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

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"Black Elk Speaks," the story of the Oglala Lakota visionary and healer Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) and his people during momentous twilight years of the nineteenth century, offers readers much more than a precious glimpse of a vanished time. Black Elk's searing visions of the unity of humanity and Earth, conveyed by John G. Neihardt, have made this book a classic that crosses multiple genres. Whether appreciated as the poignant tale of a Lakota life, as a history of a Native nation, or as an enduring spiritual testament, Black Elk Speaks is unforgettable.
Black Elk met the distinguished poet, writer, and critic John G. Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked Neihardt to share his story with the world. Neihardt understood and conveyed Black Elk's experiences in this powerful and inspirational message for all humankind.

270 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1932

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John G. Neihardt

86 books35 followers
John Gneisenau Neihardt

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 908 reviews
Profile Image for Julie G .
883 reviews2,742 followers
October 11, 2020
Reading Road Trip 2020

Current location: South Dakota

It's my favorite time of year, and I've got all the liquids in my cauldrons bubbling on the stove: soup, applesauce, Love Potion #9, and my standard Witches Brew (for poisoning).

In the background, I've got a simmering panic, wondering why in the hell I chose this heavy memoir, Black Elk Speaks, to read now, as it's already October and I've still got 13 more states to get to before the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve.

This book could be used, easily, as a door stopper, and it's as dense as a marble rye to boot. (Were you aware of how many highly detailed prophetic dreams Black Elk had? I wasn't).

The way I see it, I can either stop everything and read this book alone for the rest of 2020, or I can finish my challenge like the overachiever I am.

I've made it to the half-way point, and the audio book is now on its way, too, but I had some interesting revelations of my own, while I was reading this important work.

Right at the beginning of this story, Black Elk mentions what year it was when he was 9, and I suddenly realized that Black Elk was the same age as Laura Ingalls Wilder (Black Elk was born in 1863, Ms. Wilder in 1867). They were only 4 years apart.

Their connections don't stop there. They were not only two of the most famous people ever to put South Dakota on the map, but they both told their stories, for the first time, in print, in 1932.

Both books were well-received, but Ms. Wilder's illustrated story of a simple family life was a bigger hit during The Great Depression than a complicated story of the relocation and decimation of an entire race of people.

Go figure.

However, they were both successful at the same thing: depicting South Dakota as one of our most beautiful states, a place where young children and their families could both rely on Nature's bounty and be restored by it, in every sense. It is a state I hold so dear to my heart, and both of them have made me love it even more, realizing what it must have been for them.

Black Elk and his people were considered a serious “inconvenience,” to the U.S. government, and I think most of us know how their story went. I never knew, before I read this memoir, how much gold was perceived as being up in those hills or just how motivated the U.S. government was to get the Native peoples out of dodge, for that very reason.

Tell me, why is gold behind almost every misdeed??

I regret that I didn't know this story, Black Elk's story, as a girl. What if it had been beautifully illustrated, like Laura's story, and they could have sat, side by side, on my bookshelf?

Also, I wonder at Black Elk's life of prophecy and visions. Almost all of them came true, but where are the new prophecies and visions? Who's dreaming them now?

What is our vision now, for Native peoples? What do we see for our lives together, in the future? Do we mean for them to keep chewing on cactus and rocks forever?

I'm back to the cauldrons, stirring away, stirring away at those pots.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,508 followers
February 10, 2016
This is a haunting and moving transcription of interviews with the revered medicine man Black Elk of the Oglala band of the Lakota Sioux in 1930 at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The editor, John Neihart, was a poet who was writing an epic poem about Messiah movement in the 1880’s among diverse Plains Indians and was seeking Black Elk’s perspective. Black Elk, then in his mid-60s, reflects back on a life spent trying to heal his people as a whole, not just individuals with medical problems. This mission was instilled in him from a mystical vision he had while seriously ill at age 9.

In the narrative he goes into great detail about this vision for the first time because he felt it could still be important to inspire young Indians. As an outsider to this culture, much in the vision was baffling, but I could at least appreciate the poetic power of its imagery and get glimmers of the comprehensiveness of the spiritual system embodied in it. Thunder Beings swept him into the sky and take him to a mountain at the center of the world where the ideal of a tree of life flourishes and provides shelter for the community. They display to him arrays of horses acting out the meanings of the four directions on earth, the sacred hoop of the community of people, the paths that they must follow on the good Red Road and difficult Black Road, the intersection of these roads where the tree must be planted and made to flourish, and the story of the sacred pipe of peace bestowed by the White Bison in the form of a woman.

He felt he failed in that life quest considering all the broken treaties and sad outcomes to his tribe from violent conflict with the U.S. Army during his youth. He was 13 when the Black Hills were taken from the tribe for its gold and was present during the Battle of the Little Big Horn of 1876, was close at hand when his hero Crazy Horse was killed while in custody. By 17 he was recognized as a medcine man and began sharing his visions. In his 20s he was caught up in the millenarian fervor of a return to Indian dominion of the West as infused in the Ghost Dance ceremonies in the 1880’s. He was devastated by the killing of Sitting Bull and his experience of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, which was incited in part by paranoia among the military about the potential threat Ghost Dancers and extreme overreaction to some Indians’ resistance to its being banned. These events are best understood by reading books of history and biography, but I felt the impact of their cultural trauma in a powerful way through the authentic voice of Black Elk:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. 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 the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.

After Wounded Knee, the tribe had to knuckle under, and Black Elk set out to learn more of the ways of their conquerers. He joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for several years and traveled to the big cities of the East and Europe. As usual, he dwells little on the detailed events as he lived them but focuses on the big picture. He was awed by the power of a civilization that could make railroads, steamships, and engines of war. He was moved by the kindness of individuals, like families he stayed with and the sincere respect he felt in communicating with Queen Victoria. But in no way could he see the way of life of the whites (Wasichus) as superior to that of Native peoples:

I could see that the Wasichus did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation’s hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could use, while crowds of people had nothing at all and maybe were starving. They had forgotten that the earth was their mother.

