Saturday, December 8, 2012

Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G. Neihardt

Guest Post by Ernest Marshall 

Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G. Neihardt, University of Nebraska Press, 1961

Neihardt does a superb job of capturing Black Elk’s voice (his daughter served as stenographer and Neihardt was intimately acquainted with the culture of the Sioux).  One feels that Black Elk is speaking directly to the reader.  Part of this feeling probably comes from Black Elk’s simple and direct way of telling a story.

Black Elk’s tribal status as a Holy Man came at least in part from “the Great Vision," a “vision” he had when he was nine years old.  It is described in vivid detail in 27 pages (the entire book is only 280 pages), in an astonishing array of moving images packed with a sense of potent significance.   The closest thing in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that came to my mind in reading his account, was the Book of Revelations.

Being a “holy man” in Native American culture was not a matter of an official title and assigned duties.  Yet they were typically consulted and thought to have spiritual insight.  Black Elk does not “preach” his spiritual convictions but evinces them in various ways.  Glimpses are given into the Native American spiritual worldview.  “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle” is illustrated at length in one passage.  The view is strikingly different from the pervasive Judeo-Christian linear -- from Creation to Judgment Day -- view.

Black Elk conveys a rich sense of what life was like as a Plains Indian.  For example, his account of his first bison hunt really places you in the midst of the action.  Their technique of hunting bison required stampeding the herd and riding very close to the bison they took down with spears or bows and arrows.  One false step likely meant being gored or trampled to death.  Bison were,of course, at the center of the life of the Plains Indians, their primary source of food, hides for tepees, winter quilts, etc., and also of their culture and religion.

He lived through many major historical events in the later years of the Sioux.  He fought at “Custer’s Last Stand” and the Battle of Wounded Knee.  He intimately knew Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  He was part of Buffalo Bill’s traveling wild west show. He was on hand to witness the tragedy of the demise of the Plains Indian culture, massacres, broken treaties, the coming of the railroad, the disappearance of the bison herds, and the invasion of their traditional lands by wave after wave of soldiers and settlers.

Black Elk shows no bitterness or disillusionment over this calamity, only sadness.  His equanimity and acceptance seem fitting for a “Holy Man”.  I am reminded of Christ’s dying words, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

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