Black Elk Speaks, published in 1932, is a biography, a history, a philosophy and a religious text orated by the Ogalala Lakota Sioux shaman, Black Elk, and written down on paper by John G. Neihardt. In the book, Black Elk guides the reader through his various experiences—bloody battles, mystical religious visions and the daily life of a Native American man during the time when the United States was expanding westward. Though many of the scenes described by Black Elk are bleak, there are also sections filled with humor and mirth.
One such enjoyable story from Black Elk Speaks occurred when Black Elk was only around 13 years old. A large coalition of tribes had camped by the Rosebud River in Montana. Many of the major Native American Chiefs were present, including Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. While the tribes were together, they called for a sun dance—a grueling religious test of pain endurance. The sun dance began with fasting and visiting a sweat lodge. Then, the participants would be cut on either their back or chest, and a piece of rawhide would be threaded underneath the person’s skin. The strap extended from the flesh of the dancer to the top of a holy tree or pole. When the hide was in place, the dancer would put weight against the strap and dance until the pain was too unbearable, or until the hide burst free from its anchor in human skin. According to Black Elk, the dancers would undergo such hardship to seek purity and empowerment.
As a child of 13, Black Elk did not participate in the sun dance, but he and his friends were still extremely busy during the two days of dancing. Young people like Black Elk found the sun dance to be a perfect time to prank the adults. Apparently, during the sun dance, there was supposed to be no scolding, loss of temper or shouts of surprise. As a result, the children could cause all sorts of annoyances and embarrassments without any repercussions—the adults were encouraged to ignore and endure the childish nonsense.
Black Elk and his friends were devious and creative in their pranks. They gathered sturdy and sharp blades of spear grass with which they would jab unsuspecting men. Using ash boughs, they also crafted popguns that they would use to ambush distracted men and women. Most devilish of all, however, were the small arrows they shot at bags of water that were being carried by women, causing the bags to leak their contents.
When the two days of dancing ended, the pranks were put to an end and life returned to its usual course.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition, orated by Black Elk and written by John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.