At the end of the book, Neihart takes Black Elk out to a site of spiritual significance to him, where he enacts a moving prayer of hope that the surviving roots of the sacred tree might yet be nurtured to life.

The book as published in 1932 had little readership, but its translation into German inspired Jung and others, and a new English edition in 1961 reached a wider audience that peaked in the 70’s.
Potential readers of the account can sample it or read it in full as web pages at First People or in a pdf version posted here.

Profile Image for Tim.
198 reviews86 followers
December 30, 2016
It was inspired of John Neihardt to get Black Elk to tell him his life story. It’s hard to believe anyone could have told better the story of the Lakota Nation’s demise as an autonomous, proud, wise, communal, deeply spiritual and sometimes brutal culture. Black Elk lived through the so-called “Fetterman Massacre”, the battle of the Little Big Horn and the massacre at Wounded Knee. He even participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and visited Paris and London where he met Queen Victoria who told the Lakota they were the most beautiful people she had ever seen.

Black Elk was both a warrior and a holy man. Thus we get both sides of Lakota male culture. It’s faintly unnerving how matter-of-factly he mentions taking his first scalp at the battle of the Little Big Horn when he was still in his early teens. But it’s his depiction of his life as a holy man that is most fascinating, recounted in compelling rhythmic prose which seems to have the beat of medicine drums behind it. He was given a vision that promised to save his people but felt he was weak and had failed them. He thought seeing the world with Buffalo Bill might help him understand what he needed to do. Instead – ““I did not see anything to help my people. I could see that the Wasichus [white man] did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation's hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could use, while crowds of people had nothing at all and maybe were starving. This could not be better than the old ways of my people.”
He also witnessed the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee which prompts one of his most famous quotes: “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. 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 . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.”
Profile Image for Joan DeArtemis.
32 reviews11 followers
October 25, 2011
This was my third time reading this book, and every time I come away with something new. I highly recommend this to anyone studying religion. I highly recommend this book to every single American citizen. It should be required reading in public schools. The Lakota people have a vibrant, exciting, living religious tradition, and the fact that Black Elk's story was recorded is a gem and a blessing. Not only is it because of the religious tradition is this book important. It is also important because Black Elk was a surviving eye witness to the Wounded Knee Massacre, as well as Little Big Horn and other important battles of his time. Most importantly, history is usually written by the victors. Yet, we have Black Elk's story. Read it with awe and with reverence.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
516 reviews233 followers
May 15, 2020
John Neihardt's classic is a problematic read to be sure. On the one hand, Neihardt was a sympathetic interlocutor who elicited a fascinating account from an extraordinary man who lived through several major episodes in late-19th-century history. On the other hand, his poetic pretensions led him to rearrange and dress up that testimony, adorning it with his own mediocre neo-Romantic insight, and altogether distorting the historical and cultural record.

Readers of Black Elk Speaks may be surprised to look up key episodes in the volume in the raw transcripts of their conversations, only to find that they were entirely invented by Neihardt.

Now, on the one hand, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Neihardt, who worked very hard in order to preserve and present a document of great power and importance. He was writing at a time when it was still widely believed that the Lakota were a "primitive people," "savage," and "uncivilized," and he labored to find an audience for their experience, with considerable success in the long run.

That may explain his transformation of the plain-spoken style of the transcript into a somewhat maudlin kind of free verse, seeming to my eyes to be modeled after Goethe's "Sorrows of Young Werther" or the American transcendentalists.

But it does not excuse some of Neihardt's wholesale inventions - especially his deep distortions of Black Elk's "Great Vision," which altogether inverted the sense and meaning of the experience, coercing it into a frame that Neihardt apparently found more congenial to his sentiments.

I wrote at length about this particular problem on my blog, here:

The testimony itself is wondrous and invaluable, and I refer the interested reader to DeMallie's "The Sixth Grandfather" instead of "Black Elk Speaks." "The Sixth Grandfather" consists of the annotated publication of the transcripts of Black Elk's conversations with Neihardt, and presents his perspective in a much more accurate way.

Update: I would now assert with confidence that Neihardt's actual source for Black Elk's supposed "cosmic vision" was Cicero. From his "Dream of Scipio":

"See! the universe is linked together in nine circles or rather spheres; one of which is that of the heavens, the outermost of all, which embraces all the other spheres, the supreme deity, which keeps in and holds together all the others; and to this are attached those everlasting orbits of the stars. "
Profile Image for Christy.
113 reviews275 followers
February 8, 2017
I read this years ago when I first started teaching an undergraduate "global ethics" class, and knew it was the likely the best source of Lakota (American Plains Indian tribe) philosophy and worldview. Black Elk believed that humans would not be Good if they weren't connected to each other and to the universe. Unless we knew and practiced a "oneness of humanity" (to borrow a phrase from the Baha'i' faith - a group that once gave me an award for anti-racism work in schools!) the world would more quickly be split apart and atrophy instead of gaining some strength from togetherness, including a understanding of what we should do to honor and save the earth, including each other. Black Elk was horrified at the White Man's (sic) love for things, and using people, instead of using things and loving people (to paraphrase an old saying, but it's what he essentially said, too!)

