trouble, calling to their
chiefs. And when they camped at the end of that ascent, I looked down and saw
that leaves were falling from the holy tree.
the Voice said: "Behold your nation, and remember what your Six
Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties."
the people broke camp again, and saw the black road before them towards where
the sun goes down, and black clouds coming yonder; and they did not want to go
but could not stay. And as they walked the third ascent, all the animals and
fowls that were the people ran here and there, for each one seemed to have his
own little vision that he followed and his own rules; and all over the universe
I could hear the winds at war like wild beasts fighting.
when we reached the summit of the third ascent and camped, the nation's hoop was
broken like a ring of smoke that spreads and scatters and the holy tree seemed
dying and all its birds were gone. And when I looked ahead I saw that the fourth
ascent would be terrible.
when the people were getting ready to begin the fourth ascent, the Voice spoke
like some one weeping, and it said: "Look there upon your nation." And
when I looked down, the people were all changed back to human, and they were
thin, their faces sharp, for they were starving. Their ponies were only hide and
bones. and the holy tree was gone.
as I looked and wept, I saw that there stood on the north side of the starving
camp a sacred man who was painted red all over his body, and he held a spear as
he walked into the center of the people, and there he lay down and rolled. And
when he got up, it was a fat bison standing there, and where the bison stood a
sacred herb sprang up right where the tree had been in the center of the
nation's hoop. The herb grew and bore four blossoms on a single stem while I was
looking--a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow--and the bright rays of these
flashed to the heavens.
know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit and were
our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit we must
find another strength. For the people all seemed better when the herb had grown
and bloomed, and the horses raised their tails and neighed and pranced around,
and I could see a light breeze going from the north among the people like a
ghost; and suddenly the flowering tree was there again at the center of the
nation's hoop where the four-rayed herb had blossomed.
was still the spotted eagle floating and I could see that I was already in the
fourth ascent and the people were camping yonder at the top of the third long
rise. It was dark and terrible about me, for all the winds of the world were
fighting. It was like rapid gunfire and like whirling smoke, and like women and
children wailing and like horses screaming all over the world.
could see my people yonder running about, setting the smokeflap poles and
fastening down their tepees against the wind, for the storm cloud was coming on
them very fast and black, and there were frightened swallows without number
fleeing before the cloud.
a song of power came to me and I sang it there in the midst of that terrible
place where I was. It went like this:
good nation I will make live.
the nation above has said.
have given me the power
when I had sung this, a Voice said: "To the four quarters you shall run for
help, and nothing shall be strong before you. Behold him!"
I was on my bay horse again, because the horse is of the earth, and it was there
my power would be used. And as I obeyed the Voice and looked, there was a horse
all skin and bones yonder in the west, a faded brownish black. And a Voice there
said: "Take this and make him over; and it was the four-rayed herb that I
was holding in my hand. So I rode above the poor horse in a circle, and as I did
this I could hear the people yonder calling for spirit power, "A-hey!
a-hey! a-hey! a-hey!" Then the poor horse neighed and rolled and got up,
and he was a big, shiny, black stallion with dapples all over him and his mane
about him like a cloud. He was the chief of all the horses; and when he snorted,
it was a flash of lightning and his eyes were like the sunset star. He dashed to
the west and neighed, and the west was filled with a dust of hoofs, and horses
without number, shiny black, came plunging from the dust. Then he dashed toward
the north and neighed, and to the east and to the south. and the dust clouds
answered, giving forth their plunging horses without number--whites and sorrels
and buckskins, fat, shiny, rejoicing in their fleetness and their strength. It
was beautiful, but it was also terrible.
they all stopped short, rearing, and were standing in a great hoop about their
black chief at the center, and were still. And as they stood, four virgins, more
beautiful than women of the earth can be, came through the circle, dressed in
scarlet, one from each of the four quarters, and stood about the great black
stallion in their places; and one held the wooden cup of water, and one the
white wing, and one the pipe, and one the nation's hoop. All the universe was
silent, listening; and then the great black stallion raised his voice and sang.
