Black Elk Speaks Critical Analysis by a62nh

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									Colte Haines

Nancy Skeen

Philosophy 100

December 4, 2006

                           Black Elk Speaks: Critical Analysis

       In the book Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt tells the life-story of a Sioux

Indian named Black Elk. Black Elk recalls several events and visions that he as had

through out his life. In his visions there are several symbols that keep reoccurring

throughout the book. These symbols are the red road, the black road, the hoop of the

nation, and the daybreak herb or the herb of understanding. Some how Black Elk visions

are surprisingly similar to the teachings of the socratic philosophers some two thousand

years earlier. The telos and virtue of Socratic philosophy compare to Black Elk’s red road

and the hoop of the nation, and Socrates concept of the soul compares to Black Elk’s herb

of understanding.

       The first Symbol I will look at is the red road. The read road is the highest good.

This compares to virtue in socratic philosophy. The read road is referenced throughout the

book but most noticeably in chapter 3 (The Great Vision pg 16-36). “From where the giant

lives (the north) to where you always face (the south) the red road goes, the road of good”

(pg 22). To Black Elk, the red road symbolized the highest good for the Native American

community or living a virtuous life. “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” (pg 28-

29). Black Elk wants to bring his people back to the “good red road” (pg 22) and save the
Native American way of life. In the book the red road is always described as moving from

south to north. This could be because Native Americans linked the sky with the spiritual

world, and since people symbolize north as being upward one could conclude the end of

the red road is the Native American spiritual world or the highest good.

       Black Elk also discussed the black road in many of his visions. The black road in

Black Elk Speaks can be seen as a vice or as way from the traditional Native American

way of life and away from the telos. “(Black road) a fearful road, a road of troubles and of

war” (pg 23). Black Elk also describes the black road as the road that the Sioux tribe is

currently on. “The Grandfathers had shown me my people walking on the black road and

how the nation's hoop would be broken and the flowering tree be withered, before I should

bring the hoop together” (pg 112-113) Black Elk describes the black road as a road that

leads to many hardships and troubling times for the Sioux.

        The hoop of the nation to Black Elk represented the telos in Socratic philosophy.

To Native Americans anything that is circular is considered sacred. This is also the case

here. Black Elk’s hoop of the nation symbolizes the cohesive and unified Native American

community and their surrounding like mother earth and the animals. Black Elk associates

breaking the hoop with walking down the black road and putting the hoop back to getter in

walking the red road. “The nation's hoop was broken… The people were in despair…. they

could not be made to see any more. Hunger was among us often now” (pg 164) To the

Native Americans the tribe is crucial to there way of life that is why breaking of the

“sacred hoop” is always seen as a terrible thing.

        Another one of Black Elk’s reoccurring images is the daybreak herb or the herb of

understanding. In the visions the day break herb or the herb of understanding represents the
knowledge to solve the Sioux’s problems with the whites, and keeping their traditional

way of life. “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” (pg 33). The men in Black Elk’s vision gave him the

knowledge to solve the Sioux’s problem of walking the black road the herb represented the

way of returning to the red road or virtue. “The rays from these (the herb’s stem) streamed

upward to the heavens so that all creatures saw it and in no place was there darkness” (pg

34). This is saying how the herb shined light or intelligence to the Native American

community. So they could see what or who their enemies where and the solution to the

great problem they where facing.

       Black Elk’s vision of the herb of understanding is very similar to Socrates concept

of the soul. To Socrates the soul was normal waking intelligence. He also thought the

function of the soul is to know and to direct behavior in accordance with knowledge. Black

Elk’s herb of understanding gives him the intelligence or the wisdom to solve several of

the problems. “Two men from the east had brought me the daybreak-star herb and they had

told me to drop it on the earth” (pg 165). In his vision his grand fathers where always

giving him the herb this was just a symbol for the incite or the wisdom to solve what was

ailing the Sioux tribe. The herb was always guiding Black Elk to the solution of the

problem of his people walking the black road.

       According to Socrates the telos is virtue and virtue is telos. That is the same for

Black Elk as well. Black Elk telos is the hoop of the nation. He thinks that the way to get

to the hoop of the nation or the telos is to walk the read road or live a virtuous life. The

reverse is true too. If the Native American community walks the red road you will have a
strong community, or hoop of the nation. “All our power came to us from the sacred hoop

of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished” (pg 150). This

shows how important the sacred hoop was as long as his people stayed on the red road

there community stayed together they strived and grew from one another. Black Elk also

thought that knowledge is virtue. Because in his visions Black Elk is given the knowledge

to solve the Sioux’s problems through the day break herb, and thus give them a virtuous

life or make the Native Americans walk down the red road.

       Socrates and Black Elk both valued the community very much. Both men believed

that they belonged to something far greater then themselves. I feel if Black Elk was in

Socrates position in the Crito he would not escaped. Black Elk held the hoop of the nation

at the panicle of his values. One example of this is how important it was to Black Elk to

perform every step in each ritual down to the smallest detail. This leads me to believe that

Black Elk would not have broken the laws of his society or the hoop of the nation. Because

it is the hoop of the nation that brings prosperity to the Native Americans. So in a way,

harming the hoop of the nation is in fact going against Black Elk’s telos.

       In the book Black Elk faced a major battle with the coming of the wasichu (whites).

Black Elk thought that the Native Americans where losing their sense of community (hoop

of the nation). This starts a very slow down turn in the Native American way of life down

the black road that Back Elk is unable to stop. When they should be holding on to their

traditional way of life and values (red road), and restore their traditional values through the

daybreak herb. In the end Black Elk feels that he has failed in his attempt to put the sacred

hoop back together. Because his fore fathers picked him to solve the problems by giving
him the visions and the sacred herb but he still failed to correct the slide in the Native

American way of life.

       Although Black Elk lived two thousand years after Socrates, Black Elk still came

up with basically the same concepts with out ever knowing about Socrates existence let

alone his teachings. They both came up with the soul or herb of understanding being

knowledge. The means to the telos or hoop of the nation is virtue or the red road, and away

form the telos is vice or walking a black road. It is amazing how ideas can be the same

over great distance, time periods, and cultures. This goes to show that great minds do think

alike even if they do come from very different backgrounds.

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