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Black Elk'S Cultural Displacement And His Relationship With Nature

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In Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt depicts the tragedy of a culture that can no longer support its traditional ideals. In their own terms, the Sioux have lost the sacred hoop of their nation. But they did not lose it through a lack of faith or other internal weakness; they lost it, almost inevitably, to the forces of economic greed when white Americans expanded westward in search of more land and more goods. Their culture is lost through the loss of the traditions and lifestyle that Black Elk commemorates.

"... Nothing can live well except in a manner suited to the way the sacred Power of the World lives and moves." (160) The end of the traditional Sioux hunting practices is a striking example of the loss of culture. Respect for animals is a major feature of Sioux culture throughout Black Elk Speaks. The bison herd, for example, is central to the Sioux way of life; its existence is incorporated into ritualized hunting practices and feasting, and bison are killed with economy: Nothing is wasted in contrast to their arbitrary slaughter for sport by whites. The bison, an abundant source of food that was a daily reminder of the providence of the Great Spirit, were considered sacred. The bison roamed the prairie in what seemed to be a never-ending supply. Even the transcontinental railroad's separation of the herd into two halves, when Black Elk was still a child, did not seem especially threatening; as he says, half of the herd was still more than they could use. A complex cultural event, the great bison hunt, occurring just after his vision is an arena for the hunters on horseback to display their courage and bravery (Standing Bear, killing his first adult buffalo, shows his manhood). Butchering, food preparation, and the hide-and-bone-processing practices that followed the hunt allowed for the tribe's sustenance. Finally, the community celebrated with dancing, singing, and thanksgiving rituals.

After January 1876, when Indians were ordered onto reservations, the food supply became a way to control defiant Indian behavior. With the bison herd much diminished and the confiscation of Indian horses and guns, the Indians had no way to supply their own food and were forced to rely on government rations. When the Indians seemed hostile, as when Sitting Bull refused to come out of Canada and live on a reservation, rations were decreased. The Indians, starved and sickened, were coerced into submission. When the bison herd was lost, so was contact with the sacred along with a sense of Sioux identity and independence. No longer could they move voluntarily to pursue the bison herd, harvest plants or fish. The traditional encamped way of Sioux life, with its close sense of community and its clear social structure, was replaced with the foreign immobility of reservation life, further undermining the Sioux sense of identity.

Nature is the dominant environment for the Sioux. They calculate time according to events in nature: Months are named "the Moon of Popping Cherries," for example, or "the Moon when the Ponies Get Fat." Black Elk defines the state of goodness as that time when "the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives" (8); now, he says, the whites "have made little islands for



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