I highly recommend visiting my state of Wyoming to see the Little Big Horn battlesight and museum near the Montana border to consider what Black Elk witnessed as a young man, later moving to Wounded Knee and seeing the slaughter of Native peoples by the US calvary there. He converted to Christianity, as did Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, and other great American Indian chiefs, that I always assumed was a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

I should mention that while the Lakota and some other tribes were known for its nature worship, not all native tribes in the US had such reverence for nature and care of "Mother Earth" as others, although that is a stereotype about Native beliefs (of course, full of differences that are hallmark across any group of complicated human culture!) I did like the Lakota claim, even though certainly "new Age-y", that we are psychologically and emotionally most healthy if we at least a few minutes a day connected with the earth - walking on paths or on the beach, etc..
Profile Image for L.G. Cullens.
Author 2 books75 followers
October 25, 2020
Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition by John G. Neihardt

Black Elk Speaks is arguably the single most widely read book in the literature relating to North American Native history. To better understand ourselves, it is a book that everyone with a modicum of conscience should read. It is also a treasure trove for research.

I'm at the point in life where there is little else to linger for save yesterday. This book took me there in spades.

"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

This is a story from the perspective of indigenous beliefs, born of how they perceived the natural world they had an intimate relationship with. A people with deep respect for the unknowable, that knew well the brightness and darkness inherent in the psyche of all life forms, and that understood the connectedness of all life. That in sharp contrast to so-called civilized peoples that plunder our little blue canoe, blindly driving nails in humankind's coffin.

“A savage is not the one who lives in the forest but the one who destroys it.” ~ unknown

Uppermost though, it is the story of a people that were self-sacrificing for the good of all, that only wanted to live with Nature as they always had, even on what little was left them in treaties. The obstacles were overwhelming though, with the greed of the weedy materialistic culture wanting all there was, and having no respect for the natural world. It is an age old story of avarice and genocide, this genocide the greatest by far in humankind's history [see Genocide of indigenous peoples, and Genocides in history articles on Wikipedia], estimated at upwards of ninety percent of the Indigenous population. According to geographers from University College London, the colonization of the Americas by Europeans killed so many people it resulted in climate change and global cooling.

And yes, in the telling there is much bloodshed and many died, because the colonialists' materialistic culture was relentless in taking all they lusted for irregardless of treaties. How could there be any saving grace in what was done to Native Americans, with the colonialists employing massacres of women and children, biological warfare (intentionally spreading the infectious diseases they brought with them), starvation (the last survivors of the northern buffalo herds were killed off in 1881), slavery, and ethnocide (e.g. the resident school system). One abhorrent example of the massacres, is in a latter chapter where Black Elk recounts what he saw first hand at Wounded Knee.

"Wherever we went, the soldiers came to kill us, and it was all our own country. It was ours already when the Wasichus [white people] made the treaty with Red Cloud, that said it would be ours as long as grass should grow and water flow." ~ Black Elk

“Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side.” ~ George Orwell

Notice in Black Elk's recounting that these peoples' rituals commonly included an element of giving to those that had the least. For example, in one instance in preparing for a ceremony a holy man would find a holy tree for the dance, and a warrior would strike the tree counting coup upon it. Then the warrior would give gifts to those who were most needy, and the braver he had been the more he gave away.

This in contrast to what Black Elk observed later in the story when visiting major cities.

"I could see that the Wasichus did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation’s hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could use, while crowds of people had nothing at all and maybe were starving. They had forgotten that the earth was their mother. This could not be better than the old ways of my people." ~ Black Elk

Hmm, sounds familiar.

Black Elk's concept of community was as different as day and night.

"The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World." ~ Black Elk

Be aware in reading this book that what is conveyed is in part through metaphors and mystical symbolism in the ways the ancient ones enhanced the vividness of a telling. One example in Black Elk's vision is when he speaks of the fourth Grandfather, "he of the place where you are always facing (the south), whence comes the power to grow." The first association is that in numerous Native American beliefs, after death the soul travels south along the Milky Way. Thus, throughout life one is always facing south. The second association is of the power to grow. Restated in modern terms, the power is that of the natural world's closed loop system of life fueled by life, recycling the essential elements of physical being for a continuum of life.

Other examples include the circle (hoop), which not only symbolizes life's cyclical journey, but also represents a way of life in interacting with each other in a circular fashion to negate power struggles. The number four also has special significance, as in the elements of Earth, fire, air, and water; the seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall; and the primary directions of North, South, East, and West. Symbols can also be used in combination, such as a circle divided into quarters with four arrows signifying wisdom, innocence, foresight, and soul-searching.

The perspicacious reader will find more inclusive relevance in what Black Elk says, as parallels abound in the broader community and history of humankind. Something to think about is the circular aspect of life, where 'what goes around comes around.'
Profile Image for Amy.
12 reviews1 follower
February 12, 2009
Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you --- the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the wings of the air and all green things that live. You have set the powers of the four quarters to cross each other. The good road and the road of difficulties you have made to cross; and where they cross the place is holy. Day in and day out, forever, you are the life of things.

Therefore I am sending a voice Great Spirit, my Grandfather, forgetting nothing you have made, the stars of the universe and the grasses of the earth.

You have said to me, when I was still young and could hope, that in difficulty I should send a voice four times, once for each quarter of the earth, and you would hear me.

Today I send a voice for a people in despair.

You have given me a sacred pipe, and through this I should make my offering. You see it now.

From the west you have given me the cup of living water and the sacred bow, the power to make life and to destroy. You have given me a sacred wind and and an herb from where the white giant lives --- the cleansing power and the healing. The daybreak star and the pipe, you have given from the east; and from the south, the nation's sacred hoop and the tree that was to bloom. To the centre of the world you have taken me and showed the goodness and the beauty and the strangeness of the greening earth, the only mother --- and there the spirit shapes of things, as they should be, you have shown to me and I have seen. At the centre of this sacred hoop you have said that I should make the tree to bloom.

With tears running, O Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, with tears running I must say now that the tree has never bloomed. A pitiful old man, you see me here, and I have fallen away and have done nothing. Here at the centre of the world, where you took me when I was young and taught me; here, old, I stand, and the tree is withered, Grandfather, my Grandfather!

