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Black Elk was a Native American warrior and holy man who witnessed some of the most dramatic events of the final period of Indian-U.S. conflict. After the Indian Wars came to a close at the end of the nineteenth century, Black Elk converted to Catholicism, blending his native beliefs with his newly-adopted faith. Towards the end of his life, he gave two extensive series of interviews, first to a poet, then to an anthropologist, that resulted in two books—Black Elk Speaks (1932) and The Sacred Pipe (1953). These works provided important perspective on a disappearing way of life and offered inspiration to future generations interested in the Native American world view.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Indian Wars
Black Elk, whose father and grandfather were both medicine men, was born along the Little Powder River, probably in what is now the state of Wyoming. While his people, the Oglala Lakota branch of the Sioux nation, were able to maintain their traditional way of life during Black Elk’s earliest years, the westward migration of white settlers and the associated expansion of an industrialized infrastructure—railroads, towns, and large ranches—soon made that impossible. During the 1870s and 1880s, the Sioux engaged in a series of battles with the United States Army for control of their tribal lands. These included the Battle of the Little Bighorn—remembered by white Americans as ”Custer’s Last Stand”—in which Black Elk participated when he was thirteen. After Chief Crazy Horse, Black Elk’s cousin, was assassinated by United States soldiers in 1877, Black Elk’s tribe fled to Canada, where they remained until 1880.
Travels with Wild Bill
After his tribe returned to the United States, Black Elk acted on a vision he had experienced when he was nine. in Sioux religious tradition such experiences are often used as guides to deter mine the course to be taken by individuals and entire tribes. in the vision Black Elk foresaw the destruction of a ”sacred hoop” representing the unity of his people, and was instructed in the manner in which he might one day use a sacred herb to destroy his nation’s enemies and restore unity. Following an enactment of the vision by his tribe, in accord with Sioux custom, Black Elk began a career as a medicine man. Compelled to take on an even larger role, Black Elk accepted an offer to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1886, explaining, ”I thought I ought to go, because i might learn some secret of the Wasichu [whites] that would help my people somehow.” After spending three years touring with the show through Great Britain and Europe, featuring a performance at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, he returned to the United States in 1889. While he had learned about European cultures and traditions, he felt that he had lost the power of his vision while he was away.
The Ghost Dance
Upon returning to his tribe, which was now living on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Black Elk found famine, disease, and despair among the Sioux and learned that a religious movement called the Dance of the Ghosts was spreading across the reservations. The professed belief of the Ghost Dancers was that, through dancing, the spirits of their departed ancestors could be called back to drive away the white encroachers and return the Native Americans to their traditional lifestyle. Black Elk joined the Ghost Dance when he perceived significant similarities between its prophecy of a new world for Native Americans and the image of the restoration of the sacred hoop in his own vision. The incessant and frenzied dancing associated with the movement greatly alarmed officials on the reservations, who called in the United States Army to pre serve order. Tension between the Native Americans and soldiers finally erupted on December 29, 1890, when the troops massacred some three hundred unarmed men, women, and children camped along Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The massacre at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Native Americans’ hope for preserving their land and their autonomy. Black Elk remained on the Pine Ridge Reservation after the massacre and continued to act as a medicine man despite the expressed disapproval of Jesuit priests who had founded a mission there. In 1904, Black Elk joined the Catholic Church; it is not known why he converted after years of maintaining traditional religious practices. Whatever his motivation, attempting to reconcile the two religions would be a continuing process for Black Elk. He became a respected leader in the local Catholic community, served as a Catholic catechist, or teacher to the newly converted, and traveled to other reservations in that capacity.
Black Elk’s Story
In 1930, Black Elk was approached by John G. Neihardt, an author seeking information about the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre for an epic poem depicting the history of the American West. While Neihardt’s interest was at first restricted to Sioux history, Black Elk announced that he felt a spiritual kinship with Neihardt and wanted to share his vision with him in order to preserve it. According to Neihardt, Black Elk told him after their first meeting,
There is so much to teach you. What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you.
Neihardt decided that he could create a book based on Black Elk’s life rather than simply incorporating the material into his poem, and he returned to Pine Ridge for a series of extensive interviews. The resulting narrative, Black Elk Speaks, was published in 1932. With the publication of the book, Black Elk was again in conflict with the Jesuits, who were appalled that one of their most reliable catechists had apparently re-embraced his ancestral religion. The publicity surrounding Black Elk Speaks also brought additional writers and scholars to Pine Ridge to interview Black Elk. Joseph Epes Brown, an anthropology student, lived with Black Elk for several months during the winter of 1947-1948 and recorded his account of Sioux religious rituals, publishing the information as The Sacred Pipe in 1953, three years after Black Elk’s death. While The Sacred Pipe is considered a valuable resource in the preservation of Sioux cultural history, it is generally judged inferior to Black Elk Speaks as a literary work and has received little critical attention.
