Black Elk Speaks
The Horse Dance
There was a man by the name of Bear Sings, and he was very old
and wise. So Black Road asked him to help, and he did.
First they sent a crier around in the morning who told the people
to camp in a circle at a certain place a little way up the Tongue
from where the soldiers were. They did this, and in the middle of
the circle Bear Sings and Black Road set up a sacred tepee of bison
hide, and on it they painted pictures from my vision. On the west
side they painted a bow and a cup of water; on the north, white
geese and the herb; on the east, the daybreak star and the pipe;
on the south, the flowering stick and the nation's hoop. Also, they
painted horses, elk, and bison. Then over the door of the sacred
tepee, they painted the flaming rainbow. It took them all day to
do this, and it was beautiful.
They told me I must not eat anything until the horse dance was
over, and I had to purify himself in a sweat lodge with sage spread
on the floor of it, and afterwards I had to wipe myself dry with
That evening Black Road and Bear Sings told me to come to the painted
tepee. We were in there alone, and nobody dared come near us to
listen. They asked me if I had heard any songs in my vision, and
if I had I must teach the songs to them. So I sang to them all the
songs that I had heard in my vision, and it took most of the night
to teach these songs to them. While we were in there singing, we
could hear low thunder rumbling all over the village outside, and
we knew the thunder beings were glad and had come to help us.
My father and mother had been helping too by hunting up all that
we should need in the dance. The next morning they had everything
ready. There were four black horses to represent the west; four
white horses for the north; four sorrels for the east; four buckskins
for the south. For all of these, young riders had been chosen. Also
there was a bay horse for me to ride, as in my vision. Four of the
most beautiful maidens in the village were ready to take their part,
and there were six very old men for the Grandfathers.
Now it was time to paint and dress for the dance. The four maidens
and the sixteen horses all faced the sacred tepee. Black Road and
Bear Sings then sang a song, and all the others sang along with
them, like this:
- "Father, paint the earth on me.
- Father, paint the earth on me.
- Father, paint the earth on me.
- A nation I will make over.
- A two-legged nation I will make holy.
- Father, paint the earth on me."
After that the painting was done.
The four black-horse riders were painted all black with blue lightning
stripes down their legs and arms and white hail spots on their hips,
and there were blue streaks of lightning on the horses' legs.
The white-horse riders were painted all white with red streaks
of lightning on their arms and legs, and on the legs of the horses
there were streaks of red lightning, and all the white riders wore
plumes of white horse hair on their heads to look like geese.
The riders of the sorrels of the east were painted all red with
straight back lines of lightning on their limbs and across their
breasts, and there was straight black lightning on the limbs and
breasts of the horses too.
The riders of the buckskins of the south were painted all yellow
and streaked with black lightning. The horses were black from the
knees down, and black lightning streaks were on their upper legs
My bay horse had bright red steaks of lightning on his limbs, and
on his back a spotted eagle, outstretching, was painted where I
sat. I was painted red all over with black lightning on my limbs.
I wore a black mask, and across my forehead a single eagle feather
When the horses and the men were painted they looked beautiful;
but they looked fearful too.
The men were naked, except for a breech-clout; but the four maidens
wore buckskin dresses dyed scarlet, and their faces were scarlet
too. Their hair was braided, and they had wreaths of the sweet and
cleansing sage, the sacred sage, around their heads, and from the
wreath of each in front a single eagle feather hung. They were very
beautiful to see.
All this time I was in the sacred tepee with the Six Grandfathers,
and the four sacred virgins were in there too. No one outside was
to see me until the dance began.
Right in the middle of the tepee the Grandfathers made a circle
in the ground with a little trench, and across this they painted
two roads--the red one running north and south, the black one, east
and west. On the west side of this they placed a cup of water with
a little bow and arrow laid across it; and on the east they painted
the day-break star. Then to the maiden who would represent the north
they gave the healing herb to carry and a white goose wing, the
cleansing wind. To her of the east they gave the holy pipe. To her
of the south they gave the flowering stick, and to her who would
represent the west they gave the nation's hoop. Thus the four maidens,
good and beautiful, held in their hands the life of the nation.
All I carried was a red stick to represent the sacred arrow, the
power of the thunder beings of the west.
We were now ready to begin the dance. The Six Grandfathers began
to sing, announcing the riders of the different quarters. First
they sang of the black horse riders, like this:
- "They will appear--may you behold them!
- They will appear--may you behold them!
- A horse nation will appear.
- A thunder-being nation will appear.
- They will appear, behold!
- They will appear, behold!"
Then the black riders mounted their horses and stood four abreast
facing the place where the sun goes down.
Next the Six Grandfathers sang:
- "They will appear, may you behold them!
- A horse nation will appear, behold!
- A geese nation will appear, may you behold!"
Then the four white horsemen mounted and stood four abreast, facing
the place where the White Giant lives.