Again, and maybe the last time on this earth, I recall the great vision you sent me. It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds. Hear me, but not for myself, but for my people; I am old. Hear me that they may once more go back to the sacred hoop and find the good red road, the shielding tree!

In sorrow I am sending a feeble voice, O Six Powers of the World. Hear me in my sorrow, for I may never call again. O mkae my people live!" -Black Elk, at Harney Peak, SD
Profile Image for Paul.
89 reviews6 followers
July 14, 2012
I read an edition of this book which lists where the contents of Black Elk's telling of this portion of his life was greatly enhanced emotionally and symbolically by Neihardt. Were I not aware of these changes until after reading it, I would feel cheated and as though this book were a fake. Despite these added notes, however, the book is still fantastic, most of the perversion of the text being whiny, emotional additions and romantic lamentations Neihardt adds in his cultural guilt and ethical fervor. The inside view offered by this book is intense and beautiful. There is a wealth of scholarly work around it, grappling with the problem of whether its portrayal does justice to Black Elk because he converted to Catholicism after being confined to the reservation. Some argue he converted out of necessity for the future of himself and his children, while some argue he had a true, significant conversion experience. One writer, Stalkenkamp, gave one of those creepy, overly detailed catholic-style conversion stories, where the clothes everyone wore, etc., are listed in impossible detail for affect and ultimate "accuracy." Some are focused more on Neihardt and his inculcation of western notions of success, time, etc. into the book. Either way (and the scholarship is useful, ultimately) I really enjoyed the book and think it is extremely useful and valuable as a source to look into Native American Indian Culture.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,682 reviews636 followers
January 18, 2022
Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux is a fascinating piece of history. It is the life story of a Native American holy man named Black Elk, as told in 1931 to a Nebraskan poet. Black Elk recounts his youth during the mid-19th century, when battles and massacres drove the Sioux and other tribes into smaller and smaller areas of land. Treaties made with the American government were repeatedly broken by settlers so that land could be exploited for gold or other resources. It is thus a sad story of how the Native American way of life was brutally repressed, while also providing insight into religious and social activities before and during this repression. Black Elk explains in detail the visions he had of his people's recovery. It is this aspect that the edition I read focuses on in the blurb and introduction. It did not surprise me to learn that the book was popular in the 1960s, when indigenous spirituality was of particular interest. As a rather prosaic reader, I was most interested in it as history, in particular of how Black Elk and his people interacted with their environment. I hadn't read an account of the mid-19th century told from a Native American perspective before, and it makes a striking contrast to the narrative of economic growth and technological change that dominates histories of this period. A striking and readable autobiographical narrative.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,766 reviews133 followers
November 7, 2020
Fantastic! Amazing! Historical! Educational!

"Black Elk Speaks" by John Neihardt is the famous Black Elk's personal history starting from his youth. I enjoyed every word of this read.

Neihardt tells the story of the world renowned Black Elk, an Indian. Black Elk spoke in Lakota and Black Elk's son, Ben Black Elk, who help translate his father's words into English.

Black Elk born in December 1863, (Hehaka Sapa & Nicholas Black Elk) was a famous holy man, healer, and visionary of the Oglala Lakota of the northern Great Plains.

The one of a kind experience book includes Black Elk's overall development as a leader, including giving detailed descriptions of battles he fought. You will recognize some places and people like Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull as well as, other great leaders.

Of great interest is Black Elk's famous vision, where he rides a horse then discovers a blue man in a flaming river. White troops, red troops, and yellow troops try to charge the blue man, and are beaten. Black Elk succeeds in killing him, and knows that he has taken the form of rain and killed drought.

Much of the language and verbiage by Black Elk is poetic as he tenderly describes the land, his people and the pain of betrayal by the US Government. The treatise clearly explains the ways of the Lakota: “..humans are an integral part of the natural world “ makes this book a theological expose’.

This book was valuable to my understanding of local Indian tribes. I live in Nebraska, the home of the Lakota. I have incredible respect for them. Last year, we visited the Black Hills and there began my learning of the plight of our Native Americans.

I recommend this book as high as any book I ever reviewed
Profile Image for Mary.
820 reviews15 followers
April 2, 2021
Black Elk Speaks is a timeless classic. John Neihardt, longtime poet laureate of Nebraska, met with Black Elk, and through a translator recorded the story of Black Elk’s youth, development into a young warrior, and his visions.

Black Elk lived in interesting times. He was a cousin of Crazy Horse, the renowned Native American Warrior, and he recounts Crazy Horse’s death at the hands of a Calvary officer. During Black Elk’s youth, he travel with the tribe as they followed seasonal changes and hunted the Buffalo.

At the age of 9, he had his first vision of the power of the natural forces of nature from the four directions and saw the afterlife of his people. This vision changed his life. He felt duty bound to help his people and became a healer. Throughout his life, nature often brought him warnings of events on the immediate horizon.

For a couple of years, he traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and entertained even in Europe performing Native dances in Native attire. He grew home sick and returned to his people only to learn that the US Government was taking more and more land through treaty and forced sale. He survived the massacre at Wounded Knee and became sadly resigned to his broken nation consigned to living on reservations.

The crimes of the white government and the settlers against Native Americans in terms of broken promises and a unfulfilled treaties loom large in this work. The violence used by the army to relegate the tribes to reservations is inexcusable and a stain in our nation’s history.

Black Elk Speaks preserves some of the history and culture of his people. This edition is particularly excellent because footnotes alert readers to additions to the text made by Neihardt, and the appendices contain valuable information to further the reader’s understanding of this period in American History.

Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 6 books205 followers
January 28, 2016
An abridged cd with a magnificent reading by Fred Contreras. The other day as I went to a car repair appointment, I arrived all misty-eyed and runny-nosed. Very sad story. Black Elk speaks of the creatures with roots, legs, and wings. I add the creatures that crawl and swim. And any other creatures that are left out. I hope to read the full unabridged version in book form some day so I can copy down a few quotes.

