Western Short Story
Thunder Dreamer
Dennis Goodwin

Western Short Story

During a Thunderstorm, Black Elk's Sacred Grandfathers Give Him a Bow That Will Protect Him From a Flurry of Gunfire at Wounded Knee

"Hey-hey-hey! They have murdered them!" The voice seemed to come from the wind itself as the lone horseman galloped toward the small band of Lakotas. Suddenly he stopped, whirled around and raced away. As he dashed toward Wounded Knee Creek and the grim scene he had just witnessed, a small group fell in behind him. Among them was a young Sioux medicine man named Black Elk.

The small party soon stopped on a ridge and peered below into the dry gulch. While their senses took in the horror, their hearts told them to ride into the midst of the struggle. Cavalrymen were shooting into the gulch while helpless victims scurried desperately for shelter. Several women and children huddled under a clay bank while cavalrymen pointed guns at them. Without hesitation, Black Elk and the rest of the courageous little band bolted toward the soldiers. As they rode, they chanted in unison, "Take courage! It is time to fight!" Suddenly, the previously "daring" cavalrymen scrambled for safety as the thundercloud of Lakota Sioux spirit roared toward them.

As Black Elk led the charging party, his right arm reached defiantly toward the soldiers. Clasped in his hand, he carried a weapon he was convinced would protect him and empower his fellow warriors. His unwavering grasp held neither a gun nor a spear. It clutched instead, an unusable ceremonial "sacred bow."

"They all shot at me," Black Elk would later relate, "and I could hear the bullets all around me. Some soldiers across the gulch began shooting at me too, but 1 got back to the others and was not hurt at all."

Following his lead, many other Sioux gathered and charged the soldiers. Together, they were able to save the frightened little cluster of endangered women and children. As Black Elk later surveyed the scattered bodies of the innocent victims, his blood froze. "When I saw this," he would recall, "I wished that I had died too..."

Part of him did in fact die at Wounded Knee - the part that dreamed that the "sacred hoops" of white men and Indians would one day peacefully exist within the entire hoop of the world. When the white men, or Wasichus, talked to the Sioux, they spoke of sharing and coexistence. Their actions, however, too often spoke of repression and aggression. Black Elk's dream was not the only one to perish at Wounded Knee.

"1 can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch..." Black Elk solemnly recalled in his old age. "And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."

Black Elk was very familiar with dreams. Much of his life was shaped by an intense "thunder dream" he had experienced during childhood. Being favored with such a dream by Wakinyan, the Thunder beings, set him apart from the other children on his reservation. His youthful vision foreshadowed the special powers he would develop later in life. Those powers would apparently let him ride unharmed through a barrage of bullets at Wounded Knee, shielded by only a symbolic sacred bow.

Black Elk was born in December of 1863 on the Little Powder River, likely within the borders of present-day Wyoming. As a member of Big Road's band, he became part of a group that camped and hunted in the western-most part of Lakota country past the Black Hills. Black Elk had come into the world with a strong tradition. Both his father and his grandfather had been well-respected medicine men. Young Black Elk had received notice of the coming of his thunder dream at the age of five. He was riding in the woods as a storm approached. During his trip, he ran across a kingbird perched quietly on a limb. The young hunter was about to shoot the bird with a bow his grandfather had made for him, when the bird suddenly began to speak. "The clouds all over are one-sided," the tiny creature declared. "Listen! A voice is calling you." As the awe-stricken young boy raised his gaze to the sky, he saw two men rushing toward him headfirst like speeding arrows. They sang a song to the drum-like rhythm of the thunder.

"Behold, a sacred voice is calling you," they chanted. "All over the sky a sacred voice is calling."

"I sat there and gazed at them..." Black Elk remembered. "But when they were very close to me, they wheeled about toward where the sun goes down and suddenly they were geese." Then the geese disappeared while a heavy rain and roaring wind swept across the land. Nothing remained of his rare vision but a memory - a memory he would enjoy recalling, but feared revealing to others.

