In August 1930, the Midwestern writer John Neihardt went with his son Sigurd to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to speak with Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux. Neihardt was in the process of completing A Cycle of the West, an epic poem concerning the history of the American West. He had published the fourth section, The Song of the Indian Wars, and was looking for material for the final section, The Song of the Messiah. Neihardt had earlier become acquainted with Indian culture when he lived near the Omaha reservation at Bancroft, Nebraska, and he knew Black Elk's reputation as a holy man and the second cousin to the great Sioux Chief Crazy Horse. When the two men met, Black Elk recognized that Neihardt was a sympathetic listener, someone interested in the spiritual world and in Indian history. He wanted to tell Neihardt his life story, especially the story of his vision, because he felt he would soon die. (Black Elk, 68 years old at the time, would die in 1950 at the age of 87; Neihardt, 43, would live to be 92.) Black Elk had not told many people about this vision; as the story progresses, the reader learns that Black Elk has not told even his best friend, Standing Bear. Black Elk said to Neihardt, "What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you." Neihardt did come back with his daughters in May 1931 to continue the conversation, which forms the book Black Elk Speaks.Black Elk's son Ben acted as interpreter for the two men, and Neihardt's daughter Enid recorded their conversation in writing.
Black Elk Speaks is an example of personal narrative, which is, most simply, the story of someone's experiences narrated by that person. Memoir, autobiography, and published diaries — like Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, for example, or The Diary of Anne Frank — are traditional versions of the personal narrative. More precisely, Black Elk Speaks is a narrated autobiography and a spiritual autobiography. Narrated Indian autobiographies had been an established literary form in the United States at least since the 1833 publication of Black Hawk: An Autobiography. These life stories were narrated because most of their Indian subjects did not have the fluency in English to write for the American reading public. But simply to record a life story, even one's own, does not necessarily create a work of literature; a biography or autobiography, just like a novel or a play, usually has a point of thematic or dramatic interest around which the narrative can shape itself. In the case of Black Elk's life, that point of interest is the mystical vision he was granted. His story is an attempt to explain his successes and failures in enacting the promise of that vision: To what extent he did or did not fulfill the task the vision had delineated for him, the cultural factors that supported his efforts, and the political factors that worked against them. Because the vision was a mystical vision and the task was to be fulfilled in his role as holy man, Black Elk's story in this respect is a spiritual autobiography: It is based on the premise of a divine power's existence, as that power is defined in Sioux belief, and it is the story of how Black Elk developed in his relationship to the divine. As the life story of someone whose culture was marginalized and, at times, pushed to near extinction, within the United States, Black Elk's narrative also has affinities with the American slave narrative and Holocaust survival narratives.
In addition, Black Elk Speaks follows the plot line of traditional quest literature, exemplified in many epics and fairy tales. The central character of such literature is a hero whose search to fulfill his or her unique destiny forms the trajectory of the plot. The obstacles and the support that he or she encounters on the way form episodes of the plot. Most quest literature ends happily, with the hero having attained the desired goal, which is often something brought back to share with the community: In The Odyssey, for example, Odysseus brings the rule of law to the Greeks after surviving many dangers to travel home after the Trojan Wars. In this way, the hero of quest literature frequently coalesces the identity of the community and his or her character serves as a model. In the case of Black Elk Speaks, the quest ends tragically. He cannot attain his goal, not because of flaws in his own character, but because of uncontrollable external forces, namely the expansionist drive of white people. Despite the evidence of history, Black Elk does blame himself for his inability to enact the power his vision has granted him to affirm the identity of his people, to make the tree or sacred stick flower, to restore the sacred hoop of his nation.
But Black Elk Speaks is not just the story of one man; Black Elk himself says that if it were, it would not be a story worth telling. It is also the history of the Sioux during his lifetime. As a description of tribal life, the novel can be classified as an ethnography, an anthropological examination of the life practices of a particular cultural group. Black Elk's story is especially valuable from an ethnographic standpoint because it covers the Sioux's transition from pre-reservation to reservation life. His story includes descriptions of hunting, butchering, cooking practices, ceremonies and rituals related to hunting, healing, and fertility, especially the great sun dance; it depicts Indian behavior at war, in courtship, and at play; and it offers a privileged glimpse into the Indians' spiritual and social life. It records some of the central events of American history from the striking perspective of the Oglala Sioux: the Battle of Little Bighorn, the establishment of Indian agencies and reservations, the ghost dance phenomenon, and the Wounded Knee massacre.
Black Elk's story is also a political story of conquest and dispossession that raises questions about ethics and the use of power and provides an alternative view of the American experience. It challenged the conventional version of American history prevalent at the time of its publication in 1932 that heroized western expansion and glorified the profit-making motive as the doctrine of manifest destiny. Black Elk complicates the cultural relativism of the American historical narrative by observing, for example, that yellow metal (gold) made the white men go crazy; or that the Indians were forced into square houses that lacked the power of the circle; or that treaties were violated in the U.S. Government's seizure of Indian territory. Black Elk Speaks depicts the great cost, in human and environmental terms, of such events as the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the settlement of the west, and the discovery of gold. It implicitly questions the military strategy of quelling hostile forces, by contrasting the true genocidal nature of that mission with the general sentiment among the Indians that they simply wanted to live on the land they had always lived on.
Finally and importantly, Black Elk Speaks is a sacred text. Black Elk's account of his visionary experiences is comparable to John's account in the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible or the Khabbala in the Jewish tradition.
Problems with the work stem from the circumstances of its transcription and edition and can never be satisfactorily resolved. Enid Neihardt's transcription is included in her father's papers at the University of Missouri, but even a comparison of the transcription with the printed text fails to get at the problem. Readers trying to answer the question of authenticity must acknowledge the many-layered composition of this book: Not only the layer between Enid's transcription and John Neihardt's final copy, but the layer interposed by Ben Black Elk's interpretation of his father's spoken words, and the layer between Ben's words and Enid's writing. And perhaps foremost, readers must acknowledge the layer of time, 60 years of which had passed between Black Elk's vision and his account of it to Neihardt. By the time he spoke to Neihardt, Black Elk had converted to Roman Catholicism, and it is difficult to know how much Catholic iconography influenced his telling of the story. The passage of time also witnessed major cultural displacement among the Indians, which, like any trauma, can alter memory. These can be distracting questions but they are probably not the most important ones.
Black Elk Speaks received favorable reviews when it was published in 1932, but soon fell into neglect; an argument can be made that the economic depression of the 1930s distracted potential readers away from a book that seemed fairly esoteric. Interest in the work was revived in the 1950s when the internationally known psychoanalyst Carl Jung made reference to it in a footnote; Jungian psychoanalysts found enlightening its description of community ritual growing out of a personal vision. During the 1960s and 1970s, the book won new readers among the counterculture, with its depiction of communal lifestyles, environmental conservation, and alternative spirituality. Black Elk Speaks was one of several texts of the period — including Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the films Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse — that spoke to a general revival of interest in American Indian life at a time when the American Indian community was calling for a new sense of identity and was claiming its political prerogatives. The Sioux scholar Vine Deloria says that the book's greatest effect has been on young Indians trying to establish their own identity, and that it will become "the central core of a North American Indian theological canon which will someday challenge the Eastern and Western traditions as a way of looking at the world."