For the Plains Indians at the end of the end of the 19th century, it must have felt like dying. A way of life that had been passed down for generations was unraveling, the strands being pulled from the whole by westward expansion, wars, and disease. The traditional, nomadic way of Plains life was deemed incompatible with the burgeoning U.S. government’s vision of a post-Civil War America, and after a number of battles, most notably at Wounded Knee, tribal Americans were settled onto reservations, left to move forward into the future, cobbling together pieces of their past.Share
It was against this backdrop that an Oglala Sioux named Black Elk came into the world. Born a couple years before the end of the Civil War, Black Elk’s childhood took place among traditional practices, his young adulthood during the tumult of the Reservation Era, and his adulthood in a post-expansion America. His life spanned more than the sum of its years.
When he was nine years old, Black Elk suddenly became monstrously ill. While immobile and unresponsive for a number of days, the young boy was experiencing a vision of cosmic and spiritual significance. When he was returned to good health, he pondered the meaning of his vision in the silence of his heart for the next eight years, finally sharing it with a tribal medicine man. The elder man was impressed by the greatness of the vision, and assured Black Elk that it would be good medicine for the people, leading them toward healing and peace.
While Black Elk did eventually become a medicine man and healer among the Oglala, he took a side trip first, joining up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and touring Europe as one of the performers. At one point, Black Elk and three other Lakota Sioux were separated from the troupe and left stranded in Europe. Truly strangers in a strange land, Black Elk joined up with another wild west show, continued touring Europe, and learned English while performing for the likes of the Queen of England. (Read more.)