Next the Six Grandfathers sang:
- "Where the sun shines continually, they will appear!
- A buffalo nation, they will appear, behold!
- A horse nation, they will appear, may you behold!"
Then the red horsemen mounted and stood four abreast facing the
Next the Grandfathers sang:
- "Where you are always facing, an elk nation will appear!
- May you behold!
- A horse nation will appear,
The four yellow riders mounted their buckskins and stood four abreast
facing the south.
Now it was time for me to go forth from the sacred tepee, but before
I went forth I sang this song to the drums of the Grandfathers:
- "He will appear, may you behold him!
- An eagle for the eagle nation will appear.
- May you behold!"
While I was singing thus in the sacred tepee I could hear my horse
snorting and prancing outside. The virgins went forth four abreast
and I followed them, mounting my horse and standing behind them
facing the west.
Next the Six Grandfathers came forth and stood abreast behind my
bay, and they began to sing a rapid, lively song to the drums, like
- "They are dancing.
- They are coming to behold you.
- The horse nation of the west is dancing.
- They are coming to behold!"
Then they sang the same of the horses of the north and of the east
and of the south. And as they sang of each troop in turn, it wheeled
and came and took its place behind the Grandfathers--the blacks,
the whites, the sorrels and the buckskins, standing four abreast
and facing the west. They came prancing to the lively air of the
Grandfathers' song, and they pranced as they stood in line. And
all the while my bay was rearing too and prancing to the music of
the sacred song.
Now when we were all in line, facing the west, I looked up into
a dark cloud that was coming there and the people all became quiet
and the horses quit prancing. And when there was silence but for
low thunder yonder, I sent a voice to the spirits of the cloud,
holding forth my right hand, thus, palm outward, as I cried four
"Hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey! hey-a-a-hey!"
Then the Grandfathers behind me sang another sacred song from my
vision, the one that goes like this:
- "At the center of the earth, behold a four-legged.
- They have said this to me!"
And as they sang, a strange thing happened. My bay pricked up his
ears and raised his tail and pawed the earth, neighing long and
loud to where the sun goes down. And the four black horses raised
their voices, neighing long and loud, and the whites and the sorrels
and the buckskins did the same; and all the other horses in the
village neighed, and even those out grazing in the valley and on
the hill slopes raised their heads and neighed together. Then suddenly,
as I sat there looking at the cloud, I saw my vision yonder once
again--the tepee built of cloud and sewed with lightning, the flaming
rainbow door and, underneath, the Six Grandfathers sitting, and
all the horses thronging in their quarters; and also there was I
myself upon my bay before the tepee. I looked about me and could
see that what we then were doing was like a shadow cast upon the
earth from yonder vision in the heavens, so bright it was and clear.
I knew the real was yonder and the darkened dream of it was here.
And as I looked, the Six Grandfathers yonder in the cloud and all
the riders of the horses, and even I myself upon the bay up there,
all held their hands palms outward toward me, and when they did
this, I had to pray, and so I cried:
- "Grandfathers, you behold me!
- Spirits of the World, you behold!
- What you have said to me, I am now performing!
- Hear me and help me!"
Then the vision went out, and the thunder cloud was coming on with
lightning on its front and many voices in it, and the split-tail
swallows swooped above us in a swarm.
The people of the village ran to fasten down their tepees, while
the black horse riders sang to the drums that rolled like thunder,
and this is what they sang:
- "I myself made them fear.
- Myself, I wore an eagle relic.
- I myself made them fear.
- Myself, a lightning power I wore.
- I myself made them fear,
- Made them fear.
- The power of the hail I wore,
- I myself made them fear,
- Made them fear!
- Behold me!"
And as they sang, the hail and rain were falling yonder just a
little way from us, and we could see it, but the cloud stood there
and flashed and thundered, and only a little sprinkle fell on us.
The thunder beings were glad and had come in a great crowd to see
Now the four virgins held high the sacred relics that they carried,
the herb and the white wing, the sacred pipe, the flowering stick,
the nation's hoop, offering these to the spirits of the west. Then
people who were sick or sad came to the virgins, making scarlet
offerings to them, and after they had done this, they all felt better
and some were cured of sickness and began to dance for joy.
Now the Grandfathers beat their drums again and the dance began.
The four black horsemen, who had stood behind the Grandfathers,
went ahead of the virgins, riding toward the west side of the circled
village, and all the others followed in their order while the horses
pranced and reared.
When the black horse troop had reached the western side, it wheeled
around and fell to the rear behind the buckskins, and the white
horse band came up and led until it reached the north side of the
village. Then these fell back and took the rear behind the blacks,
and the sorrels led until they reached the east. Then these fell
back behind the whites, and the buckskins led until they reached
the south. Then they fell back and took the rear, so that the blacks
were leading as before toward the western quarter that was theirs.
