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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Black Elk (1863-1950) and John G. Neihardt (1881-1973)

[2251] Anonymous, Poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (c. 1899), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2943].

Born into the Oglala Lakota, Black Elk was an important Sioux visionary and religious leader. As a young man he received a Great Vision in which the Six Grandfathers—powers of the West, the North, the East, the South, the Sky, and the Earth—appeared to him. This vision was powerful enough to remain an important part of his consciousness as he grew up, and he became a shamanic healer in his late teenage years. When, in 1886, Black Elk joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he became an Episcopalian, because all employees were required to be Christian. Though he later converted to Catholicism (in 1904), he passed on his vision to poet John G. Neihardt, and the record of this interaction became the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks. Much of the extant record of Native American narrative, poetry, and myth comes from transcriptions and translations often made by late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century, non-Native American anthropologists. John G. Neihardt, however, was not an anthropologist, and he did not speak Lakota; thus, his account of Black Elk’s vision is not only filtered through several translators and transcribers but has been altered to fit Neihardt’s own interpretation of Black Elk’s world. These practices make Black Elk Speaks problematic if viewed as an authoritative American Indian text. In spite of these problems, the book has been—and continues to be—enormously influential.

John G. Neihardt, poet laureate of Nebraska, had a literary rather than a purely scientific motivation for speaking to Black Elk: he was gathering research material for the last volume of his epic poem, A Cycle of the West. In 1930 and 1931, he made several trips to Black Elk’s cabin outside of Manderson, South Dakota, where they discussed poetry, spirituality, and Black Elk’s life. Black Elk Speaks is also a product of the political upheavals of the 1930s. Even as Black Elk Speaks recounts the earlier period of renewal during the Ghost Dance Movement, the authors are speaking and writing during another important period of American Indian rejuvenation—the years leading up to the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) or “Indian New Deal” of 1934. John Collier, the mastermind behind the IRA, suggests that the “Indian New Deal . . . held two purposes. One was the conservation of the biological Indian and of Indian culture, each with its special purposes. The other . . . was the conservation of the Indian’s natural resources.” As an acquaintance of Collier (and later an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA]), Neihardt was intimately acquainted with the movement leading up to the IRA. It is clear that the more bellicose aspects of Black Elk’s story were excised by Neihardt in an effort not to offend white readers. The relationship between the two men was, however, reciprocal: while Neihardt found in Black Elk a fertile resource for understanding Native American culture, Black Elk saw in Neihardt someone who could disseminate a prophetic vision he had experienced some sixty years earlier.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Black Elks Speaks became an important text for Indian activists who wanted to access earlier visions of power. Vine Deloria went so far as to call it the Indian Bible. For literary scholars, however, the text raises questions about the limits of autobiography (how can an autobiography have been written by someone else?) and the oxymoron at the heart of the phrase “American Indian autobiography.” As Arnold Krupat pointed out in 1981,

Autobiography as a particular form of self-written life is a European invention of comparatively recent date. … [W]e may note that the autobiographical project, as we usually understand it, is marked by egocentric individualism, historicism, and writing. These are all present in European and Euro American culture after the revolutionary last quarter of the eighteenth century. But none has ever characterized the native cultures of the present-day United States.