The song he sang was this:
horses, prancing they are coming.
horses, neighing they are coming;
they are coming.
over the universe they come.
will dance; may you behold them.
horse nation, they will dance.
you behold them. (4 times)
voice was not loud, but it went all over the universe and filled it. There was
nothing that did not hear, and it was more beautiful than anything can be. It
was so beautiful that nothing anywhere could keep from dancing. The virgins
danced, and all the circled horses. The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the
hills and in the valleys, the water in the creeks and in the rivers and the
lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air--all danced
together to the music of the stallion's song.
when I looked down upon my people yonder, the cloud passed over, blessing them
with friendly rain, and stood in the east with a flaming rainbow over it.
all the horses went singing back to their places beyond the summit of the fourth
ascent, and all thing sang along with them as they walked.
a Voice said: "All over the universe they have finished a day of
happiness." And looking down, I saw that the whole wide circle of the day
was beautiful and green, with all fruits growing and all things kind and happy.
a Voice said: "Behold this day, for it is yours to make. Now you shall
stand upon the center of the earth to see, for there they are taking you."
I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the
north, the east, the south, behind me in formation, as before, and we were going
east. I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them,
and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was
standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the
whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and
I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of
all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together
like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many
hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center
grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one
father. And I saw that it was holy.
as I stood there, two men were coming from the east, head first like arrows
flying, and between them rose the daybreak star. They came and gave a herb to me
and said: "With this on earth you shall undertake anything and do it."
It was the daybreak-star herb, the herb of understanding, and they told me to
drop it on the earth. I saw it falling far, and when it struck the earth it
rooted and grew and flowered, four blossoms on one stem, a blue, a white, a
scarlet, and a yellow; and the rays from these streamed upward to the heavens so
that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness.
the Voice said: "Your Six Grandfathers--now you shall go back to
had not noticed how I was dressed until now, and I saw that I was painted red
all over, and my joints were painted black, with white stripes between the
joints. My bay had lightning stripes all over him, and his mane was cloud. And
when I breathed, my breath was lightning.
two men were leading me, head first like arrows slanting upward--the two that
brought me from the earth. And as I followed on the bay, they turned into four
flocks of geese that flew in circles, one above each quarter, sending forth a
sacred voice as they flew: Br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p, br-r-r-p!
I saw ahead the rainbow flaming above the tepee of the Six Grandfathers, built
and roofed with cloud and sewed with thongs of lightning; and underneath it were
all the wings of the air and under them the animals and men. All these were
rejoicing and thunder was like happy laughter.
I rode in through the rainbow door, there were cheering voices from all over the
universe, and I saw the Six Grandfathers sitting in a row, with their arms held
toward me and their hands, palms out; and behind them in the cloud were faces
thronging, without number, of the people yet to be.
has triumphed!" cried the six together, making thunder. And as I passed
before them there, each gave again the gift that he had given me before--the cup
of water and the bow and arrows, the power to make live and to destroy; the
white wing of cleansing and the healing herb; the sacred pipe; the flowering
stick. And each one spoke in turn from west to south, explaining what he gave as
he had done before, and as each one spoke he melted down into the earth and rose
again; and as each did this, I felt nearer to the earth.
the oldest of them all said: "Grandson, all over the universe you have
seen. Now you shall go back with power to the place from whence you came, and it
shall happen yonder that hundreds shall be sacred, hundreds shall be flames!
looked below and saw my people there, and all were well and happy except one,
and he was lying like the dead--and that one was myself. Then the oldest
Grandfather sang, and his song was like this:
is someone lying on earth
a sacred manner.
is someone--on earth he lies.
a sacred manner I have made him to walk.
the tepee, built and roofed with cloud, began to sway back and forth as in a
wind, and the flaming rainbow door was growing dimmer. I could hear voices of
all kinds crying from outside: "Eagle Wine Stretches is coming forth!
