From The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, published this month by Riverhead Books. Treuer is Ojibwe and from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.
In 1863, Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk) was born near the banks of the Little Powder River in what would later become Wyoming. His family was an important one: his father was a respected medicine man and they were closely related to the famous war chief Crazy Horse. The world of Black Elk’s youth was an Indian world. But of course his people, the Lakota, had been dealing with—meeting with, trading with, fighting with—white people for centuries. In 1862, one year before Black Elk’s birth, the Dakota in Minnesota had revolted and risen up against encroaching white settlers and corrupt Indian agents in what became known as the Dakota War of 1862. After the rebellion was quelled, thirty-eight Dakota were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history. The world hadn’t held still before Black Elk’s birth, and it would not hold still after. But his world, such as it was, was still a Lakota world, and he and his tribe were its authors.
Black Elk was much like any other Lakota boy at that time. But at age four he began to have visions—uncommonly detailed spiritual visions that came to him at night but also during the day. They scared him, and he spoke of them to no one. Then, when he was nine, as his family was breaking camp, heading west to hunt near the Rocky Mountains, he fell ill. While eating in the tepee in the village his legs were suddenly laced with pain. The next day he was out riding with his friends, and when he jumped off his horse his legs buckled and he fell to the ground. His friends helped him onto his horse and brought him back to the village. His legs and arms were swollen and puffy. He was delirious and feverish. No one knew what to do, and it seemed likely that he would die. A medicine man was sent for, and Black Elk slipped in and out of consciousness.