Riding home from my appointment, I noticed the melting snow. The seven-day forecast was all temperatures over 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Monday, February 1, was predicted to have a high of 49 degrees. Winter didn't even start until January. Winters are getting shorter every year. And I live in Central New Hampshire. This is what we have done to this planet and continue to do. Yet ignorance and supernaturalism reign. Haters inspire people around the world. Or they turn to some sort of spiritual world. The difficult work of protecting the planet is often forgotten. Rest in peace, Black Elk. You would not want to witness this.
Profile Image for Kurt.
563 reviews54 followers
October 26, 2020
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am an avid reader of Native American historical non-fiction. Over the years and throughout many of the books I have read, I have come across references to Black Elk. He was not a major player in the pivotal events that resulted in the devastation of his people's (the Lakota's) lives and culture, but he was a witness to so much of it. Most importantly, he willingly opened up and shared his story with the author of this book who sought out his story.

Hearing the Lakota side of the stories of their battles with the U.S. to hold on to the land and to maintain the culture that they loved so much was so eye-opening and personal to me. My heart aches for the victims of this American holocaust.

After relating his personal experiences during the massacre at Wounded Knee, Black Elk unloads the sorrows of his heart in these tearful words:
And so it was over.

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. 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 the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
Profile Image for Marielle.
Author 7 books10 followers
June 26, 2011
I read the Premier Edition, which is wonderfully annotated with historical references and clarifications on the interpretations and additions that are Neihardt's and not in the transcripts of Black Elk's words. I have had this on my "to read" list for years — everything in its time. I read this while in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Black Elk's homeland. It seemed especially powerful to read it in the very hills where he lived and walked, had visions, dreams, and went about the work of a holy man and medicine man for his people. When the thunder storms rolled in almost daily, I heard, saw and felt the storms differently than before: with Black Elk's wisdom, I understood them as "thunder beings" — living energy, so real to the Lakota holy man because of his vision, that during the winter when there were no thunder storms, he missed and longed for his friends, the thunder beings.

In the Black Hills, with the buffalo reestablished and roaming freely, and saw and felt their power and energy in a way brought alive by Black Elk's reverence for these mighty creatures too.

The hills were brought alive by Black Elk's words, and it was the right time and place to read and absorb this spiritual classic. A terrible beauty was wrought here and captured in Black Elk's words.
Profile Image for Sophfronia Scott.
Author 13 books310 followers
July 16, 2016
I had the tremendous experience of reading this important work while staying in the Black Hills of South Dakota and visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation, both areas described in detail. I also met Black Elk's granddaughter Betty, a noble and kind-hearted woman who welcomes hungry travelers daily for a home-cooked meal in the small restaurant she runs out of her house on the reservation. She told me how her grandfather dictated the book on the property and where he sat under the trees with John Neihardt. I know I was transformed both by the experience of walking the Lakotas' sacred lands and of reading this book. I hope to write more as I process it over time.
Profile Image for C.g. Ayling.
Author 3 books840 followers
April 15, 2014
“History is written by the victors, not by the vanquished.”

Rarely do we have an opportunity to view history from the perspective of the vanquished. “Black Elks Speaks”, by John Neihardt, gives us another window through which we may look at the past. Neihardt’s window shows us a completely different view of history. A view in which honor and dignity belongs not to the victors, but to the vanquished.

“Black Elk Speaks” grants a Lakota medicine man named Black Elk a voice, and every reader an opportunity to revisit the past. Be warned that this is not a pretty past, it is a troubled one, but one from which each of us can learn a great deal.

Black Elk has a powerful voice, and Neihardt’s work lets us hear it. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the rustling of the winds, you’ll see the symbols he sees, and you’ll understand that deep down, Black Elk was simply a human – just like you or I.

Black Elk, was one of the vanquished. As a youth, he survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Fourteen years later, in 1890, he managed to escape death at the Wounded Knee Massacre. Neihardt’s work is presented as a narration of Black Elk’s words, it includes but is not limited to these incidents.

I have long held that there are two sides to truth. “Black Elk Speaks” is the other side of the truth Americans generally see. Through Neihardt’s lens the glorious past does not look as glorious, it looks downright shameful.
What is “Black Elk Speaks”?

It is not some fanciful romanticized Cowboys and Indians tale of the sort on which I was raised. It is another version of the truth, one in which an honorable, dignified, and ancient culture were systematically cheated, misled, murdered, and ultimately destroyed in the name of western progress.

It is a powerful revelation of how misuse and abuse of power inevitably results in tragedy. It is a tale of rampant greed allowed to go entirely unchecked. It is a tale of a government spurring its people on, allowing them to ride roughshod over those who get in the way of their vision of progress. It is a tale of symbolism misunderstood. It is a tale of tragedy.

Is “Black Elk Speaks” a fun read? Absolutely not. It disturbed me deeply to learn that, in regard to US History, I had never been told the whole truth. Equally disturbing is the realization that came with this knowledge, that many of the supposed truths I had accepted were so badly biased toward one side that they amounted to outright lies.

Why read something that isn’t enjoyable? Where do you derive enjoyment and satisfaction, from learning, or from being blissfully unaware?

If we can’t learn from the past, then we should hold no hope for the future. Black Elk Speaks grants us a glimpse of a past in which many mistakes were made. It really is a learning opportunity for the future.

“Black Elk Speaks” is not a “story” or a “tale”, it is another peoples’ truth.

