“Black Elk Speaks” by John G. Neihardt

Posted: January 19, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Book Cover

I actually read “Black Elk Speaks” Premier Edition, but there doesn’t seem to be any photos of that cover available.

This heart wrenching story of the downfall of the Native American peoples is told with beautiful prose and care. It could have beenĀ  a quick and easy read, but the tale deserved time and reflection rather than an eager gobbling of words. Neihardt uses powerful rhetoric to show the beauty that was lost when the wild west was defeated by ‘civilization.’

From the viewpoint of Black Elk, it is very easy to see how the wasichu’s (white people) were not nearly as civilized as were the indigenous peoples of North America. He and his people were perplexed at the wasichu desire for the “yellow metal that made them crazy” and the fact that they would kill buffalo only for a tongue, to “kill for the sake of killing” and in a very short time they extinguished the wild species.

Black Elk’s vision was mesmerizing, and the drawings in the appendix added a surprisingly accurate rendition of the most important scenes in his vision. I would read this before falling asleep at night, and found that his imagery often entered my dreamworld. I also listened to Native American music recorded with flutes and natures sounds to bring me just a little closer the the power of Black Elk’s story.

As an American I have been raised to understand the atrocities we committed against the indigenous people, and I’ve read many fiction novels that told me, in a vague way, about their religious beliefs and natural lifestyles. But I’ve never before seen so vividly the method’s that the wasichus used to kill these people so mindlessly and cruelly. I wonder how Black Elk could talk about picking up an orphaned baby from the bloody aftermath of Wounded Knee and not cry.

He spoke, 120 years ago, about the way the wasichus were cutting up the land so that the two leggeds and the four leggeds were living on islands and finding it difficult to survive. This rings true today in a world where the few longer vast areas of land left completely to nature are being carved smaller and smaller by the hands of greedy people.

Finally, I’d like to say that this edition was particularly nice because it offers notation in the margins when Neihardt chooses to embellish or add to Black Elk’s story. He does this frequently. A couple of examples are very powerful statements that he puts into Black Elk’s mouth: that the wasichus spoke with forked tongues and that the Lakota’s could not eat the wasichu’s lies. I see that Neihardt is trying to make Black Elk’s story even more convincing of how bad it was, but frankly–I don’t think such embellishments were necessary to understand the atrocities that Native Americans faced, the bravery and courage they fought with, or the hope that they still cling to today–that someday the hoop will be restored.

  1. Wonderful book, and a fine article about it. For anotherr book on the subject from a contemporary writer, read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexlie. A novel written for y our adultds,I read it as a novel that is written for adults from the perspective of a young teenager. Powerful, disturbing, sad and hopeful book.

    I really like your blog, too, including its title.

    George Polley

  2. Sarah Snow says:

    Thanks for the terrific feedback George!

    I was introduced to Black Elk Speaks through a university Native American literature/poetry class, and found it completely entrancing. I think this book should be required reading for all high school kids because it’s message is still contemporary.

    I will add your reading recommendation to my ever expanding reading list! Thank you!


  3. My apology for the spelling errors in my previous comment; another testimony to the fact that I should never post comments before I put my contact lenses in.

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