Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

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University of Nebraska Press, 1989 - Biography & Autobiography - 298 pages
The most famous Native American book ever written, Black Elk Speaks is the acclaimed story of Lakota visionary and healer Nicholas Black Elk (1863–1950) and his people during the momentous, twilight years of the nineteenth century. Black Elk grew up in a time when white settlers were invading the Lakotas’ homeland, decimating buffalo herds and threatening to extinguish their way of life. Black Elk and other Lakotas fought back, a dogged resistance that resulted in a remarkable victory at the Little Bighorn and an unspeakable tragedy at Wounded Knee.

Beautifully told through the celebrated poet and writer John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks offers much more than a life story. Black Elk’s profound and arresting religious visions of the unity of humanity and the world around him have transformed his account into a venerated spiritual classic. Whether appreciated as a collaborative autobiography, a history of a Native American nation, or an enduring spiritual testament for all humankind, Black Elk Speaks is unforgettable.

This special edition features all three prefaces to Black Elk Speaks that John G. Neihardt wrote at different points in his life, a map of Black Elk’s world, a reset text with Lakota words reproduced using the latest orthographic standards, and color paintings by Lakota artist Standing Bear that have not been widely available for decades.

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There has been much criticism and cynicism regarding John Neihardt's treatment of Black Elk's story. I do believe Neihardt did his best to render a truthful book of the spirit. Neihardt was writing his epic poem and he recounts how he was told of an old Indian he should visit. When Neihardt arrived, Black Elk was standing outside of this house waiting as if he was expecting him. It appears Black Elk had asked to be sent someone who would preserve his vision and so John Neihardt was the unexpected nominee for this mission. Critics should keep in mind Neihardt was not a anthropologist looking to write a thesis on Lakota culture. He was a poet asked to preserve Black Elk's great vision and who better than a poet to do this? One also has to remember Neihardt had to rely on translations and I have no doubt some things just didn't translate well and it may well be he just didn't understand some things so allowances should be made. Those who think he was just trying to exploit Black Elk should keep in mind the book was not an instant bestseller and it doesn't appear Neihardt went there intending to write this particular book as he was writing his epic poem of the West. I also seriously doubt Black Elk was anyone's fool.
Whatever imperfections there may be, the resulting book is beautiful and moving. My only quibble is the book ends rather abruptly after Wounded Knee and then Neidhardt recounts the elderly Black Elk's request to go to Harney Peak where he gave his prayer asking to let his people live again. I do believe any literary liberties taken by Neidhardt was in service of preserving and bringing Black Elk's vision and spirituality to the fore. He was trying to frame a lost way of life and the humanity of people not well understood by whites. The book accomplished it's mission and thus I give it 5 stars.

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User Review  - cwflatt - LibraryThing

Greatest book on Native American history and the Indian Wars Read full review



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