If you're interested, you may find my further thoughts on “Black Elk Speaks” on my blog, located on the web at cgayling.com
Profile Image for Giulia.
398 reviews177 followers
December 15, 2016

Ho ritrovato questo libro tra quelli delle elementari. Ammetto fosse una lettura insolita, ma sono certa che nell’anno in cui la maestra ce lo impose, le madri ne avranno parlato tra loro nei circoli di golf, e allora avranno pensato fosse molto chic per noi leggerlo. Peccato che non l’avessimo mai finito, ho ritrovato il segnalibro a metà. E peccato, che non ne avessi capito una mazza, di sicuro. A distanza di tempo mi son ripromessa di leggerlo di nuovo, e l’ho preso ora per puro caso, per questa sfida. Ne ho capito di più d’allora? Sicuramente, ma ha i suoi lati positivi e quelli negativi. Partendo dagli ultimi posso dire che le “visioni”, siano esse buddiste, islamiche, di chiunque, o sioux in questo caso, mi fanno venire l’orticaria. Alce Nero si ammala gravemente da bambino, e sostiene di aver avuto una visione in quei 12 giorni di malattia. E come ogni visione è un trip allucinogeno, con tanti numeri e animali, che per capirne la simbologia devi essere drogato immagino. Ok, sono scettica, credo che fosse il sogno di un bambino e nulla più, credo le suggestioni siano molto potenti in tutti. Quello che veramente mi è piaciuto del racconto, è l’insieme di memorie che raccontano il periodo storico. Di come i bianchi alla ricerca dell’oro abbiano invaso le loro terre, delle battaglie e della vita di tutti i giorni. E mi son resa conto che c’era molta crudeltà da entrambe le parti, seppure per motivi diversi. Gli indiani vivevano di fatto come selvaggi, facendosi anche a pezzi fra loro per la ruberia di un cavallo. Questo non li pone al di sopra o al di sotto dei bianchi, ed esula da ogni giudizio. Il bello della lettura, è proprio vedere, anzi sentirsi raccontare, com’è stata la vita per un uomo molto diverso da noi. Lettura fortemente consigliata!
Profile Image for Kat.
78 reviews12 followers
March 22, 2008
I'm trained to be suspicious of stories like this: an old Lakota shaman decides to tell all about his previously secret visions to a white poet so he can write them in English and publish them. ??! But a shallow-digging internet search does not turn up anything suggesting against this, so okay.

So, okay. Black Elk fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn AND the Wounded Knee Massacre, AND travelled to Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, AND he was a powerful shaman who was taken on numerous spirit journeys. This book is a memoir of the first thirtyish years of his life, not-so-ghostwritten by John Neihardt, a white Nebraskan poet. (Earlier editions list Neihardt as the sole author, while later editions list Black Elk or both of them.)

The story is amazing, obviously, and the language (however accurate) is beautiful. The parts that really push it over the edge for me are the passages when Black Elk speaks about his heartbreak over the sense that he failed to live up to his calling as a savior of his people--the way his intensely personal spiritual experiences are completely inseparable from his historical understanding and lived experiences of famous events. I don't think I've encountered another work that has so grounded and humanized historical events for me.
Profile Image for ℒ.
11 reviews1 follower
June 13, 2013

I don't exactly know how to 'star' this book, so I won't.

All of the metaphorical + verbal clichés used relative to the time period this was written in are extremely annoying to read repeatedly & makes this feel even more inauthentic & embellished than I already know it is.
A Native American man who could not speak English would not be speaking in these clichés that were completely foreign to him & his culture. Not only is this annoying to me, it is offensive. Even though Black Elk's words + ideas were filtered through a translator I think more care should have been taken to not make him sound so 'white' / European, when this is already an obviously sensitive issue. I did love reading about his visions, especially the Thunder Beings. Although I do not think for one minute that I'm getting the purest rendering of them or other 'history' throughout the book.

