Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, 1932 (autobiography; as told to John G. Neihardt)
The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, 1953 (Joseph Epes Brown, editor)
Black Elk, also known as Nicholas Black Elk (his Indian name was Hehaka Sapa), is most recognized as the narrator of his so-called life story titled Black Elk Speaks. This narrative, dictated to poet and researcher John G. Neihardt, was transcribed from notes after being interpreted from the original Sioux in English by Black Elk’s son, Ben. This work has been honored by some and maligned by others for the “poetic filter” Neihardt placed upon it and for its incompleteness; it is instead a symbolic representation of the American Indians’ plight previous to and subsequent to the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Black Elk was born into the Oglala Sioux–also known as Lakota Sioux–who were Plains Indians that depended, as hunters, on the buffalo that populated the midwestern plains of North America. In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk discusses not only his personal life but also the ceremonies and customs of his people. Included are graphic depictions not only of the Indians’ way of life but also of their betrayal at the hands of the “white man.” Mystical and philosophical, the work also gives witness to the murder of Crazy Horse and several important battles such as Little Bighorn (1876) and the massacre at Wounded Knee.
At age nine, sick with a mysterious illness and unconscious for twelve days, Black Elk was possessed of a great vision. In this multilayered vision, six grandfathers present him with metaphysical powers of healing, cleansing, awakening, growth, vision, and eternal youth. The vision itself was oriented around the circular hoop and four corners (an inherent American Indian mandala). Termed a near-death experience, this vision was the focal point not only of Black Elk Speaks but of Black Elk’s entire life as well. For many years, Black Elk was confused and lost as he watched the white people encroach upon Indian lands and destroy hunting grounds. At age seventeen, Black Elk revealed his vision to a shaman, who insisted he needed to make it known to his people through a ritualistic reenactment called a horse dance, through which Black Elk himself became a renowned spiritual healer.
Adjusting to changing times, Black Elk performed in a traveling show headlined by William Cody (Buffalo Bill) that traversed the United States and visited the capital cities of Europe (1886-1889). While in Europe, Black Elk had a recurrent vision, prompting him to return to the United States to serve his people, who had been repositioned at the Pine Ridge Reservation. There he participated in Ghost Dance ceremonies, and, on December 29, 1890, he was a firsthand witness to the slaughter at Wounded Knee. In 1904, Black Elk was baptized and took the name Nicholas Black Elk. He then spent many years as a catechist, assisting missionary Jesuits among his people.
In 1931, Black Elk reported the events of his life to Neihardt, but some criticized the autobiography as a distortion because it offers a “poetic” interpretation rather than a strictly documentary narrative, omitting the remainder of Black Elk’s life (1890-1950), which includes his conversion to Catholicism; his marriage to Katie War Bonnet in 1892; the birth of his sons William, John, and Benjamin; and a second marriage in 1906 to Anna Briggs White, with whom he had a daughter, Lucy.
Black Elk was seventy when Black Elk Speaks appeared in 1932, and, though a critical success, it did not spark public interest for many decades. Through it, however, Black Elk’s vision lives once again, becoming a literary document that continually provokes controversial discussion as to its “truth.” Its place in the canon is assured because of its “poetic” and visionary focus and because it is a rare document of its kind–bearing witness not only to one man’s life but also to an entire way of life that has virtually disappeared in the United States. Along with the theological tradition that he dictated to Joseph Epes Brown in The Sacred Pipe, the autobiography emphasizes a persona of Black Elk previous to his assimilation into a larger American culture, preserving, in a sense, that which could not be preserved because of the horrific changes the Sioux underwent. Black Elk’s legacy is the verbal re-creation of a life once held by the Plains Indians and a metaphysical visualization of the possibility of a reunited people that is not only poignant in its loss but an indelible picture of a culture forever estranged from itself.