Black Elk Speaks By John Gneisenau Niehardt Critical Essays Neihardt's Authorship

John Neihardt, who is responsible for Black Elk's narrative in the form of Black Elk Speaks, can be seen in both positive and negative ways. His conversation with Black Elk, his transcription and editing of their talk, preserved Black Elk's story, which has enlightened generations of readers. It seems clear that Black Elk Speaks inspired other people, outside the Sioux tribe. Joseph Epes Brown, author of The Sacred Pipe(1953), for example, recorded and edited Black Elk's explanation of Sioux spiritual traditions. But Neihardt gained Black Elk's confidence in a rare way. There seems to have been a meeting of the minds between the two men that did not exist between Black Elk and anyone else. In the course of the narrative, readers learn that Black Elk has not told even his closest friends some of what he will tell Neihardt. So, Black Elk Speaks is a testament to the apparent good faith between the two men and evidence of Neihardt's embrace of Sioux culture and spirituality, of his respect for another man and another culture.


But any text that has been through the process that Black Elk Speaks has raises questions of authenticity. The man who lived it recited the narrative after 40 to 60 years had passed since the events he narrates. Black Elk's son Ben translated his father's spoken Oglala dialect into spoken English. Then, Neihardt's daughter Enid, who often functioned as her father's secretary, recorded Ben's spoken English in shorthand. A man who was not an anthropologist or a linguist but a poet, Neihardt himself edited her written transcription into its final form. The narrative is historically accurate in terms of the chronology and events in tribal history that it records. The transcript seems to indicate that the accuracy is due to Black Elk's memory; the collaboration of his friends Standing Bear and Iron Hawk is also important, as is the fact that Neihardt researched some of this same material for his Song of the Indian Wars completed in 1925. In any case, Neihardt's Cycle of the West, the epic poem about the settlement of the American West that was his life's work, indicates that he was certainly the most sympathetic of listeners. He had great respect for the Omahas he met in Nebraska, and the job he would later undertake at the Office of Indian Affairs is another indication of his high regard for the Indian community. His own lifestyle indicated a contempt for material things and a reverence for the artistic and spiritual. All these factors make it difficult to separate Black Elk's voice from his own.

But the greatest point upon which authenticity can be argued is the elegiac tone of the narrative. Black Elk is depicted as a man who failed — or, certainly, thinks he failed — as a leader of his people. He laments that his vision had not been granted to someone worthier; his conclusion is that the task he had been given, that of maintaining the sacred hoop of his nation, has not been accomplished and that the Sioux are essentially a lost culture. It is this perception that some scholars in the Indian community have argued with. They do not see Black Elk's culture as having disappeared, but as having been transformed into something more consistent with the circumstances of reservation life. They would argue that Neihardt had his own disappointments (public neglect of his poetry, for example) and felt himself culturally marginalized. As someone with an essentially romantic temperament, Neihardt may have found the nostalgic picture of a bygone day more gratifying than the less glorified remnants of Sioux culture in the present day. Because we do not know whether Black Elk or Neihardt determined the point at which the book would end, it can be argued that Neihardt chose to end it with the massacre at Wounded Knee in order to reinforce a romanticized view of Sioux tribal life. It may be that the life Black Elk went on to lead afterward (which included working in a store and doing some farming, as well as marrying twice, raising children, and converting to Catholicism) was of no interest to Neihardt because it was not consistent with his own imagined view of Indian life.

Chapter 3's description of the great vision poses additional textual problems. To what extent does the iconography of the vision owe something to Neihardt's own religious experiences and even to Black Elk's later knowledge of Christianity (he converted to Catholicism in 1904 and worked as a lay catechist). These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily, but to examine them is to try to get closer to the very important and fascinating topic of how the story of a human life is shaped and interpreted through the lens of the imagination.

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