I went through the door, the face of the day of earth was appearing with the
daybreak star upon its forehead; and the sun leaped up and looked upon me, and I
was going forth alone.
as I walked alone, I heard the sun singing as it arose, and it sang like this:
visible face I am appearing.
a sacred manner I appear.
the greening earth a pleasantness
center of the nation's hoop
have made pleasant.
visible face, behold me!
four-leggeds and two-leggeds,
have made them to walk;
wings of the air, I have made
visible face I appear.
day, I have made it holy.
the singing stopped, I was feeling lost and very lonely. Then a Voice above me
said: "Look back!" It was a spotted eagle that was hovering over me
and spoke. I looked, and where the flaming rainbow tepee, built and roofed with
cloud, had been, I saw only the tall rock mountain at the center of the world.
was all alone on a broad plain now with my feet upon the earth, alone but for
the spotted eagle guarding me. I could see my people's village far ahead, and I
walked very fast, for I was homesick now. Then I saw my own tepee, and inside I
saw my mother and my father, bending over a sick boy that was myself. And as I
entered the tepee, some one was saying: "The boy is coming to; you had
better give him some water."
I was sitting up; and I was sad because my mother and my father didn't seem to
know I had been so far away.
Chapter 4: The Bison Hunt
I got back to my father and mother and was sitting up there in our tepee, my
face was still all puffed and my legs and arms were badly swollen; but I felt
good all over and wanted to get right up and run around. My parents would not
let me. They told me I had been sick twelve days, lying like dead all the while,
and that Whirlwind Chaser, who was Standing Bear's uncle and a medicine man, had
brought me back to life. I knew it was the Grandfathers in the Flaming Rainbow
Tepee who had cured me; but I felt afraid to say so. My father gave Whirlwind
Chaser the best horse he had for making me well, and many people came to look at
me, and there was much talk about the great power of Whirlwind Chaser who had
made me well all at once when I was almost the same as dead. Everybody was glad
that I was living; but as I lay there thinking about the wonderful place where I
had been and all that I had seen, I was very sad; for it seemed to me that
everybody ought to know about it, but I was afraid to tell, because I knew that
nobody would believe me, little as I was, for I was only nine years old. Also,
as I lay there thinking of my vision, I could see it all again and feel the
meaning with a part of me like a strange power glowing in my body; but when the
part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like
fog and get away from me.
this point much of Black Elk's narrative is taken up with the description of the
suffering that his people endured at the hands of the "Wasichus" or
White Men. By the time Black Elk was sixteen years old his tribe had been
decimated, and what remained of his people would soon be subjected to living on
the terms of the White Man, on what were to become Indian reservations. All
during this time Black Elk avoids speaking of his vision to anyone, although he
often draws strength from it privately. Eventually, however, his uncertainty
about its significance and the continued secrecy begin to be too much for him.]
Chapter 13: The Compelling Fear
was sixteen years old and more, and I had not yet done anything the Grandfathers
wanted me to do, but they had been helping me. I did not know how to do what
they wanted me to do.
terrible time began for me then, and I could not tell anybody, not even my
father and mother. I was afraid to see a cloud coming up; and whenever one did,
I could hear the thunder beings calling to me: "Behold your Grandfathers!
Make haste!" I could understand the birds when they sang, and they were
always saying: "It is time! It is time!" The crows in the day and the
coyotes at night all called and called to me: "It is time! It is time! It
to do what? I did not know. Whenever I awoke before daybreak and went out of the
tepee because I was afraid of the stillness when everyone was sleeping, there
were many low voices talking together in the east, and the daybreak star would
sing this song in the silence:
a sacred manner you shall walk!
nation shall behold you!
could not get along with people now, and I would take my horse and go far out
from camp alone and compare everything on the earth and in the sky with my
vision. Crows would see me and shout to each other as though they were making
fun of me: "Behold him! Behold him!"
the frosts began I was glad, because there would not be any more thunder storms
for a long while, and I was more and more afraid of them all the time, for
always there would be the voices crying!: "Oo oohey! It is time! It is
fear was not so great all the while in the winter, but sometimes it was bad.