Each time the leading horse troop reached its quarter, the Six Grandfathers
sang of the powers of that quarter, and there my bay faced, pricking
up his ears and neighing loud, till all the other horses raised
their voices neighing. When I thus faced the north, I sent a voice
again and said: "Grandfather, behold me! What you gave me I
have given to the people--the power of the healing herb and the
cleansing wind. Thus my nation is made over. Hear and help me!"
And when we reached the east, and after the Grandfathers had sung,
I sent a voice: "Grandfather, behold me! My people, with difficulty
they walk. Give them wisdom and guide them. Hear and help me!"
Between each quarter, as we marched and danced, we all sang together:
- "A horse nation all over the universe,
- Neighing, they come!
- Prancing, they come!
- May you behold them."
When we had reached the south and the Grandfathers had sung of
the power of growing, my horse faced yonder and neighed again, and
all the horses raised their voices as before. And then I prayed
with hand upraised: "Grandfather, the flowering stick you gave
me and the nation's sacred hoop I have given to the people. Hear
me, you who have the power to make grow! Guide the people that they
may be as blossoms on your holy tree, and make it flourish deep
in Mother Earth and make it full of leaves and singing birds."
Then once more the blacks were leading, and as we marched and sang
and danced toward the quarter of the west, the black hail cloud,
still standing yonder watching, filled with voices crying: "Hey-hey!
hey-hey!" They were cheering and rejoicing that my work was
being done. And all the people now were happy and rejoicing, sending
voices back, "hey-hey, hey-hey"; and all the horses neighed,
rejoicing with the spirits and the people. Four times we marched
and danced around the circle of the village, singing as we went,
the leaders changing at the quarters, the Six Grandfathers singing
to the power of each quarter, and to each I sent a voice. And at
each quarter, as we stood, somebody who was sick or sad would come
with offerings to the virgins--little scarlet bags of the chacun
sha sha, the red willow bark. And when the offering was made, the
giver would feel better and begin to dance with joy.
And on the second time around, many of the people who had horses
joined the dance with them, milling round and round the Six Grandfathers
and the virgins as we danced ahead. And more and more got on their
horses, milling round us as we went, until there was a whirl of
prancing horses all about us at the end, and all the others danced
afoot behind us, and everybody sang what we were singing.
When we reached the quarter of the west the fourth time, we stopped
in new formation, facing inward toward the sacred tepee in the center
of the village. First stood the virgins, next I stood upon the bay;
then came the Six Grandfathers with eight riders on either side
of them--the sorrels and the buckskins on their right hand, the
blacks and whites upon their left. And when we stood so, the oldest
of the Grandfathers, he who was the Spirit of the Sky, cried out:
"Let all the people be ready. He shall send a voice four times,
and at the last voice you shall go forth and coup the sacred tepee,
and who shall coup it first shall have new power!"
All the riders were eager for the charge, and even the horses seemed
to understand and were rearing and trying to get away. Then I raised
my hand and cried hey-hey four times, and at the fourth the riders
all yelled "hoka hey," and charged upon the tepee. My
horse plunged inward along with all the others, but many were ahead
of me and many couped the tepee before I did.
Then the horses were all rubbed down with sacred sage and led away,
and we began going into the tepee to see what might have happened
there while we were dancing. The Grandfathers had sprinkled fresh
soil on the nation's hoop that they had made in there with the red
and black roads across it, and all around this little circle of
the nation's hoop we saw the prints of tiny pony hoofs as though
the spirit horses had been dancing while we danced.
Now Black Road, who had helped me to perform the dance, took the
sacred pipe from the virgin of the east. After filling it with chacun
sha sha, the bark of the red willow, he lit and offered it to the
Powers of the World, sending a voice thus:
"Grandfathers, you where the sun goes down, you of the sacred
wind where the white giant lives, you where the day comes forth
and the morning star, you where lives the power to grow, you of
the sky and you of the earth, wings of the air and four-leggeds
of the world, behold! I, myself, with my horse nation have done
what I was to do on earth. To all of you I offer this pipe that
my people may live!"
Then he smoked and passed the pipe. It went all over the village
until every one had smoked at least a puff.
After the horse dance was over, it seemed that I was above the
ground and did not touch it when I walked. I felt very happy, for
I could see that my people were all happier. Many crowded around
me and said that they or their relatives who had been feeling sick
were well again, and these gave me many gifts. Even the horses seemed
to be healthier and happier after the dance.
The fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds
appeared I was always glad to see them, for they came as relatives
now to visit me. Everything seemed good and beautiful now, and kind.
Before this, the medicine men would not talk to me, but now they
would come to me to talk about my vision.
From that time on, I always got up very early to see the rising
of the daybreak star. People knew that I did this, and many would
get up to see it with me, and when it came we said: "Behold
the star of understanding!"
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