But, at the same time, this was also magically surreal to read, because I unknowingly (at first), during my reading of this had been sharing some words with Black Elk's great-great-grandson, a very successful actor (ect.), who just happens to play the part of a Medicine / Holy man in one of my very favourite parts of my favourite movie of all time... 'Dreamkeeper'. Always with the beautifully strange & dreamlike timing in my life.
Profile Image for Zanda.
179 reviews1 follower
February 29, 2020
Šī grāmata ir par Ziemeļamerikas indiāņu tautas nežēlīgas iznīcināšanas aculiecinieku stāstījumu par tautai liktenīgiem notikumiem 19.gs. otrajā pusē.
Bet es tomēr nevaru neskatīt šo tēmu kontekstā ar indiāņu tautas unikālo vēsturi.
Indiāņi ir vienīgā pašlaik dzīvojošā tauta, kura ir pieredzējusi Mu kontinenta sadalīšanos pašlaik esošajos kontinentos, kurai ir atlantīdiešu zināšanas un galvenais - atmiņa par to visu.
Sākotnēji indiāņi tika radīti kā ļoti enerģētiski spējīga un jaudīga tauta, viņi sadarbojās ar stihijām, perfekti pārzināja stihiju valodas kā gari runā, viņi mācēja runāt vēja valodā, zemes valodā utml.
Kad no Zemes tika noņemta 4.rase, indiāņiem tika dota iespēja ar šīm zināšanām turpināt būt - tad 25% ar lielāku turpmākās attīstības potenciālu devās uz Dienvidameriku, bet pārejie 75% - uz Ziemeļameriku. Nebija paredzēts, ka šīs zemes iekaros un ar indiāņiem sajauksies/ tās iznīcinās nākamā 5.rase, t.i., mēs, ārieši.
Līdz ar indiāņiem vēl tikai ēģiptieši ir pēcatlantīdiešu rase, bet ēģiptiešiem tika atņemtas zināšanas un atstāta jauda, savukārt indiāņiem tika atstātas zināšanas, bet atņemta jauda.
Kā 4.rasei raksturīgais - indiāņi vienīgie šobrīd nav ar verga imprintu/programmu un arī vienīgā tauta, kurai nav alkohola sašķelšanās gēna - viņi pat no vienas glāzes neatiet un, kas ar to aizraujas, ir norakstīti cilvēki.
Diemžēl laika gaitā indiāņi ir pakāpeniski kļuvuši par ļoti izkropļotu tautu un vispār nevar salīdzināt ar tās sākotnējo potenciālu.
Arī šajā grāmatā ir faktu materiāls par to, piemēram, viņi karo pat savā starpā, nogalina, rituālos upurē dzīvniekus, necienīgi izturas pret ienaidnieka līķiem - noskalpē, savāc apģērbu...
"Es lūkojos atpakaļ pagātnē un atsaucu atmiņā savas tautas seno dzīvesveidu, bet vairums vairs nedzīvoja tā kā agrāk. Viņi bija uzsākuši iet pa melno ceļu, katrs pats par sevi, ievērojot tikai nedaudzus savus likumus" (194.lp.)
"Es redzēju, ka baltie cits par citu nerūpējās tā, kā darīja mūsu cilvēki, pirms tika izpostīts cilts aplis. Viņi atņēma cits citam visu, ja vien varēja, un tādēļ starp viņiem bija tādi, kuriem bija ļoti daudz visa kā - vairāk, nekā tie varēja izmantot, kamēr ļaužu pūļiem nebija vispār nekā, un tie varbūt cieta badu. Viņi bija aizmirsuši, ka zeme ir viņu māte. Tā dzīvot nebija labāk par to, kā mēs dzīvojām senāk." (195.lp).
Lasot šo grāmatu, kurā hronoloģiski tiek aprakstīta lakotu (un citu cilšu) sastapšanās ar baltajiem cilvēkiem, pēc tam jau apzināšanās, ka tavas zemes vairs pēkšņi nav tavas zemes un tava brīvība nu jau ir apdraudēta, kad sākas nebeidzami klejojumi uz mierīgākiem nostūrīšiem, bet beigās tava brīvā tauta tiek galīgi salauzta - arī ņemot vērā uzkrātos tautas potenciāla izkropļojumus un pašlaik tik bēdīgo situāciju, es atdodu visu cieņu tai sākotnēji radītajai indiāņu tautai, kas dzīvoja pilnīgā un vienotā saskaņā ar dabu un Zemi.
Profile Image for Stacia.
834 reviews103 followers
February 25, 2023
I am glad Black Elk's history is preserved in a form I can read. While parts are beautiful, ultimately, it is a sad and depressing book. Vibrant, thriving groups decimated within a lifetime. Sometimes real life is worse than a dystopian hellscape.
Profile Image for Liz.
43 reviews
January 5, 2011
At first glance, this is an interesting book, though personally not particularly my favorite topic. But if you look further into the book, there are just too many discrepancies between Black Elk's life and the story that is written. In writing a life-history it is very important to take into consideration the producer (Neihardt) and the process, in order to understand the product. Neihardt sought Black Elk because Neihardt was writing an epic poem, and he needed to talk to an old spiritual leader that was alive during the Battle of the Little Horn and the Massacre of Wounded Knee, and who danced in the Ghost Dances. He had no interest in creating a life-history, that developed after the first meeting. They had a good relationship, but it was obvious they each had their own intentions, which were not the same. Neihardt wrote this "life-history" of Black Elk only up to the Massacre of Wounded Knee...but that was hardly the end of Black Elk's life. Neihardt poetically alters the wording so that Black Elk is perceived as this guilt-ridden "pitiful old man," who regrets his inability to fulfill his vision of saving his nation, but in reality, he is only 28, and only one part of his life is revealed, which is decided by Neihardt. Black Elk converted to Christianity, became Nicholas Black Elk, and became a very influential catechist...but this entire part was left out. Some argue Black Elk converted out of necessity, but it seems that he full heartedly embraced the spirituality of Christianity, and found many similarities between Christianity and Lakota religion. Neihardt might have had good intentions, but I believe his own reasons behind writing this life-history overshadow the life-history itself, and therefore is wrongfully denoted as Black Elk's life history. I would recommend reading DeMallie's The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt in follow-up to Black Elk Speaks.
Profile Image for Alarie.
Author 14 books77 followers
July 3, 2016
This book has been on my wish list for several years. I finally checked it out of the library. I’ve long been fascinated by the metaphor, imagery, and poetry of Native American myth and legend. That’s why I wanted to read this book, but I also believe we Americans have a responsibility to honor and listen to the heritage of the people we exterminated. History is reported through the eyes of the victors, who discount the cost to the other side.

This is obviously a brutal, violent, and grim story. Black Elk fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn when he was only 14. In his late 20s, he witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee. He saw his people robbed not only of their land, but of their horses, guns, mobility, customs, and way of life. Despite that, when he gave these interviews in his late 60s, he was able to read people for what was in their hearts. Instead of being bitter toward all white men (the fork-tongued, who didn’t honor their treaties), he acknowledged all those who had done him good or impressed him. This included Queen Victoria, priests, Wild Bill Hicok, and the author, Neihardt, who was Poet Laureate of Nebraska at one time.

Black Elk was a warrior by necessity, but his main role within his tribe, the Ogala Lakota, was as a visionary, medicine man, and leader. For this reason, the book is nicely balanced: the beauty of his visions and ceremonies, his fondness for family, and the tribe’s respect for nature to offset some of the hard-to-stomach history. I especially loved that the 19th c. Lakota called Canada "Grandmother’s Land,” for Queen Victoria, whom he shook hands with in London. Another detail that touched me was Black Elk's sorrow at being forced to live in square houses. His people lived in round tepees, not only to be mobile, but because circles hold power and life (like round wombs, the sun and moon).

