Black Elk Speaks

black elk 1


The biographical text indeed has a poetic flare (though not entirely) to it that comes across from the introduction onward, and can be seen in both Black Elk and John Neihardt’s speech and writing. For instance, Neihardt writes the following:

“Little else but weather ever happened in that country – other than the sun and moon and stars going over – and there was little for the old man to do but wait for yesterday (p.xxiii).”


And Black Elk’s normal manner of speech sings with the aged simplicity of wisdom and the colorful style of the long ago Indian, as seen in the following passages:

“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 (p.xxv).”

“I was born in the Moon of the Popping Trees on the Little Powder River in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed (p.7).”


And between the two the finished text is an interesting read, even though it is not totally truthful (having been embellished by Neihardt when it suited his purpose: writer’s license).

It took me a few chapters to realize that Black Elk set-up the entire text early on when he said, “Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking” (p.9). And as I continue on through each chapter it continues to prove to be the case.

I love how Black Elk calls it as he sees it. Like when he talks about how boys had to learn: “The boys of my people began very young to learn the ways of men, and no one taught us; we just learned by doing what we saw, and we were warriors at a time when boys now are little girls” (p.17). And if that’s what he thought about it way back then, can you imagine what he would think of the present generation?


I enjoy the bits of wisdom that are interlaced in most of the chapters; whether it is in response to actions taken place or even the visions and premonitions. For instance, during the vision the spirits tell Black Elk to “Behold this day, for it is yours to make” (p.33). And in the notation we see “but anywhere is the center of the world,” which clearly represents that anywhere each person is located is the center of their world (p.33).

However, I am getting a little irritated at Neihardt taking so many liberties with Black Elk’s words and the tale itself. I can understand it if it was simply for clarity, but after reading all the margin notations I am finding that several of his alterations have actually changed the meaning from Black Elk’s words on the transcript. It does not destroy my interest in the text, but it lessens the overall integrity in the piece. And yet, there are some contradictions in Black Elk’s character that arise in the piece as well.

For instance, Black Elk doesn’t kill the little bird because of the vision, but by not killing it he feels foolish so he kills a frog for no reason (and then feels guilty and cries). And later he slaughters all four rabbits holed up in a trunk (the deep snow wouldn’t allow them to escape), and he, his father, and two others slaughter all eight bison to feed their people, but they let a family of porcupines get fairly close to the fire without hassling them. In other words, unlike the vision that said to be good stewards of the land, so-to-speak, it appears that it’s okay to slaughter until you’re full and then you can pick and choose; instead of taking some and leaving some of all species. And there are similar contradictions in the battle scenes. Black Elk denigrates the soldiers for allowing their horses to trample through the sacred sun dance area, yet he and his people are justified in burning all the grass so the horses of the soldiers cannot eat (which eventually turns around to haunt them when they had to double-back and their ponies were starving, and they had no game to hunt).

Black Elk does seem to grow through the battling years though. For instance, he actually praises some soldiers for their bravery, although he is still somewhat arrogant when it comes to comparing his people to the soldiers for the most part. But I guess that can be said about many of us. And he shows courage many times, and doesn’t shirk his duties. He even takes responsibility for his cousin’s wife after his cousin dies bravely.

This is a coming of age tale that puts to shame most present-day coming of age tales. Nowadays we see a lot of coming of age tales built around sports, or learning a career, or getting the girl. How would they like to be thrust into the cat-and-mouse reality Black Elk and his people found themselves growing up and having to survive in? After all, even the right moves cost many of Black Elk’s people to die; especially when the rules of the game kept changing without anyone notifying them.


I found the obvious comparisons between Crazy Horse and Black Elk interesting. Black Elk mentioned his admiration for Crazy Horse early in the text, while he was young. So the similarities in receiving visions, becoming a shaman, being a courageous warrior, and even beginning to act odd and stand-offish at times, tied the story and Black Elk’s connection to his kin really well.

The heyoka ceremony was interesting. The value his people place on clown-like characters appears to coincide with the Native American acceptance of Coyote, the trickster. But it also reminds me of the truth through humor that court jesters practiced and sometimes died for.

In Chapter 17, Black Elk appears to contradict some earlier information. He claims he has not yet used his powers to heal. However, three chapters earlier there are two separate mentions of Black Elk healing many people, and the people gave him many gifts because of the healings.

With the story progressing it appears that the more Black Elk accepts the role of medicine man the more mature he seems to be in the role. Part of his coming-of-age seems to be complete.

