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Black Elk SpeaksReview - Black Elk Speaks
by John G. Neihardt
Audio Literature, 2007
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Aug 19th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 34)

Black Elk Speaks ends with this description of defeat:

Our party wanted to go out and fight anyway, but Red Cloud made a speech to us something like this: "Brothers, this is a very hard winter. The women and children are starving and freezing. If this were summer, I would say to keep on fighting to the end. But we cannot do this. We must think of the women and children and that it is very bad for them. So we must make peace, and I will see that nobody is hurt by the soldiers."
    The people agreed to this, for it was true. So we broke camp next day and went down from the O-ona-gazhee to Pine Ridge, and many, many Lakotas were already there. Also, there were many, many soldiers. They stood in two lines with their guns held in front of them as we went through to where we camped.
    And so it was all over.
    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.

This signals the end of the book; the end of the trail; the end of the vision; the end of a way of life. "The sacred tree is dead." This lament marks the end of the story of this holy man and warrior who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and who saw in his lifetime the destruction of the bison herds that sustained the Plains Indians as well as the end of the nomadic way of life that nurtured their rituals and visions. I spent much of my youth in North-eastern Colorado on a family farm and was intrigued by the Plains Indians and their stories and battles with the White Men who are my ancestors. Every year we went to Beecher Island for a picnic and the Battle of Beecher Island was one of the foundational stories of my life. It wasn't until I was an adult that I noticed the ethnocentric manner of the telling of that and other battle stories. The US Army casualties had names while the Indians were numbers, as in"67 savages were killed." There were battles with the Indians in that area well into the 1890s.

Elk's early childhood was spent following the buffalo herds across the plains, learning to hunt, and practicing the art of war. As a young man he dreams of helping his people to live happily and prosperously in the rolling plains of the western United States. But as gold is discovered the white men have a strong desire to take the land and they do. More and more of them flood across the land and the Indians are unable to cooperate to stop them. Treaties are made and broken. Promises are made to be broken.

The Wounded Knee Massacre is presented in all of its devastating detail. The listener cannot help but be moved as the soldiers massacre women and children in their attempt to simply eliminate the "Indian Problem" by eliminating the Indians.

Most listeners will already be familiar with the text that comprises Black Elk Speaks, will know that it comes to us thanks to the Nebraska poet and historian, John G, Neihardt, and will realize that the final text is redacted from hours of interviews with the Oglala Sioux medicine man, Black Elk. The text is both a people's scripture, and its history of defeat. Scholars have struggled with the text in an attempt to discern what is original Black Elk and what is added by the compiler. Neihardt interviewed Black Elk whose nephew provided an immediate translation into English which was transcribed in shorthand by Neihardt's daughter and then written up by Neihardt.

The scriptural aspects of the text include descriptions of visions that Black Elk had as a child which predict future events and charge him with a hero's task of trying to return power to his people, as well as miracles of healing and manipulating nature. These stories are like all myths from all cultures: myth is always used to interpret reality, to read the physical and psychological world in a non-rational way usually employing a binary aspect: world and other world, male and female, living and dead, good and evil, gods and people. Black Elk struggles throughout in an attempt to understand just what his vision means. A myth is a story about something that never happened but is always true.

The history presented here covers the defeat of the Plains Indians by the US Army, the violent change from nomadic life to life on the reservation, and the death of a culture as we watch it go from a way of life to a Wild West show to be presented in large cities. Black Elk's life spans this historical period and his status as a medicine man provides him with the knowledge of ritual and prayer that informs his historical recollections. We learn through his stories the details of the important religious dances of his tribe. Black Elk performs healing miracles, has visions of another world, controls nature, and fights for his people just as all cultural heroes do.

Scott Peterson reads the text with skill and power. Just listen with attention and you will find yourself transported into the world of Black Elk and you will be delighted by his voice as he speaks. The overpowering feeling one has is that all stories are the same, no matter the cultural source.

© 2008 Bob Lane

Bob Lane is a retired professor of literature and philosophy who is currently a Research Associate at Vancouver Island University.


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