Profile Image for Adam.
197 reviews4 followers
July 18, 2021
I had the privilege of listening to this audiobook while driving through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. It’s a truly unique work of memoir and ethnology. Not only do we hear straight from the horses mouth the tragic story of the destruction of the Sioux way of life (as retold 40 years later in Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”), we are also privy to the coming of age of a great healer and spiritual leader. And there are cameos by Buffalo Bill and Queen Victoria. In this time of of cataclysmic environmental upheaval, it’s sobering and sad to hear an earlier more spiritual point of view.
Profile Image for John.
27 reviews1 follower
August 12, 2012
This is the story of the life of the Oglala Sioux holy man and the ways, culture and late 19th century history of his and surrounding Native American tribes. This was told by Black Elk himself to the author. Black Elk had a vision as a young boy while very sick that influenced him throughout his life. The book’s descriptions of his unfolding interpretation of this vision and his experience of the difficult events marking the history of the USA’s relationship with native Americans provides insights into the social norms, religious beliefs and philosophical and psychological understandings of the plains Indian tribes—not to mention a native American’s first-person perspective of the actions of the US during this time.

I would like to read this book again to more deliberately look at Black Elk’s various visions (he had more than one) through psychological and archetype-mystical lenses. It is easy to see how psychological pain experienced by someone living while his people and culture’s way of life is destroyed could produce such affect resulting in visions of the types that Black Elk had that were characterized on one hand by ominous forebodings and on the other by glimpses of a promised land.
Although harder for our scientific western culture to fathom, it is also possible to see these visions as visions, experienced by a person who was open to them by either illness or ability.

Either way, whether such visions were ego-based & psychologically driven or visions in the mystical, spiritual sense—Black Elk’s descriptions of how he progressively came to understand them and use them, their imagery and associated feelings to guide his life paints a picture of a culture very different and more mystical in nature than ours.

We often make comments in our culture along the lines of, “when I quit looking for X, X just naturally showed up” or, “when I quit trying so hard for X, X just fell right into my lap.” Or “Everything happens for a reason”. Such comments generally imply that there is a natural order to things and point in the direction of a belief that when one makes an effort to be balanced there is an attunement with “the universe” that increases the probability of good things happening. So while on the surface, Black Elk’s explicitly conscious effort to guide his life by these visions may seem particularly strange to us, it is clear that we do harbor at least some similar conventions of faith and belief.

Given the stories surrounding Black Elk’s life, one can wonder if such attunement were possible, could there be competencies involved? While one perhaps could not change the course of history, is it possible that one could at least influence events for the benefit of one’s family and friends—as it appears Black Elk did—if one explicitly attempts to order one’s life in an “attuned” way?
Profile Image for karlito delacasa.
24 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2011
"Vous avez remarqué que toute chose faite par un indien est dans un cercle. Nos tipis étaient ronds comme des nids d'oiseaux et toujours disposés en cercle. Il en est ainsi parce que le pouvoir de l'Univers agit selon des cercles et que toute chose tend à être ronde. Dans l'ancien temps, lorsque nous étions un peuple fort et heureux, tout notre pouvoir venait du cercle sacré de la nation, et tant qu'il ne fut pas brisé.

Tout ce que fait le pouvoir de l'Univers se fait dans un cercle. Le ciel est rond et j'ai entendu dire que la terre est ronde comme une balle et que toutes les étoiles le sont aussi. Les oiseaux font leur nid en cercle parce qu'ils ont la même religion que nous. Le soleil s'élève et redescend dans un cercle, la lune fait de même, et tous deux sont rond.

Même les saisons forment un grand cercle dans leur changements et reviennent toujours là où elles étaient. La vie de l'homme est dans un cercle de l'enfance jusqu'à l'enfance, et ainsi en est-il pour chaque chose où l'énergie se meut."

"Les Wasichus nous ont mis dans ces boites carrées (maisons), notre pouvoir s'en est allé et nous allons mourir parce que le pouvoir n'est plus en nous.
Nous sommes des prisonniers de guerre tant que nous attendons ici. Mais il y a un autre monde."

Hehaka Sapa, ou Black Elk, indien Oglala, branche des Dakotas (Sioux)
Profile Image for Carolyn.
12 reviews
July 8, 2011
This expands my knowledge of the Native American culture. Black Elk's vision of the sacred tree and the hoop tend to go along with some of my thoughts. However his vision was from a very masculine perspective and had only little reference to the feminine aspects. Black Elk lived in the time of the battle of The Little Big Horn and the slaughter at Wounded Knee. He went to Europe with Buffalo Bill and met Queen Victoria. His experiences with the Ghost Dance were intriguing. The fact that he ended his life as a Catholic also interest me. Somehow he combined the spirituality of both. I wonder how he did this. This book encourages me to read more about the Ghost Dance and learn about the Messiah that came to the Native Americans. Is it possible that they were visited by Jesus and misinterpreted the vision he showed them? Did they look for a worldly or secular savior instead of a spiritual one? They expected to be protected by bullets but were not. More to study and think about.
Profile Image for Gail.
22 reviews5 followers
August 6, 2013
What a powerful story. Black Elk agreed to interviews with the author, and revealed for the first time a series of visions he had while ill as a 9-year-old child. He carried the weight of the visions for the remainder of his life, and continued to experience visions for most of his adult life. Black Elk describes, with help from some old friends present during some of the interviews, the coming of white settlers to the land held by native Americans, the selling out of some tribal leaders and the consequent herding of the majority of Indian tribes into what he calls 'islands' and being ambushed and killed en masse. It is a shocking story, and he and his friends describe the battles with white soldiers. Black Elk and some other native Americans agreed to go to Europe for awhile to be in shows staged by some promoter. Black Elk went thinking he would learn something about whites that would help him save his people, but was really exploited and--apparently--lucky to ever get back home. This is a riveting story.
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