Sometimes the crying of coyotes out in the cold made me so afraid that I would
run out of one tepee into another, and I would do this until I was worn out and
fell asleep. I wondered if maybe I was only crazy; and my father and mother
worried a great deal about me. They said: "It is the strange sickness he
had that time when we gave the horse to Whirlwind Chaser for curing him; and he
is not cured." I could not tell them what was the matter, for then they
would only think I was queerer than ever.
was seventeen years old that winter.
the grasses were beginning to show their tender faces again, my father and
mother asked an old medicine man by the name of Black Road to come over and see
what he could do for me. Black Road was in a tepee all alone with me, and he
asked me to tell him if I had seen something that troubled me. By now I was so
afraid of being afraid of everything that I told him about my vision, and when I
was through he looked long at me and said: "Ah-h-h-h!," meaning that
he was much surprised. Then he said to me: "Nephew, I know now what the
trouble is! You must do what the bay horse in your vision wanted you to do. You
must do your duty and perform this vision for your people upon earth. You must
have the horse dance first for the people to see. Then the fear will leave you;
but if you do not do this, something very bad will happen to you."
we began to get ready for the horse dance.
14: The Horse Dance
was a man by the name of Bear Sings, and he was very old and wise. So Black Road
asked him to help, and he did.
they sent a crier around in the morning who told the people to camp in a circle
at a certain place a little way up the Tongue from where the soldiers were. They
did this, and in the middle of the circle Bear Sings and Black Road set up a
sacred tepee of bison hide, and on it they painted pictures from my vision. On
the west side they painted a bow and a cup of water; on the north. white geese
and the herb; on the east. the daybreak star and the pipe; on the south, the
flowering stick and the nation's hoop. Also, they painted horses, elk. and
bison. Then over the door of the sacred tepee, they painted the flaming rainbow.
It took them all day to do this, and it was beautiful.
told me I must not eat anything until the horse dance was over, and I had to
purify myself in a sweat lodge with sage spread on the floor of it, and
afterwards I had to wipe myself dry with sage.
evening Black Road and Bear Sings told me to come to the painted tepee. We were
in there alone, and nobody dared come near us to listen. They asked me if I had
heard any songs in my vision, and if I had I must teach the songs to them. So I
sang to them all the songs that I had heard in my vision, and it took most of
the night to teach these songs to them. While we were in there singing, we could
hear low thunder rumbling all over the village outside, and we knew the thunder
beings were glad and had come to help us.
father and mother had been helping too by hunting up all that we should need in
the dance. The next morning they had everything ready. There were four black
horses to represent the west; four white horses for the north; four sorrels for
the east; four buckskins for the south. For all of these, young riders had been
chosen. Also there was a bay horse for me to ride, as in my vision. Four of the
most beautiful maidens in the village were ready to take their part, and there
were six very old men for the Grandfathers.
it was time to paint and dress for the dance. The four maidens and the sixteen
horses all faced the sacred tepee. Black Road and Bear Sings then sang a song,
and all the others sang along with them, like this:
paint the earth on me.
paint the earth on me.
paint the earth on me.
nation I will make over.
two-legged nation I will make holy.
paint the earth on me.
that the painting was done.
four black-horse riders were painted all black with blue lightning stripes down
their legs and arms and white hail spots on their hips, and there were blue
streaks of lightning on the horses' legs.
white-horse riders were painted all white with red streaks of lightning on their
arms and legs, and on the legs of the horses there were streaks of red
lightning, and all the white riders wore plumes of white horse hair on their
heads to look like geese.
riders of the sorrels of the east were painted all red with straight black lines
of lightning on their limbs and across their breasts, and there was straight
black lightning on the limbs and breasts of the horses too.
riders of the buckskins of the south were painted all yellow and streaked with
black lightning. The horses were black from the knees down, and black lightning
streaks were on their upper legs and breasts.
bay horse had bright red streaks of lightning on his limbs, and on his back a
spotted eagle, outstretching was painted where I sat. I was painted red all over
with black lightning on my limbs. I wore a black mask, and across my forehead a
single eagle feather hung.
the horses and the men were painted they looked beautiful; but they looked
men were naked, except for a breech-clout; but the four maidens wore buckskin
dresses dyed scarlet, and their faces were scarlet too. Their hair was braided,
and they had wreaths of the sweet and cleansing sage, the sacred sage, around
their heads, and from the wreath of each in front a single eagle feather hung.