During the next few years, Black Elk learned the skills of a Sioux warrior. He became proficient at riding horses, and learned to shoot prairie chickens and rabbits with his bow. At times, when he was alone, the voices from his vision would once again call to him. Since he didn't yet know what they wanted, he soon forgot about them and returned to his busy young life. Black Elk later remembered that as he grew to manhood, he would learn painful lessons about the Wasichus and "the yellow metal that they worship that makes them crazy.… They told us that they wanted only to use a little land - as much as a wagon would take between the wheels; but our people knew better."

But long before Black Elk would learn about the Wasichus and their lust for the yellow metal, he had a vision of the need for all races to live in harmony. At the age of nine, he was eating in a friend's tepee. During his meal, a voice interrupted him. "It is time," the strange voice declared. "Now they are calling you." Without hesitation, young Black Elk rose and left the tepee. When he stood, he was struck with pain in his legs so severe he nearly collapsed. The next morning as he was dismounting his pony, his legs crumpled beneath him. Soon most of his body was painfully swollen. Realizing he was severely ill, his parents put him to bed and sat with him. As he lay in the family tepee, he gazed out the opening toward the sky. Suddenly, he saw two men soaring down like arrows from the clouds. He immediately recognized them from his earlier vision. Each man carried a long spear with jagged sparks of lightning flashing from the points. This time the men didn't turn and fly away as geese. Instead, they landed on the ground a short distance from him and spoke. "Hurry! Come!" they ordered. "Your Grandfathers are calling you!"

When Black Elk rose, his legs no longer hurt. In fact, he felt extremely light. As he strode easily toward the men, a small cloud scooped them all up and carried them toward the sky. White clouds were piled ahead like mountains on a wide blue plain. "In them," he recalled, "thunder beings lived and leaped and flashed." Suddenly the two men spoke in unison. "Behold him, the being with four legs!"

As Black Elk followed their gaze, he saw a bay horse standing alone. The majestic horse began to speak. "Behold me," he said. "My life-history you shall see." Then, as he whirled toward the west, he spoke again. "Behold them. Their history you shall know." Ahead of the bay horse stood a row of twelve perfectly formed black horses. They stood proudly, wearing necklaces of bison hoofs. Their manes flashed with lightning, and thunder roared from their nostrils. The bay horse continued to circle and introduce, in turn, a dozen horses from each direction. In the north stood twelve stately white horses with manes flowing like blizzards. The eastern horses were sorrel, adorned with necklaces of elk's teeth. Those in the south were buckskin with horns on their heads and living manes that grew like trees and grasses.

After Black Elk had viewed all of the horses, the bay horse spoke again. "Your Grandfathers are having a council," he informed the boy. "These shall take you, so have courage." With that, all the horses went into formation, four abreast, and stood behind the bay.

According to his memories, when they reached their destination, a billowing cloud was transformed into a tepee. The open door formed a rainbow. Through it Black Elk could discern the figures of six old men sitting in a row. The six men, he recalled, represented the powers of the world. The first four were the powers of the west, north, east, and south. The remaining two were the powers of the sky and the earth.

The first Grandfather, the Power of the West, spoke. "Behold them yonder where the sun goes down, the thunder beings," he proclaimed. "You shall see, and have from them my power!" As the grandfather talked, a rainbow leaped and covered young Black Elk with multicolored flames. The old man then gave Black Elk a wooden cup filled with water. Within the water he could see the sky. "Take this," the grandfather offered. "It is the power to make live, and it is yours." Next he handed Black Elk a sacred bow. "Take this," he continued. "It is the power to destroy, and it is yours." That was the bow Black Elk would later duplicate from the vision and carry into battle at Wounded Knee.

Each grandfather, in turn, gave the young boy gifts. From the second he received an herb of power that would help him heal his nation. The third grandfather presented him with a peace pipe decorated with a spotted eagle stretched across the stem. The pipe, he explained, would make well whatever was sick. From the fourth grandfather, he received a bright red living stick. As Black Elk watched the stick, it sprouted and sent forth branches. From the stick would come the power for all things to grow. "It shall stand in the center of the nation's circle," the grandfather revealed, ".,.and by your powers you shall make it blossom."

The fifth Grandfather, the Spirit of the Sky, was the oldest of them all. "My boy," he said, "I have sent for you and you have come. My power you shall see!" With that, he stretched his arms and was immediately transformed into a spotted eagle. As he hovered above Black Elk, he spoke again. "Behold. All the wings of the air shall come to you. You shall go across the earth with my power."

