Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
Nicholas Black Elk (as told to John G. Neihardt)
In the August of 1930, John Neihardt was traveling around Nebraska to gather information for his epic narrative poem on the history of the American West. Moving through the reservation of the Oglala Sioux people (also known as the Lakota), he met an elderly Indian holy man, almost blind, by the name of Black Elk. Though they had not previously had any contact, Black Elk 'knew' that Niehardt would come, and planned to tell him his story.
Niehardt set about recording the man's memories, which became Black Elk Speaks. Though critically praised, the book fell into obscurity until in the 1960s there was a surge in interest in Native American religion, and the book finally became a bestseller, assisted by psychologist Carl Jung's interest in the Black Elk story.
What is the enduring attraction to the book? More than a simple record of historical events, it describes a series of detailed visions Black Elk had about the dark future of his people under European civilization, and the spiritual burden he felt as a result. As a proud warrior of an ancient people - his cousin was the famous Lakota leader Crazy Horse - the thought of this emasculated future would have driven most people to chemical oblivion or suicide, but the book charts Black Elk's attempts to adapt to the modern, white world and to understand cultures beyond his own. From his part in the battle at Wounded Knee to his meeting of Queen Victoria, Black Elk's life is one of those bizarre bridging of cultures that could only have happened in the modern era.
The book can be read as a work of comparative religion or anthropology, but it is Black Elk's mystical powers and the very spiritual worldview of his people that we focus on here.
Black Elk's religious visions are the heart of the book. The visions were clearly of a sacred nature, which makes their sharing with Neihardt all the more valuable. Black Elk was only five when he first began hearing voices, but was afraid to tell anyone about them. The continued through his childhood, the most significant coming when he was nine. In this vision, which caused him to be physically sick, he comes before his people's Six Grandfathers (spirit lords) who take him on a kind of tour of the universe, showing him things that few humans ever have; the purpose is to provide him with a big picture of his place in the world and his duty in relation to his people. During the vision he learns powerful sacred songs and dances, which later become important to that duty. Black Elk reflects that at the time he was too young to grasp anything of what he saw, and it was years before he began to work out the meaning of the vision. A relative, Standing Bear, had commented that after the visions Black Elk became a different child, and as time passed, it became clear that the vision had somehow bestowed him with psychic and healing powers.
After the death of Black Elk's famous cousin Crazy Horse, the encroaching Wasichus (white people) ordered the Lakota to move into reserves. A few, including Black Elk, broke off from the group with a view to head towards 'Grandmother's Land', or Canada, where they felt they would be safe from the soldiers. However, the extreme cold brought them to the brink of starvation, and were only saved when Black Elk had guidance that food in the form of bison would be coming to them.
Though many of the visions reveal dazzling beauty and give Black Elk a realization of the oneness of the universe and the great interconnectedness with nature, they also reveal a dark future of brutal oppression, with the Sioux living in 'square gray houses' and the decimation of the bison population. Unfortunately, Black Elk would see some of the more disturbing aspects of his visions come true.
Black Elk Speaks is full of anecdotes which paint a rich picture of Native American culture, particularly the affinity with nature and respect for all forms of life. This affinity with birds, animals, the sky and plants is expressed in beautiful ways, such as the months of the year. September, for instance, is 'Moon When the Calves Grow Hair' and December 'Moon of the Popping Trees'.
Yet his people could not live in isolation, and Black Elk wanted to see for himself whether the Wasichu way of life was better than his own society. At 23 he traveled 'across the big water' to Europe, hoping also to educate whites about his people. Although terribly homesick, Black Elk spent six months performing in London as a curiosity in Buffalo Bill's famous Wild West show. Amidst this demeaning experience, the visions began to fade from his daily life and he felt his spirit weakening.
On a lighter note, he met Queen Victoria and was subsequently invited to Buckingham Palace. Among her comments, which Black Elk relates, were that he and his fellow Lakotas were the best-looking men she had ever seen, and that, "If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around in a show like this". Black Elk went on to spend several months in Manchester, and then in Paris, all the while thinking of his people, but he could not afford the passage back to America. In Paris he had another significant vision, in which his spirit journeyed back home without his body. This is a very moving section of the book, particularly to anyone who has ever spent long periods away from loved ones.
Though not a spiritual classic in terms of a statement of a set of beliefs,Black Elk Speaks is a superb record of a people that had a closer connection to nature and the spirit within nature than the civilization which supplanted it. In contrast to the Western separation of spirit and substance, the Lakota culture Black Elk describes is infused with spirits and sees all nature as holy.
While Black Elk continually describes his despair in the book that he had not fulfilled his duty to his people the life meant for him, by sharing his life and visions he ensured a legacy of greater understanding. Were he alive today he would be both surprised and pleased at the lasting impact his words and life had within his own people and the broader world. He could not read or write, but as Niehardt notes Black Elk was a highly educated man in the full sense of the word.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one spirit."