They were very beautiful to see.
this time I was in the sacred tepee with the Six Grandfathers, and the four
sacred virgins were in there too. No one outside was to see me until the dance
in the middle of the tepee the Grandfathers made a circle in the ground with a
little trench, and across this they painted two roads--the red one running north
and south, the black one, east and west. On the west side of this they placed a
cup of water with a little bow and arrow laid across it; and on the east they
painted the daybreak star. Then to the maiden who would represent the north they
gave the healing herb to carry and a white goose wing, the cleansing wind. To
her of the east they gave the holy pipe. To her of the south they gave the
flowering stick; and to her who would represent the west they gave the nation's
hoop. Thus the four maidens, good and beautiful, held in their hands the life of
I carried was a red stick to represent the sacred arrow, the power of the
thunder beings of the west.
were now ready to begin the dance. The Six Grandfathers began to sing,
announcing the riders of the different quarters. First they sang of the black
horse riders, like this:
will appear--may you behold them!
will appear--may you behold them!
horse nation will appear.
thunder-being nation will appear.
will appear, behold!
will appear, behold!
the black riders mounted their horses and stood four abreast facing the place
where the sun goes down.
the Six Grandfathers sang:
will appear, may you behold them!
horse nation will appear, behold!
geese nation will appear, may you
the four white horsemen mounted and stood four abreast, facing the place where
the White Giant lives.
the Six Grandfathers sang:
the sun shines continually,
buffalo nation, they will appear, behold!
horse nation, they will appear,
the red horsemen mounted and stood four abreast facing the east.
the Grandfathers sang:
you are always facing,
elk nation will appear!
horse nation will appear,
four yellow riders mounted their buckskins and stood four abreast facing the
it was time for me to go forth from the sacred tepee, but before I went forth I
sang this song to the drums of the Grandfathers:
will appear, may you behold him!
eagle for the eagle nation will appear.
I was singing thus in the sacred tepee I could hear my horse snorting and
prancing outside. The virgins went forth four abreast and I followed them,
mounting my horse and standing behind them facing the west.
the Six Grandfathers came forth and stood abreast behind my bay, and they began
to sing a rapid, lively song to the drums, like this:
are coming to behold you.
horse nation of the west is dancing.
are coming to behold!
they sang the same of the horses of the north and of the east and of the south.
And as they sang of each troop in turn, it wheeled and came and took its place
behind the Grandfathers--the blacks, the whites, the sorrels and the buckskins,
standing four abreast and facing the west. They came prancing to the lively air
of the Grandfathers' song, and they pranced as they stood in line. And all the
while my bay was rearing too and prancing to the music of the sacred song.
when we were all in line, facing the west, I looked up into a dark cloud that
was coming there and the people all became quiet and the horses quit prancing.
And when there was silence but for low thunder yonder, I sent a voice to the
spirits of the cloud, holding forth my right hand, thus, palm outward, as I
cried four times:
hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey!
the Grandfathers behind me sang another sacred song from my vision, the one that
goes like this:
the center of the earth,
have said this to me!
as they sang a strange thing happened. My bay pricked up his ears and raised his
tail and pawed the earth, neighing long and loud to where the sun goes down. And
the four black horses raised their voices, neighing long and loud, and the
whites and the sorrels and the buckskins did the same; and all the other horses
in the village neighed, and even those out grazing in the valley and on the hill
slopes raised their heads and neighed together. Then suddenly, as I sat there
looking at the cloud, I saw my vision yonder once again--the tepee built of
cloud and sewed with lightning the flaming rainbow door and, underneath, the Six
Grandfathers sitting, and all the horses thronging in their quarters; and also
there was I myself upon my bay before the tepee. I looked about me and could see
that what we then were doing was like a shadow cast upon the earth from yonder
vision in the heavens, so bright it was and clear. I knew the real was yonder
and the darkened dream of it was here.
as I looked, the Six Grandfathers yonder in the cloud and all the riders of the
horses, and even I myself upon the bay up there, all held their hands palms
outward toward me, and when they did this, I had to pray, and so I cried:
you behold me!
of the World, you behold!
you have said to me,
am now performing!
me and help me!
the vision went out, and the thunder cloud was coming on with lightning on its
front and many voices in it, and the split-tail swallows swooped above us in a
people of the village ran to fasten down their tepees, while the black horse
riders sang to the drums that rolled like thunder, and this is what they sang:
myself made them fear.
