Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
by John G. NeihardtTitle

A Book Review by Larry P. Madden Black Elk book cover

Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932, is the story of a young man amidst the collapse of his civilization. Raised in the Oglala traditions and forced to change by military might, Niehardt tells a story from the perspective of the vanquished. Experiencing the splintering of his people and their way of life in this time of flux, young Black Elk was afforded visions and duties reserved for older men of status and stature, and he struggles to find answers.

Men like Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and Standing Bear weren’t just names in history. To Black Elk these were contemporaries. He was a cousin to Crazy Horse and he participated in the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn). He witnessed starvation as game, such as bison, were overharvested by intruders thereby destroying a lifestyle. Yet he clung to his beliefs and continues to live in his culture as it was eviscerated and crushed. He was given a vision at the age of nine years old, and he clung to it and as he struggled with how to use it.

John G. Neihardt is possibly the only man red or white privileged enough to hear all of Black Elk’s vision in its complete telling. After meeting Neihardt, the ancient seer remarked, “He has been sent to learn what I know and I will teach him.” Black Elk, an illiterate who spoke no English, was waiting out his mortality on the infamously desperate Pine Ridge Reservation, “Hoping to save his great vision for men.”

Neihardt worked for years to record the 1880s’ Messiah Movement among the Sioux. With works The Song of the Messiah along with Twilight of the Sioux, Neihardt’s deep insight about the Sioux mysticism made for easy transition for the old medicine man to relate his tale of hope for mankind. Born in 1881, Neihardt’s résumé included living on the Great Plains in a sod pioneer home with his grandparents on the Solomon River in Kansas in 1886. Neihardt would push himself to attend Nebraska Normal College and graduate with a B.S. degree at 16 years of age. He would later live and teach among the Omaha, becoming immersed in their traditions and customs. Awards and honors would follow from the University of Nebraska, Creighton University of Omaha, and the University of Missouri, Columbia. He was recognized as Poet Laureate of the State of Nebraska, with an annual “Neihardt’s Day” celebrated in Bancroft, Nebraska. His bust is in the capital building rotunda.

This legendary book is an old read. While this isn’t the first time this reviewer read it, it’s a book that needs to be revisited as one ages. What once were visions and mysticism are now able to hold their own alongside talks of quantum physics, time travel, and channeling. Though times have changed since the book’s initial publication, Natives and whites are still two races on a collision course. Our failing to understand our differences may be understandable in the 1870s, but now 147 years later we’d best review our situation and seek common ground.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.