Adult Reading Level

BLACK ELK SPEAKS: BEING THE LIFE STORY OF A HOLY MAN OF THE OGLALA SIOUX, as told through John G. Neihardt, Bison Book, University of Nebraska Press, Available from The Mail Order Book Catalog, 800-695-2241. 1932, 1961. 281 pp., $1.95 (1961) 0-8032-5141-6. $9.95

Neihardt was an epic poet whose turgid epics of the West and Indians are all but unreadable today. But in researching for his long poem Twilight of the Sioux he visited Pine Ridge reservation in 1930, wanting to meet a "Medicine Man" who had been active in the Ghost Dance movement of the 1880's. He was introduced to Black Elk. Sensing that a poet was a different kind of writer from reporters or anthros who had bothered him unsuccessfully before, Black Elk gave Neihardt a token, and began to recount his life. Later, he adopted Neihardt, and gave him the name Flaming Rainbow, which came from one of his major visions, the one he felt he had faild to fulfill in his life, but perhaps could pass on for the future, via Neihardt's book.

Neihardt corresponded with Black Elk through his son Ben, and returned in May of 1931, where he was graciously received. The resulting book describes Black Elk;s traditional boyhood, his great vision, several famous battles including Custer at Little Bighorn, ending with the massacre at Wounded Knee:

"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from the high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women lying heaped and scattered all along th crooked gulch. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud in was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream." At the very end, Neihardt accompanies Black Elk to th top of sacrerd Harney Peak in the Black Hills, where the old man prays, crying that he has failed to fullfil his vision and make the white tree bloom. "Hear me in my sorrow, for I may never call again. O make my people live!"

Black Elk's prayer was heard and answered. This book, this record, becam the seed of a rebirth of Lakota spiritual life and ways.

When the AIM occupation and seige of Wounded Knee occurred in 1973, during those few months thousands of young Indian people from all over the U.S. and Canada visited, sneaking through the military cordons, both to support what was happening there and to learn how to implement and fight for sovereignty for their own tribes. Wallace Black Elk, a collateral descendant of "the" Black Elk, was the principal spiritual teacher within the beseiged village. He and his wife Grace led a ghost dance, purification rites (inipi, sweat lodge) and did much teaching. Many learned of the Black Elk Book there and then, with the guns and troops around them, with the deaths and hope, and explicit declarations that the Oglala (and Lakota) Nations were here reborn. Visiting youths and elders from hundreds of other tribes across the U.S. and Canada, some who had never experienced any kind of Indian spiritual life attended, and resolved to go back home and create such rebirths of their own peoples by whatever methods they could find. Most were realizing for the very first time the importance of prayer, and the fact that this brought people togethr across racial, cultural, and historical lines to share a common purpose and values,

For a decade afterward, Black Elk Speaks was almost a talisman in the homes and hearts of Indian people who wanted to relearn spirituality. Especially Lakotas, of course, but many from other tribes felt -- feel -- Black Elk's visions have something to say to all. Too, it is one of the few detailed personal eyewitness accounts of spirituallife history by a Native person, told by him for Native people of the future, rather than for white historians and anthros.

Neihardt had a poet's, not an anthro's, way with words, catching the rhythm and images of Black's Elk's narrrative, looking for the beauty and the power of it, not to box it up for some pseudo-science. It might be the only book you would see in someone's home (the only book that had ever been there), it might be carried as the single possession of a travelling youth. At powwows, there was often someone reading it to people around a cooking fire. It was always welcomed by Native Survival School kids, most of whom didn't do much reading, to whom I gave many copies over the years.

Thus it is a good thing the book has remained in print in a relatively cheap paperback (now 5 times my $1.95 version). Although many tribal youths of those times later went on to recover their own tribal heritages spiritually and historically, this book is the single most important written influence on that spiritual revival which began in the early 1970's among almost all Indian activists, and those who became more quietly, less confrontationally, more spiritually active. Its true history did not really begin until then, for until then it was just another obscure book of Indian memoirs, published by a University Press.

So many Indian people responded so strongly to Black Elk's words across the long decades between his crying and praying and the mountain and the book's coming to life in the hands of another generation that one must acknowledge that Black Elk's youthful vision and history, embodied in his book, played an important role in answering his final prayer recorded there. His words speak strongly and directly to the hearts of many.

All of us to whom the book is important in that way have favorite parts, mine is the flowering white tree within the hoop of nations. I've seen it many times in dreams I don't understand, and I saw it once, made out of lightning on a are mountain top, waking, in 1978, when I spent the night alone on Medicine Mountain, in the Wyoming Bighorns. (See my recollections in the Star Knowledge section here.)

This book is recommended to all native persons of any age who have not yet read it. It has played a most important role, sparking a cultural revival, in the history of all Native Nations, especially but not only of the Oglala Lakota Oyate. Though the ceremonies and rituals and some of the stories recounted are specific to Lakota history and traditions, it nevertheless speaks to the hearts of everyone. Its aftermath, after Black Elk's death, speaks to the spirit: Visions have practical survival value is what this book says, in its content, in its despairing ending prayer, and in its 2-generations-later history which I have just sketched here. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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SIXTH GRANDFATHER: ORIGINAL TRANSCRIPTS OF BLACK ELK, edited by Raymond DeMaillie, John G. Neihardt, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 452 pp, $12.95. Available from The Mail Order Book Catalog, 800-695-2241

These are the transcripts of Neihardt's listening to Black Elk, in the 1930's. They became the basis for the books Black Elk Speaks ( see review) and When the White Tree Flowered a memoir of 19th century life of Plains Lakota at its height. Perhaps the transcripts are of most interest to research specialists, yet I feel that many native people to whom Black Elk's words are precious will want this relatively unfiltered version too. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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BLACK ELK: HOLY MAN OF THE OGLALA by Michael F. Steltenkamp. University of Oklahoma Press, 1005 Asp Ave., Norman, OK 73019, (800) 627-7377, (405) 325-5000 FAX. Illustrated, index, notes,bibliography, maps. 235 pp., $19.95 cloth. 0-8061-2541-1

This book departs from those that primarily investigate Black Elk's early life. Instead, Steltenkamp, using information obtained from Black Elk's daughter Lucy Looks Twice, analyzes Black Elk's later years, his conversion to the Catholic religion, his attempts to minister to members of his tribe, and the use of the "Two Roads Map" as a catechist (good behavior is the "red road," evil acts are the "black road"). He concludes that Black Elk retained the "power to live" well into his later years, challenging his peers to act responsibly. Combined with "Black Elk Speaks," and "The Sacred Pipe," the entire life of Black Elk is now illuminated. Though this book will not be highly regarded by Lakota traditionals, it is recommended. Reviewed by Steve Brock

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 03, 1996 - 5:56:47 AM