Black Elk Speaks
June 26, 2003 3:50 AM   Subscribe

The Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. "I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth,--you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

Black Elk speaks.
posted by fold_and_mutilate (8 comments total)
Black Elk Speaks did not follow other contemporary works into oblivion. Throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties it drew a steady and devoted readership and served as a reliable expression of the substance that undergirded Plains Indian religious beliefs. Outside the Northern Plains, the Sioux tribe, and the western mind set, there were few people who knew the book or listened to its message. But crises mounted and, as we understood the implications of future shock, the silent spring, and the greening of America, people began to search for a universal expression of the larger, more cosmic truths which industrialism and progress had ignored and overwhelmed. In the 1960s interest began to focus on Indians and some of the spiritual realities they seemed to represent. Regardless of the other literature in the field, the scholarly dissertations with inflections and nuances, Black Elk Speaks clearly dominated the literature dealing with Indian religions.

Today the book is familiar reading for millions of people, some of whom have no clear conception of Black Elk's tribe, the Oglala Sioux, and others of whom do not, as a rule, even like Indians. The spiritual framework of the pipe ceremonies and the story of Black Elk's life and vision are well known, and speculations on the nature and substance of Plains Indian religion use the book as the criterion by which other books and interpretive essays are to be judged. If any great religious classic has emerged in this century or on this continent, it must certainly be judged in the company of Black Elk Speaks and withstand the criticism which such a comparison would inevitably invite.

From the foreword by Vine Deloria, Jr.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 3:52 AM on June 26, 2003

Wonderful; thanks foldy.

This is one of the books, along with some by Ed Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Terry Tempest Williams, that helped shape my greening.

But I remember a controversy, from my Ph.D. days, that centered on whether or not Black Elk ever said any of these things, that Neihardt made it all up.

Any thoughts?
posted by tr33hggr at 4:28 AM on June 26, 2003

Thanks foldy!
posted by plep at 4:47 AM on June 26, 2003

It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many shadows. Among these shadows men get lost.

Good post, foldy - I read this once long ago but it may be time to take it off the shelf for a second read. This site points to lots of other native stories too...thanks!
posted by madamjujujive at 5:34 AM on June 26, 2003

tr33hggr, There has been some controversy surrounding the book. Neidhart at the very least misrepresented who Black Elk was at the time of the telling. By that time he had become a devout Christian. There has been some bickering back and forth about his attitude toward the religions he practiced, and what this means to how the casual reader and scholarly readers should understand the book. This link is a bit of a jumble, but includes a bibliography on Black Elk. They suggest "The Black Elk Reader" for a view of the academic debate, and recommend The Sixth Grandfather, the transcripts of the Black Elk - Neidhart discussions over Neidhart's Black Elk speaks.
It's nice to be reminded of this after 10 years.
posted by putzface_dickman at 5:52 AM on June 26, 2003

Here's a review of a book about Black Elk after his conversion, with a synopsis of this later part of his life.
posted by putzface_dickman at 5:56 AM on June 26, 2003

Thanks putzface, interesting stuff.
posted by tr33hggr at 6:21 AM on June 26, 2003

Thanks putz. I read this book in highschool (in *book* format btw), and I never heard about the controversy.

Looks like another reading is in order.
posted by zpousman at 10:58 AM on June 26, 2003

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