Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Black Elk Speaks

Having a long interest in Native American culture, it's a topic I regularly visit in my reading, and Black Elk Speaks is one of the very few close-to-primary sources available from the perspective of the 19th century.

As is recounted several times in the edition I read through prefaces and essays, writer John G. Neihardt visited Nicholas Black Elk in 1930 during the research for another project he was working on, and the encounter led to further conversations and a written narrative of Black Elk's experiences leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee.  What proved most fascinating wasn't Black Elk's close relation to the famed Crazy Horse, but the visions he'd be granted during his life, which led him to becoming a medicine man.

Black Elk Speaks is referenced in its own pages as a spiritual classic, a work that will one day prove to be the foundation of a new religion, and completion of what Black Elk himself believed to be the culmination of his visions, the birth of a better tomorrow for his people.  In that sense, in relating the rapidly vanishing culture and its most sacred concepts and understanding about the need for harmony in all things, Neihardt will have achieved the goal he set for himself in recording an old man's memories.

The problem is Neihardt himself is not a good enough writer to have conveyed the importance and significance of what he learned.  His great-granddaughter is one of several essayists who chronicle his other contributions to literature, but the fact is today no one knows the name of John G. Neihardt except in connection with Black Elk Speaks, and even Black Elk was unknown in 1930 when Neihardt stumbled across him.  Black Elk comments on his own failures in the text, and so there's no reason to beat a dead horse in that regard, but whatever else he was, Black Elk was just another Indian who immersed himself in the rich culture of his own people, was relevant to that people, but who would otherwise have been forgotten had someone like Neihardt not come along.

Reading about Tecumseh's brother the Prophet recently was testament enough to that.  There are details Neihardt did not capture about how Black Elk came into his knowledge, that he either did not collect or did not feel was important, and their absence diminishes the impact.  The fact that he leaves the narrative on the dramatic note of Black Elk's failure and the horror of Wounded Knee further indicates that he had no real interest, despite comments to the contrary, to present a full portrait of the man or his significance.  He knew Black Elk personally for decades, and yet leaves his story off well before even their first meeting.

I do not seek to diminish the accomplishment so much as put it in context.  This is material for someone else's better work.  It is already secondhand, and so there will be little lost in translation, and everything to gain.  I have read contemporary spiritual and philosophical works that convey more power than is evidenced in Black Elk Speaks.  There are great thoughts to be found here, but they are buried.  Neihardt mostly writes an incomplete chronicle, a curiosity he all but admits in an essay actually included in the volume I read.

I am glad that Black Elk Speaks exists and that it is popular enough to still be in regular print, but it is another work that I wish had been written by better hands.  Here we discover trying to salvage the experiences of his youth, remembering better days and the worst of what happened to his people.  It is a cultural touchstone.  But it is, as Black Elk continually reflects in his handling of the visions he experienced in his younger days, improperly related, not as effective as it could be.

But it is a start.

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