Neither Black Elk nor Neihardt could speak, read, or write the other’s language, and the interview procedure was complex. Black Elk’s spoken Lakota was translated into English by his son Ben Black Elk, restated by Neihardt, translated back to Black Elk for further clarification when necessary, and recorded in shorthand by Neihardt’s daughter Enid, who later arranged her notes in chronological order and typed them. Neihardt then wrote the text of Black Elk Speaks from Enid’s typewritten transcripts; he told Black Elk’s story in the first person but also included descriptions of events and battles that Black Elk did not experience or was too young to remember, which were provided by other Sioux who were present during some of the interviews.
Black Elk was not entirely satisfied with the final manuscript Neihardt produced. In particular, the focus on Black Elk’s childhood and early adulthood angered the aging holy man, who wrote a strongly worded letter to Neihardt contradicting the book’s apparent assertion that Black Elk’s life effectively ended with Wounded Knee, that no good had come to him since. Black Elk insisted that his religious conversion had made him a better man, and indeed, he saw little difference between the old faith and his newly-adopted religion.
Works in Literary Context
Black Elk Speaks tells the story of Black Elk from his early childhood to the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Widely praised for vividly portraying both the personality of Black Elk and the Native American way of life, the book has been variously examined as autobiography, ethnology, psychology, and philosophy. At the same time, critics agree that Black Elk Speaks is preeminently a work of literature, not scholarship, praising in particular the book’s simple and forceful prose style. While some critics contend that Neihardt’s success at representing qualities of the Lakota language in English is proof of his faithfulness to Black Elk’s words, others argue that the highly literary nature of the prose is evidence that the words are Neihardt’s and not Black Elk’s. This dispute raises larger questions regarding Neihardt’s role in the creation of Black Elk Speaks which are the focus of much of the commentary on the work.
Oral History and Tradition
Black Elk Speaks, the life story of Black Elk, is considered the most authentic literary account of the experience of the Plains Indians during the nineteenth century. In addition to garnering praise for presenting Native American religion and culture in a way that non-Indians can understand, Black Elk Speaks has been called the “bible” of younger generations of Native Americans seeking to learn more about their heritage. Along with The Sacred Pipe, which recounts the seven sacred rituals of the Sioux, Black Elk Speaks has played a crucial role in preserving Native American traditions and in encouraging the expression of a Native American heritage and consciousness.
Black Elk’s account is centered in the oral tradition, a term used to describe the transmission of history and culture through a spoken rather than written medium. The oral tradition is the oldest human tradition of preserving and passing on knowledge, and is centered around a sort of formalized storytelling, closer to a testimonial than a personal, autobiographical story as participants in the written tradition would understand it.
Native American literature was originally passed on by word of mouth, so it consisted largely of stories and events that were easily memorized. Much of the oral literature consisted of folk tales and myths. Native American prose, even today, is often rhythmic like poetry because of the rich heritage of oral literature. Many con-temporary authors deal with the ancient tales in their writings, continuing to develop stories using American Indian mythology. The late 1960s saw a Native American Renaissance, marked by modern writers’ desire to draw on the oral literature of their culture.
Works in Critical Context
While Black Elk Speaks received positive reviews, it was not popular among readers, and suffered several decades of neglect. In the 1950s, Carl Jung and other European psychologists and anthropologists rediscovered the book and studied Black Elk’s vision as an example of the importance of cultural symbols, and their examination sparked renewed interest in the work in the United States. During the 1960s and 1970s, concern for the status of ethnic minorities and the environment focused attention on Native Americans, and Black Elk Speaks, considered the preeminent account of the Native American experience, became increasingly popular. While debate regarding Neihardt’s editorial role continues, the importance of Black Elk Speaks as both a work of literature and a source for the understanding of Native American culture has been widely acknowledged.
Black Elk Speaks Critics have questioned Neihardt’s chosen focus for the book, noting that by ending Black Elk Speaks with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, Neihardt omitted a forty-year period in Black Elk’s life and ignored his conversion to Catholicism. Some commentators suggest that these decisions reflect Neihardt s desire to portray Black Elk s life as a symbol for the demise of the Sioux nation, the theme he was exploring in his own work. Critics have also questioned Neihardt s depiction of Black Elk s vision, noting that he eliminated some of the violent aspects of Black Elk s description, including the destructive herb. While Raymond J. DeMallie argues that Neihardt was justified in this decision because Black Elk himself rejected violence by becoming a Christian, others maintain that he unjustifiably misrepresented Black Elk s story in order to emphasize its universal aspects and to avoid alienating white readers. Commentators have also criticized Neihardt for portraying Black Elk as a tragic and pathetic figure, maintaining that the transcripts of the Black Elk interviews belie this portrait.
- Petri, Hilda Neihardt. Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow: Personal Memories of the Lakota Holy Man and John Neihardt. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
- Steltenkamp, Michael F. Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
- Deloria, Vine, Jr., ed. A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John G. Neihardt. Salt Lake City, Utah: Howe Brothers, 1984.
- Rice, Julian. Black Elk’s Story: Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
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