I wore an eagle relic.
myself made them fear.
a lightning power I wore.
myself made them fear,
power of the hail I wore,
myself made them fear,
as they sang, the hail and rain were falling yonder just a little way from us,
and we could see it, but the cloud stood there and flashed and thundered, and
only a little sprinkle fell on us. The thunder beings were glad and had come in
a great crowd to see the dance.
the four virgins held high the sacred relics that they carried, the herb and the
white wing, the sacred pipe, the flowering stick, the nation's hoop, offering
these to the spirits of the west. Then people who were sick or sad came to the
virgins, making scarlet offerings to them, and after they had done this, they
all felt better and some were cured of sickness and began to dance for joy.
the Grandfathers beat their drums again and the dance began. The four black
horsemen, who had stood behind the Grandfathers, went ahead of the virgins,
riding toward the west side of the circled village, and all the others followed
in their order while the horses pranced and reared.
the black horse troop had reached the western side, it wheeled around and fell
to the rear behind the buckskins, and the white horse band came up and led until
it reached the north side of the village. Then these fell back and took the rear
behind the blacks, and the sorrels led until they reached the east. Then these
fell back behind the whites, and the buckskins led until they reached the south.
Then they fell back and took the rear, so that the blacks were leading as before
toward the western quarter that was theirs. Each time the leading horse troop
reached its quarter, the Six Grandfathers sang of the powers of that quarter,
and there my bay faced, pricking up his ears and neighing loud, till all the
other horses raised their voices neighing. When I thus faced the north, I sent a
voice again and said: "Grandfather, behold me! What you gave me I have
given to the people--the power of the healing herb and the cleansing wind. Thus
my nation is made over. Hear and help me!"
when we reached the east, and after the Grandfathers had sung, I sent a voice:
"Grandfather, behold me! My people, with difficulty they walk. Give them
wisdom and guide them. Hear and help me!"
each quarter, as we marched and danced, we all sang together:
horse nation all over the universe,
you behold them.
we had reached the south and the Grandfathers had sung of the power of growing,
my horse faced yonder and neighed again, and all the horses raised their voices
as before. And then I prayed with hand upraised: "Grandfather, the
flowering stick you gave me and the nation's sacred hoop I have given to the
people. Hear me, you who have the power to make grow! Guide the people that they
may be as blossoms on your holy tree, and make it flourish deep in Mother Earth
and make it full of leaves and singing birds."
once more the blacks were leading, and as we marched and sang and danced toward
the quarter of the west, the black hail cloud, still standing yonder watching,
filled with voices crying: "Hey-hey! hey-hey!" They were cheering and
rejoicing that my work was being done. And all the people now were happy and
rejoicing, sending voices back, "hey-hey, hey-hey"; and all the horses
neighed, rejoicing with the spirits and the people. Four times we marched and
danced around the circle of the village, singing as we went, the leaders
changing at the quarters, the Six Grandfathers singing to the power of each
quarter, and to each I sent a voice. And at each quarter, as we stood, somebody
who was sick or sad would come with offerings to the virgins--little scarlet
bags of the chacun sha sha, the red willow bark. And when the offering was made,
the giver would feel better and begin to dance with joy.
on the second time around, many of the people who had horses joined the dance
with them, milling round and round the Six Grandfathers and the virgins as we
danced ahead. And more and more got on their horses, milling round us as we
went, until there was a whirl of prancing horses all about us at the end, and
all the others danced afoot behind us, and everybody sang what we were singing.
we reached the quarter of the west the fourth time, we stopped in new formation,
facing inward toward the sacred tepee in the center of the village. First stood
the virgins, next I stood upon the bay; then came the Six Grandfathers with
eight riders on either side of them--the sorrels and the buckskins on their
right hand; the blacks and whites upon their left. And when we stood so, the
oldest of the Grandfathers, he who was the Spirit of the Sky, cried out:
"Let all the people be ready. He shall send a voice four times, and at the
last voice you shall go forth and coup [hit] the sacred tepee, and who shall
coup it first shall have new power!"
