When Black Elk was nine years old, he was suddenly taken ill and left prone and unresponsive for several days. During this time he had a great vision in which he was visited by the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan), and taken to the Grandfathers — spiritual representatives of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above, and below. These "... spirits were represented as kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers." When he was seventeen, Black Elk told a medicine man, Black Road, about the vision in detail. Black Road and the other medicine men of the village were "astonished by the greatness of the vision."
He had learned many things in his vision to help heal his people. He had come from a long line of medicine men and healers in his family; his father was a medicine man as were his paternal uncles. Late in his life as an elder, he related to John G. Neihardt the vision that occurred to him in which among other things he saw a great tree that symbolized the life of the earth and all people. Neihardt recorded all of it in minute detail, and consequently it is preserved in various books today.
In his vision, Black Elk is taken to the center of the earth, and to the central mountain of the world. What mythologist Joseph Campbell explained as "the axis mundi, the central point, the pole around which all revolves ... the point where stillness and movement are together ... ." Black Elk was residing at the axis of the six sacred directions. Campbell viewed Black Elk's statement as key to understanding myth and symbols.
As Black Elk related:
"And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy."
Black Elk had many visions throughout his life which reinforced what he had experienced as a boy, and he worked among his people as a healer and medicine man.
In 1887, he traveled to England with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, an experience he described in chapter twenty of Black Elk Speaks . On May 11, 1887, the troop put on a command performance for Queen Victoria, whom they called "Grandmother England." He also described being in the crowd at her Golden Jubilee.
In spring 1888, Buffalo Bill's Wild West set sail for the United States. Black Elk became separated from the group and the ship left without him, stranding him with three other Lakota. They subsequently joined another wild west show and he spent the next year in Germany, France, and Italy. When Buffalo Bill arrived in Paris in May 1889, Black Elk obtained a ticket to return home to Pine Ridge, arriving in autumn of 1889. During his sojourn in Europe, Black Elk was given an "abundant opportunity to study the white man's way of life," and he learned to speak rudimentary English.
For at least a decade, beginning in 1934, Black Elk returned to the work that he had done earlier in life with Buffalo Bill – organizing an Indian show in the Black Hills. Unlike the Wild West shows which were used to glorify Indian warfare, Black Elk's show was used primarily to teach tourists about Lakota culture and traditional sacred rituals – including the Sun Dance.
At Wounded Knee in 1890, while on horseback, Black Elk charged soldiers and helped to rescue some of the wounded. He arrived after Spotted Elk's (Big Foot's) band of people had been shot and he was grazed by a bullet to his hip.
Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She became a Catholic, and all three of their children were baptized Catholics. After her death in 1903, he became a Catholic in 1904, when he was christened with the name of Nicholas and later served as a catechist. He remarried in 1905 to Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. Together they had three more children and remained together until her death in 1941.
After giving Neihardt his vision over the course of several days, "Neihardt was curious about why Black Elk had put aside his old religion. According to [Neihardt's daughter] Hilda, Black Elk merely replied, "My children had to live in this world". Hilda Neihardt relates that just before his death Black Elk took his pipe and told his daughter Lucy Looks Twice, "The only thing I really believe is the pipe religion."
He was a leader in the revival of the Sun Dance (an important religious ceremony among several tribes) and its reinstatement in Lakota life. Lakota traditionalists now follow his version of the dance. Toward the end of his life, Black Elk revealed the story of his life, and a number of sacred Sioux rituals to John G. Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown for publication, and his accounts have won wide interest and acclaim.
Since the 1970s the book Black Elk Speaks has become an important source for studying Native spirituality, sparking a renewal of interest in Native religions. Black Elk worked with John Neihardt to give a first-hand account of his experiences and that of the Lakota people. His son Ben would translate Black Elk's stories, which were then recorded by Neihardt's daughter Enid, who would then put them in chronological order for Neihardt's use. Within the American Indian Movement Black Elk Speaks became an important source for those seeking religious and spiritual inspiration. They also sought Black Elk nephew and medicine man, Frank Fools Crow, for information on Native traditions.