Editor's Note: Many Native Americans, especially some Sioux and
Cheyenne People, will totally deny that this vision is true, and that
Black Elk either lied to Neihardt, or Neihardt made it up! Uh-Huh!
The 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.
From Chapter 2: Early Boyhood
I 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 forgotten.
Maybe 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.
It 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:
Behold, a sacred voice is calling you;
All over the sky a sacred voice is calling.
I 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.
Chapter 3: The Great Vision
What 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.
Now 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.
It 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
While 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.
The 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.
When 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!"
Then 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.
Then 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
Then the two men spoke together and they said: "Behold him, the being
with four legs!"
I 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 shall know."
I 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.
Then 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.
Then 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 light.
Then 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
And when I had seen all these, the bay horse said: "Your Grandfathers
are having a council. These shall take you; so have courage."
Then 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,
Now 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.
And 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,
Then 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.
"Make 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 four.
I 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 vanished.
Then 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.
The 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.
The 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 understand."
And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap
with flames of many colors over me.
Now there was a wooden cup in his hand and it was full of water and in
the water was the sky.
"Take this," he said. "It is the power to make live, and it is yours."
Now he had a bow in his hands. "Take this," he said. "It is the power
to destroy, and it is yours."
Then 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."
And 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.
Then 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.
The 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:
They are appearing, may you behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
The thunder nation is appearing, behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
They are appearing, may you behold!
The white geese nation is appearing,
And 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.
And 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."
Then 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 Power."
I think he meant that I should see four generations, counting me, and
now I am seeing the third.
Then 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.
Now 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 toward
Now 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. Come."
He 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
Then 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.
The 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
My 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.
Then 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."
So 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 dim.
I 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.
Now 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.
Then 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.
And 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 harmless turtle.
You 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!"
I 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.
So 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.
And a Voice said: "Behold, they have given you the center of the nation's
hoop to make it live."
So 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."
So 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."
Then 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
Then 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.