the riders were eager for the charge, and even the horses seemed to understand
and were rearing and trying to get away. Then I raised my hand and cried hey-hey
four times, and at the fourth the riders all yelled "hoka hey," and
charged upon the tepee. My horse plunged inward along with all the others, but
many were ahead of me and many couped the tepee before I did.
the horses were all rubbed down with sacred sage and led away, and we began
going into the tepee to see what might have happened there while we were
dancing. The Grandfathers had sprinkled fresh soil on the nation's hoop that
they had made in there with the red and black roads across it, and all around
this little circle of the nation's hoop we saw the prints of tiny pony hoofs as
though the spirit horses had been dancing while we danced.
Black Road, who had helped me to perform the dance, took the sacred pipe from
the virgin of the east. After filling it with chacun sha sha, the bark of the
red willow, he lit and offered it to the Powers of the World, sending a voice
you where the sun goes down, you of the sacred wind where the white giant lives,
you where the day comes forth and the morning star, you where lives the power to
grow, you of the sky and you of the earth, wings of the air and four-leggeds of
the world, behold! I, myself, with my horse nation have done what I was to do on
earth. To all of you I offer this pipe that my people may live!"
he smoked and passed the pipe. It went all over the village until every one had
smoked at least a puff.
the horse dance was over, it seemed that I was above the ground and did not
touch it when I walked. I felt very happy, for I could see that my people were
all happier. Many crowded around me and said that they or their relatives who
had been feeling sick were well again, and these gave me many gifts. Even the
horses seemed to be healthier and happier after the dance.
fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds appeared I was
always glad to see them, for they came as relatives now to visit me. Everything
seemed good and beautiful now, and kind.
this, the medicine men would not talk to me, but now they would come to me to
talk about my vision.
that time on, I always got up very early to see the rising of the daybreak star.
People knew that I did this, and many would get up to see it with me, and when
it came we said: "Behold the star of understanding!"
Chapter 18: The Powers of the Bison and the Elk
think I have told you, but if I have not, you must have understood, that a man
who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed
the vision on earth for the people to see. You remember that my great vision
came to me when I was only nine years old, and you have seen that I was not much
good for anything until after I had performed the horse dance near the mouth of
the Tongue River during my eighteenth summer. And if the great fear had not come
upon me, as it did, and forced me to do my duty, I might have been less good to
the people than some man who had never dreamed at all, even with the memory of
so great a vision in me. But the fear came and if I had not obeyed it, I am sure
it would have killed me in a little while.
was even then only after the heyoka ceremony in which I performed my dog vision,
that I had the power to practice as a medicine man, curing sick people; and many
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, and the visions and ceremonies had only
made me like a hole through which the power could come to the two-leggeds. If I
thought that I was doing it myself, the hole would close up and no power could
come through. Then everything I could do would be foolish. There were other
parts of my great vision that I still had to perform before I could use the
power that was in those parts. If you think about my great vision again, you
will remember how the red man turned into a bison and rolled, and that the
people found the good red road after that. If you will read again what is
written, you will see how it was.
use the power of the bison, I had to perform that part of my vision for the
people to see. It was during the summer of my first cure that this was done. I
carried the pipe to Fox Belly, a wise and good old medicine man, and asked him
to help me do this duty. He was glad to help me, but first I had to tell him how
it was in that part of my vision. I did not tell him all my vision, only that
part. I had never told any one all of it, and even until now nobody ever heard
it all. Even my old friend, Standing Bear, and my son here have heard it now for
the first time when I have told it to you. Of course there was very much in the
vision that even I cannot tell when I try hard, because very much of it was not
for words. But I have told what can be told.
has made me very sad to do this at last, and I have lain awake at night worrying
and wondering if I was doing right; for I know I have given away my power when I
have given away my vision, and maybe I cannot live very long now. But I think I
have done right to save the vision in this way, even though I may die sooner
because I did it; for I know the meaning of the vision is wise and beautiful and
good; and you can see that I am only a pitiful old man after all.