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Native-white tensions

John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, originally published in 1932, is a vivid, compelling account of an Oglala Sioux holy man’s life, from his birth until 1863 through the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. It depicts life for a young Native American just as Native-white tensions were escalating into warfare and the tragic annihilation of Indians’ traditional way of life. The book consists of Black Elk’s recollections, as told to Neihardt in 1930 through his an interpreter, because the elderly Sioux spoke no English and had initially refused to speak at all.

Neihardt did not write the book simply to present historical facts, but to present “something to be experienced through intimate contact, rather than to be received through telling” (xv). With this in mind, Neihardt presents the voices of Black Elk and a few of his friends in conversational format, without the author directly inserting himself in the narrative. The twenty-five-chapter volume begins with Black Elk downplaying the importance of his own life, adding that “if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow?

” (1) In the first chapter, “The Offering of the Pipe,” Neihardt subtly illustrates how the old man finally opened up, passing around a pipe and giving the reader some insight to the context of the conversation, rather than simply relaying it in a sterile, matter-of-fact manner. Born in 1863, Black Elk was a second cousin of legendary warrior Crazy Horse and born on the Plains just as tensions between white settlers and Native peoples were escalating. He mentions white incursions early in his story, noting that many intruded onto Sioux lands in search of arable lands and gold, which he dubs “the yellow metal that they worship” (9).

Before this, he claims, humans and animals shared the land harmoniously. Black Elk recalls a fairly carefree boyhood, where he and other Sioux children played happily despite the looming presence of the “Wasichus” (whites) as a sort of bogeyman, and recalls his first vision, at age nine, in which herds of horses and his ancestors appeared before him, admonishing him to “remember what your Six Grandfathers gave you, for thenceforth your people walk in difficulties” (37) – a premonition of what would follow within two decades.

He juxtaposes a happy childhood and adolescence with experiences of war, beginning at age thirteen, when he is given a pistol and kills and scalps a wounded soldier, an event he recalls matter-of-factly and without obvious boasting. He also experiences the Battle of Little Bighorn, albeit only in the aftermath, when he takes a dead soldier’s gold watch and wears it like a trophy. Of the battle, he claims, “I was not sorry at all. I was a happy boy. Those Wasichus had come to kill our mothers and fathers and us, and it was our country” (127).

The tone here becomes less light-hearted as the story focuses more on the conflicts that ultimately deprived the Sioux and other Native nations of their freedom. Black Elk drops few names throughout the narrative but devotes some space to his relative Crazy Horse, whom he describes not heroically but sympathetically, saying: “He never wanted anything but to save his people, and he fought the Wasichus only when they came to kill us in our own country” (143).

Here, there is no indignation or anger in his tone, but sympathy for his kinsman, who was slain in captivity. By his mid-teens, Black Elk had more frequent visions; after two described in chapters fourteen and fifteen, “The Horse Dance” and “The Dog Vision,” his status within the Sioux nation rises and he is recognized as a holy figure: “[The elders] said they did not know but I would be a great man, because not many men were called to see such visions” (187).

He also speaks in passing about intriguing aspects of Native American culture; for example, he contrasts the Indian preference for circular villages with the square configuration of their reservation homes by saying: “It is a bad way to live, for there can be no for there can be no power in a square. . . . [Everything] an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles” (194). His language is rich with Indian symbolism, which Neihardt does not explain with interventions. Instead, he lets it stand on its own, and its clarity becomes evident to the reader.

For example, he does not speak angrily about the Sioux’s confinement on the Pine Ridge reservation, but rather with a degree of resignation: “I thought of my great vision, which was to save the nation’s hoop and make the holy tree to bloom in the center of it, [and] I felt like crying, for the sacred hoop was broken and scattered” (214). At other times, his stories are both amusing and bittersweet; when he and other Sioux perform in Europe in 1886 and he meets Queen Victoria (“Grandmother England”), he comments, “Maybe if she had been our Grandmother, it would have been better for our people” (223).

The narrative ends after the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, in which he was not one of the dancers but heard the shooting at a distance and later saw the bodies in a dry creek. He says of the dead that “it was better for them to be happy in the other world” (260), which is strikingly sorrowful, and when he closes the story by remarking, “There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead” (270), he is keenly aware that the Sioux’s world has indeed ended.

Though it is unclear how much of the story Neihardt has left intact and how much editing he performed, Black Elk Speaks is a striking story that gives the reader insights about Indian spirituality, community, and the world that they lost. Though the Native American story during his lifetime is a tragedy, Black Elk speaks not with anger but with resignation and a sort of remarkably stoic acceptance that speaks of his people’s strength and suffering. WORKS CITED Henretta, James A. et al. America’s History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

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