Finally, Black Elk turned his attention toward the last Grandfather. The old man's eyes glowed dimly in his deeply wrinkled face. As Black Elk watched him, he felt that he somehow knew the old man. Black Elk continued to watch the Grandfather as he gradually transformed into a younger man and finally into a young boy. Suddenly he realized the Grandfather was actually himself. "I knew that he was myself," he reflected, "with all the years that would be mine at last."

When the figure was once again an old man, he addressed Black Elk. "My boy," he spoke, "have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it..." Then he issued a solemn warning, "for your nation on the earth will have great troubles..." As the great vision continued, young Black Elk witnessed a nation of people sick and dying. As he sadly circled the community, the previously sickly people sprang up with happy faces. "Behold," a voice boomed, "they have given you the center of the nation's hoop to make it live."

He carried the bright red living stick into the center of the nation's hoop and thrust it into the earth. Suddenly the trees had full leafy branches and the birds and animals mingled with the people like their relatives, making happy cries. During the vision, Black Elk also saw that the sacred hoop of his nation was only one of many hoops, that made a large circle. That circle was "wide as daylight and as starlight," Black Elk recalled. In the center of the great circle grew one mighty flowering holy tree. This was the part of the vision that made him feel that all nations, including both white men and Indian, would one day live together in peace.

After the great vision had ended, young Black Elk told no one. Just as before, when the kingbird had foreshadowed the vision, he enjoyed recalling his dream but felt others would not understand. It was seven years before he divulged his vision.

During his sixteenth year, Black Elk developed an obsessive fear of thunderstorms - frantically running and hiding when they occurred. His behavior eventually led his family to realize that he had once had a thunder dream. In the custom of the Lakota, a thunder dreamer was required to manifest the powers that such a dream had given him. When Black Elk was seventeen, he revealed his vision to Black Road, a wise elder and medicine man. Black Road helped him understand the will of the spirits and begin his own life as a medicine man.

If Black Elk had been born at an earlier time, he would likely have lived his life like his father and grandfather, as a revered medicine man of his nation. He was destined instead, to be cast into a period of intense and painful change for his people. Year by year, their precious land dwindled into scattered reservations. Their proud traditions of hunting and individual bravery deteriorated into farming sparse land and accepting government rations. Their once-strong spiritual convictions were diluted with a forced halfhearted acceptance of Christianity. The white man's disdain for the Sioux nation's spiritual beliefs would be forever engraved in the bloody mud of Wounded Knee.

As the Ghost Dance movement spread through his reservation, Black Elk was not immediately interested. Once he witnessed the event, however, he was overcome by the similarities of the Ghost Dance and his vision. In both, a hoop of his people circled a sacred tree. As he watched the dance, a spiritual awakening surged through his being. The dance, he decided, had been sent to him as a reminder to energize the powers from his vision. He should bring his nation back into the sacred hoop of their traditional ways so they could peacefully coexist with the hoops of other races.

The brutal suppression of the Sioux and the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee proved to Black Elk that his vision would not be realized. The hoops of the Sioux and the white men would never link. Like many in his ever-weakening nation, the remainder of his life would be spent in the grips of two divergent worlds, finding lasting spiritual fulfillment in neither.

Late in life he recorded many of his people's traditions and helped unite numerous younger Sioux with the beliefs and dreams of their forefathers. Overshadowing this accomplishment, however, was the constant awareness of an unfulfilled vision - a vision of the sacred hoops of the world's people peacefully existing around a great flowering tree. The kingbird, the bay horse, the Grandfathers and all the others have melted into history. The peace pipe, the bright red living stick and all the gifts from the Powers of the World now exist only on the yellowed pages of tattered books. Even the bloody mud of Wounded Knee has long-since dried and drifted away on the winds of time.

Now and then, however, when a spotted eagle passes overhead or a bay horse gallops past, those winds shift. Once again they turn and blow back across the fields of the once-great Sioux nation. When they do, they howl with the chants of a brave band of Lakota Sioux horsemen charging proudly into the midst of battle. In the lead, surrounded by a hailstorm of bullets and gripping a sacred bow, still rides Black Elk - the Thunder Dreamer.