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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Chippewa Songs
- Louise Erdrich
- Ghost Dance Songs
- Thomas Harriot
- Black Elk & John G. Neihardt
- Simon J. Ortiz
- Leslie Marmon Silko
- Stories of the Beginning of the World
- Luci Tapahonso
- Roger Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Black Elk (1863-1950) and John G. Neihardt (1881-1973)

Poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (c. 1899)
[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].

Black Elk & John G. Neihardt Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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