In Chapter 19, Neihardt creates a tone that makes the reader believe Black Elk disliked his time with Buffalo Bill’s show. But the margin notes of Black Elk’s words in the transcript are primarily positive with regard to the show experience: except for getting seasick of course. And Neihardt also puts false words into Black Elk’s mouth regarding joining the show because of the European trip in connection with his great vision. But Black Elk never knew about the overseas trip until he was already working in the show. However, the humor surrounding the trip was pretty cool.

I did find it interesting that Queen Victoria told Black Elk and the other natives that she would treat them better if they had been her “children.” There are many Canadian tribes that would disagree. And even some American tribes that crossed the border, like Big Bear and his people, have obvious reasons to disagree with the Queen’s statement.


I found it interesting that the personal testimonies of Black Elk and other tribe members, eyewitnesses to the religious fervor inspired by Wovoka, stipulate that Wovoka was literally claiming to be the son of the Great Spirit. It even mentions how Wovoka claimed to be Jesus – who had come to the Wasichus first, but was rejected and killed. And yet, the majority of Native Americans nowadays, as well as Native American fare, paint the picture that Wovoka only claimed to be a prophet. And for once it is not Neihardt fudging facts. Thus, it appears that individuals involved in Indian projects throughout the following generations have attempted to downplay some of Wovoka’s more radical claims.

Unfortunately, for anyone who got caught-up in the religious fervor, Wovoka did not learn enough of the Wasichu religion before mixing it with his own. For instance, he claimed to know exactly when the old world would end and the new world (for Indians) would begin. But if he was Jesus reborn, as he claimed, he would have known, as the original Jesus claimed, that only his father, God (the Great Spirit), knows the appointed time.

It also appears as if Black Elk got off track at that point in time. There is a contradiction in Black Elk’s words on the transcript concerning the vision giving him the right to introduce the sacred ghost shirt into the Ghost Dance ceremony. And yet, prior to his vision he mentions already wearing the special ceremonial shirt during his first time dancing there; which removes a few integrity points.

Furthermore, Black Elk claims to have seen the son of the Great Spirit in a vision at the Ghost Dance, with wounds in his hands. But he makes no connection to either Wovoka or the similarity to the Wasichu religion. And we know that he is aware of both.

Similarly, I find it curious that it is not until after the Wounded Knee incident that Black Elk finally claims he was having doubts about Wovoka’s religion: the same religion he caught fervor with and borrowed from, and even helped promote through his Ghost Dance visions. And it is equally curious how he suddenly felt his power leave him just prior to being shot off his horse.

A logical approach seems to suggest that Black Elk allowed himself to get caught-up in something that offered hope to his people during such a dark time. But he had to forego common sense during that period in order to believe. And when he saw it unraveling human nature took over, and out came the backpedaling and excuses. In one respect it is understandable that he wanted to utilize Wovoka’s claims to inspire his people, who were in such a hopeless state. But pie-in-the-sky solutions predominantly do more harm than good; which definitely occurred in this situation. And it is sad to see how Black Elk lost respect for himself during this period. After all, a guiltless man needs no excuses. And, thankfully, it appears that the subsequent years allowed him to reclaim his dignity.

This text is a thoroughly good read, and an interesting look into a good man who learns from his mistakes and gains wisdom in the end. But it could’ve been better without John Neihardt altering Black Elk’s words in many instances.


7 thoughts on “Black Elk Speaks

  1. alphajt July 10, 2017 / 8:54 am

    I enjoy your critiques and reviews, JW. You point out both the praiseworthy and contrary. That takes a fair mind and a discerning eye. Good post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hyapatia Lee July 10, 2017 / 9:26 am

    I agree with you completely about Neihardt. It is good to remember that Black Elk was like any other, imperfect. We all make mistakes. Some learn from them. Regardless of his humanity, Black Elk was a great visionary and leader and many have learned from him. There is a saying “Take what grows corn for you and with a breath of kindness, throw the rest away.” Personally, I believe the Ghost Dance is a large reason so many people who do not have Native blood are interested in our culture today. These could be the souls of our ancestors reborn.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jwtatfbc July 10, 2017 / 11:42 am

      As always, a very thoughtful and thought provoking response, Hyapatia. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. MC Clark July 10, 2017 / 8:20 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book, JW. Like Hyapatia Lee commented above, one must take away the good (which is the majority of the book) and pass off the rest.
    Great review and critique.

    Liked by 1 person

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