Black Elk Speaks

John G. Neihardt

Cover of Black Elk Speaks

Rank: B+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Spring, 2001

Author Name: John G. Neihardt

Review: This review. Is dedicated. To all those. Who lost their lives. On. September 11th. 2001.

Black Elk Speaks is a fascinating book, starting right off with the title and the author. First, if you check out the cover of the book, it tells you that the the story was told by Black Elk (whose first name was Nicholas, apparently) and recorded by John G. Neihardt, who was given an honorary, traditional Native American name (get ready for this): Flaming Rainbow. Neihardt is the one who actually wrote the book, though, so he gets the by line, when it comes to the Library of Congress (or at least in my edition). And the thing is, it really does seem like a book by Neihardt, as opposed to a book by Black Elk. Think if you were writing an autobiography, or, to give a more likely scenario, if I was, for example. Would I call my autobiography David Peterson Speaks? I hope not. (Now, David J. Peterson Speaks, on the other hand…) No, what this was was Black Elk telling a story for Neihardt to take down. Both were aware of what was going on. Neihardt wasn’t hiding no tape recorded in his back pocket as Black Elk beckoned him to his deathbed to tell him words he was never to utter to any living soul. No, no. In a way, they collaborated to create the book Black Elk Speaks, and this is important to keep in mind as you read it.

To the actual text, Black Elk Speaks is fascinating. It’s the story of Black Elk, who was born into a world with Europeans in America, and saw the entire collapse of Native American civilization, and took part in it. He was at all the major battles (e.g. Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee), witnessed the capture of Crazy Horse, was there when the nations finally collapsed, and even participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. You name it, he was there. What you get, then, is a first-hand account of the destruction of a civilization, and the aftermath. It’s incredible, and this record that we have is quite possibly one of the most important documents in our nation’s history. As long as it survives, we won’t be able to forget what we did, and that knowledge will (hopefully) prevent our government from doing it again.

While reading Black Elk Speaks, you get (i.e. I got) the impression that you’re not getting the whole, unadulterated truth. Many of the scenes described seem kind of TV-ready. Some details that are recounted seem like they would be impossible to remember, and seem to illustrate the point Black Elk’s trying to make all too conveniently. That Black Elk spoke this to Neihardt who recorded it seems to me at least to be impossible to ignore. Black Elk Speaks is not necessarily a factual account of the history: it’s a personal narrative of Black Elk’s life. This is something to keep in mind. Nevertheless, I’m sure most of the major facts are accurate, and I can appreciate the character that the style of the narrative gives to the history being recounted.

Before I shut the door on this window, I’d also like to note that Black Elk doesn’t portray the Native Americans as a unified nation of victims, necessarily. He shows that the nations were divided, and that they were not paragons of virtue. Again, as with Touch the Earth, he portrays his people not as blameless victims, mystical shamans, or nature’s children, but as human beings. It’s a well-crafted tale of what it was like to be a Native American in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and should be required reading for everyone that, for one reason or another, finds it necessary to live out their days on this bruised and broken land Jim Morrison called America.

[Note: You can read the entirety of Black Elk Speaks online here.]

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