Mixed-blood critic Hertha Wong has argued that precontact written texts—as well as the oral tradition—help explain one of the fundamental differences between American Indian and Western autobiographies. Wong argues that the pictographic writings of the Sioux and other Plains tribes tended, like the oral tradition, to tell stories about the self which might be more accurately described as “communo-bio-oratory”(community-life-speaking) rather than “auto-bio-graphical” (self-life-writing), since they were about the person’s life in the context of their human, spiritual, and natural communities and the writings were intended to be part of an oral recitation, rather than to stand on their own. Black Elk Speaks provides an opportunity to question our assumptions about the genres of biography and autobiography more generally.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students pair up and interview one another about their lives. Then have them write an “autobiography” for their partner. Follow this up by having the interviewee write a short comment on his or her “autobiography.” This activity illustrates the point that there is always a selection process in autobiography and also shows how the choice is lost when one is no longer the writer of the work.
  • In the oral tradition, repetition is crucial both for ceremonial reasons and because it aids in the process of memorization (which is how oral texts are preserved). In contrast, in written texts, we can turn back to earlier information if we need it; hence, repetition is less necessary. Ask students to pay attention in Black Elk Speaks both to what gets repeated and to how many times the reptition occurs. (In the Bible, the numbers 3, 4, and 7 are important. What numbers are important for Black Elk and why? What are their religious associations?) For many oral cultures, words have a great power to harm, heal, and create (think of the opening of the Bible, for example—originally an oral text.) Thus, to repeat words is to wield a certain power. What kind of power does language have in Black Elk Speaks? In addition to its ceremonial uses, repetition is also a crucial way of providing narrative cohesion in oral narratives. Repeating aspects of a story enables items to be linked in the minds of the listeners: what events and ideas does Black Elk link in his text and with what effect?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Who is Black Elk? Why does he receive the vision?
  2. Comprehension: What seems to be the purpose of the Grandfathers’ council that Black Elk attends? What do the Grandfathers want to teach Black Elk?
  3. Comprehension: What are the “four ascents” that Black Elk encounters?
  4. Context: Consider the recurrence of the hoop in Black Elk’s vision. For the Sioux, circles stand for the cyclical, interconnected nature of life itself. Given this, how does the appearance of the hoop affect the significance of Black Elk Speaks?
  5. Context: Black Elk’s revelation occurred when he was nine years old, in 1872—seventeen years before the Ghost Dance religion came to the Sioux nation. How does Black Elk’s vision compare to the motifs present in the Ghost Dance songs and Wovoka’s “Messiah letters”?
  6. Context: What is the relationship between Black Elk Speaks and the policies of the Indian New Deal (e.g., does it affirm, respond to, complicate, or negate such goals)? Does Neihardt (or Black Elk) believe in the “continuity of the group”? What must be continued? What “certain kinds of changes” should be induced and which should be controlled? What “traditions” must be “conserved”?
  7. Context: Examine the Lakota boy’s moccasins decorated with American flags [7418] and compare them to the Plains moccasins [8117]. Is one of these more “traditional”? What are you assuming “traditional” means? How do you think Black Elk would have understood each of these artifacts?
  8. Exploration: Consider the vision from Black Elk Speaks as literature. In what way is it like other literary texts with which you might be more familiar and that are more clearly fictional? Is this text “fictional” in any way? To what extent should we consider what we could call the text’s multiple-authorship when interpreting it?
  9. Exploration: Compare this vision with one or both of the most famous prophetic visions in the Western tradition, the biblical Books of Daniel and Revelation. How does Black Elk’s vision compare to those granted to Daniel and John of Patmos? What are the most compelling clues in Black Elk’s narrative that signify that he experienced a non-Western revelation (again, think especially of the hoop imagery)?

Selected Archive Items

[2251] Anonymous, Poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (c. 1899),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2943].
As a young man, Black Elk took part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This poster shows a band of Rough Riders battling Cuban insurgents. The famous charge at San Juan Hill had taken place the previous year.

[7418] Anonymous, Boy’s moccasins, Lakota (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association, Thaw Collection.
Reservation-period (post-1880) beadwork on these dress moccasins shows how the American flag motif was incorporated into Native American design. This motif has been read as a sign of assimilation or as a way to capture the power of the enemy.

[8117] Mandan and Plains Indians, Moccasins (c. 1850-70),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler.
Typical Plains clothing included buckskin aprons, leggings, and moccasins for men and buckskin dresses for women. Buffalo-skin robes were worn in cold weather. Decorated moccasins are common in portraits and photos of Plains Indians.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6