‘My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and 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?... It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.’
Black Elk Speaks (1932)
John Neihardt
In Summary

The faith of one Lakota warrior is tested when his world is devastated by the 'white man,' causing him to explore perennial themes of meaning, suffering, eternity and the afterlife while seeking refuge in an eternal realm beyond this earth.


‘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.’ Through a translator, these words of native healer Black Elk were communicated to Nebraskan poet John G. Neihardt. Black Elk was the cousin of the famous Crazy Horse and lived through the annexation of the Western plains. Yet, up until this point, he had been unwilling to share his story with any Wasuchu (white man). Occasionally falling asleep mid-sentence, the ageing Black Elk gave the poet a rare tour through history, putting a personal spin on the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Black Elk Speaks (1932) is Neihardt’s record of these conversations with Black Elk. Published during the Great Depression and countering the romanticisation of Manifest Destiny (i.e., that American ideals would conquer the West), it is no surprise that it​​ initially struggled to make an impact. ​​However, during the sweeping cultural shifts of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it found a wider readership and was gradually accepted as a classic of Native and American literature. While scholars debate how much of the real Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota tribe lies beneath the prose of Neihardt, most agree that the work nonetheless has a transcendent quality about it, inspiring Native and non-Native readers alike.  


The narrative begins in such a well-worn and lived-in way that it merits quotation: ‘I was born in the Moon of the Popping Trees on the Little Powder River in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed, and I was three years old when my father’s right leg was broken in the Battle of the Hundred Slain. From that ​​wound, he limped until the day he died, which was about the time when Big Foot’s band was butchered on Wounded Knee. He is buried here in these hills.’ This sense of place and embeddedness in the land – with every hill a memory and every tree a tale – imbues those plains with magic, making everything so much more horrific when it’s all taken away.

With the transcontinental railroad and the discovery of gold in Montana, the already shrinking territory of the Lakota natives and the roaming Buffalo became almost non-existent. The Lakota were starved for meat, land, crops, dignity and hope, as Manifest Destiny became all the more manifest. Amid these struggles, the nine-year old Black Elk began to have visions of being carried up into the clouds where six Lakota grandfathers spoke to him about a future free from the white man when Black Elk would help lead his people into a renewed time of healing and plenty. Young, and unsure of the meaning of these visions, Black Elk kept them to himself, yet continued to ponder them in secret, for, ‘Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.’  

As he became a man, the contrast between this hopeful vision and his crumbling reality became all the more stark. Victories – such as the Battle of Little Bighorn – were few and far between and only led to further retaliation and loss. The white man soon murdered the renowned warrior Crazy Horse, Black Elk’s cousin, in one of their ‘peaceful’ camps, for they knew ‘they could not have killed him in battle.’ Starving, freezing, and displaced from the land and its resources, Black Elk and others found work travelling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show – even performing for Queen Victoria on a tour through Europe. While he had once ridden through the hills as a proud Lakota warrior, now he rode the train from town to town pretending to be one.  

Upon returning home, Black Elk discovered that his former life was truly gone. His father, brother and sister were now dead, and most of the Lakota were living on reservations. Yet even this final surrender did not result in peace, with nearly 300 native men, women and children later murdered on a reservation during the Wounded Knee Massacre (for which twenty white soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor). Black Elk states, ‘I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch… 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 many years Black Elk was ashamed that he had failed to fulfil his vision and rescue his people from the white man. Yet he eventually came to embrace what he called the ‘Other World,’ where the Lakota were free to roam their land, where happiness did not end and where his father, brother, sister and Crazy Horse all waited for him. This ideal world was ‘the true reality behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world.’ In this heavenly realm, parallel to our own, and accessed through ritual dance, his ‘vision had already come true.’  


That which is most particular is also often most universal. Though situated within one subtribe of the Lakota West, Black Elk’s words connect to global themes of hope and healing, of meaning and an end to our suffering and of prophetic visions of an otherworldly kingdom coming and making itself known on ​​​​​​Earth.  

Furthermore, as one of the first books to counter the patriotic triumphalism of Manifest Destiny and one of the best-selling works of Native American literature, Black Elk Speaks has considerable historical and contemporary merit. It demands we wrestle with Native American experience, suffering and spirituality, as well as our own place and culpability within these ongoing histories, which continue to latently structure society today.  

Further Reading By This Author

Neihardt also penned works such as When the Tree Flowered,Eagle Voice Remembers, The River and I, The Splendid Wayfaring and multiple poetry collections. Additionally, Black Elk relayed his stories to Joseph Apes Brown in the books The Sacred Pipe and The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian.  

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