Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition

By John G. Neihardt | Go to book overview

APPENDIX 7
John G. Neihardt beyond Black Elk

Alexis N. Petri

Readers of John G. Neihardt may know this story. Certainly it is recorded in numerous places but it seems fitting to begin here, in the summer of 1930, with a long, dusty trip in a 1920s-model automobile from Branson, Missouri, to Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Neihardt—poet, writer, and literary critic—and his son Sigurd were speaking and performing on a lecture circuit and decided to make a detour to do some research. For the past eighteen years, Neihardt had been working on an epic poem called A Cycle of the West (1949), of which Song of the Messiah (1935) would become its fifth and final song. He wanted to meet and become acquainted with a Sioux holy man who was reputed to have participated in or had firsthand knowledge of the Ghost Dance, a Messianic movement at the end of the nineteenth century that expressed the longing of Native Americans to return to a life free from the hunger, epidemic disease, and divisiveness experienced under their subjugation by the U.S. government. He hoped to collect material for Messiah, but what he most desired to learn was holy. As a white man, becoming privileged to this knowledge was unlikely

From previous research, Neihardt was acquainted with W B. Courtright, a field agent at the Pine Ridge Agency, and so he began his inquiries there. Courtright told him about an old Sioux holy man named Black Elk, who might have participated in the Ghost Dance movement and who lived close by in Manderson. Because Black Elk did not speak English, Neihardt made arrangements for Flying Hawk, an interpreter, to join them. This was not Flying Hawk’s first trip to take a writer to interview Black Elk, and on the road to Manderson, Neihardt listened to Flying Hawk’s caution that Black Elk might not talk to them. In addition to being a holy man, Black Elk was also second cousin to Crazy Horse and had known the great warrior well. Despite Flying Hawk’s counsel Neihardt pressed on in hopes of having the opportunity to talk to someone who would be able to discuss the deeper spiritual significance of the Messianic movement. As soon as the

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