The Conversion Experience in America: A Sourcebook on Religious Conversion Autobiography

By James Craig Holte | Go to book overview
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story, "No one is able to understand the Indian race like an Indian." They also represent a diverse and complex literary genre, one that obliges us to consider the nature of autobiographical expression in traditional Indian cultures, the role of outside white influence in the recording of personal experience, and the ultimate aesthetic as well as documentary value of the work. (p. 67)

Several important considerations remain for the student of Black Elk Speaks. First, Black Elk's life is filtered through the consciousness of John Neihardt, and even the most faithful recorder alters the information he transcribes. Although the words are those of Black Elk, does the structure of the narrative, emphasizing the loss of innocence and the deterioration of the environment because of the onslaught of the white man, belong to Black Elk, or has it been imposed by Neihardt? In addition, as William Bloodworth has noted in "Varieties of American Indian Autobiography," Black Elk converted to Catholicism before his meeting with Neihardt, and his recollections of both his visions and his life may be colored by Christian theology or New Testament apocalyptic thought. Does some of the imagery in Black Elk's vision, for example, come from a native tradition, or from the Book of Revelation?

Despite these potential problems, Black Elk Speaks is a significant American autobiography. It is more than a personal chronicle of an eyewitness to great battles. Black Elk Speaks is an articulate and moving personal history of an Indian holy man, and in combining communal history with individual vision, Black Elk speaks eloquently for the Sioux nation.


Black Elk, as told to John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks. New York: William Morrow, 1932. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Bloodworth William. "Varieties of American Indian Autobiography." MELUS 5, 3( 1978): 67-81.

"Neihardt, Momaday, and the Art of American Indian Autobiography." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 4 ( 1978): 137-43.

Gunn Janet Varner. Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Holte James. The Ethnic I: A Sourcebook for Ethnic-American Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Lee A. Robert. First Person Singular: Studies in American Autobiography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

McKluskey Sally. "Black Elk Speaks and So Does John Neihardt." Western American Literature 6 ( 1972): 238.

Neihardt John G. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.


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