Black Elk was a holy man of the Ogalala Sioux (Lakota) tribe. He lived from 1863 to 1950 in the American Midwest. He fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 and the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. In 1931, John G. Neihardt recoreded Black Elk's experiences and insights in his book Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.
Black Elk was born in Wyoming. In his biography, Black Elk says: "My father was a medicine man and was brother to several medicine men. My father was cousin to Crazy Horse's father." Black Elk gives the Native American perspective regarding the American expansion into the West. Before the chaos and misery of war with the white men, the Lakota lived a peaceful existence. Black Elk puts his childhood in idyllic terms: "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." The Lakota, like most Native American tribes, lived a communal life, where the strong took care of the weak and no one was abandoned.
The white man was deemed an intruder, chasing after "yellow metal" with an unprecedented violence and greed. Black Elk describes how the white man tried to manipulate his people into submission: "When I was older, I learned what the fighting was about that winter (1866–67) and the next summer. Up on the Madison Fork the Wasichus had found much of the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy, and they wanted to have a rod up through our country to the place where the yellow metal was (The Black Hills); but my people did not want the road. It would scare the bison and make them go away, and it would let the other Wasichus come in like a river. They told us that they wanted only to use a little land, as much as a wagon would take between the wheels; but our people knew better. And when you look about you now, you can see what it was they wanted."
At a young age, Black Elk was haunted by dreams of the "Thunder-beings." The people of his village thought he was divinely inspired. He thereafter became a medicine man, performing the horse-dance ceremony. He sought seclusion on hilltops to receive visions and perform cures. Black Elk was curious about the white culture, and in 1886, he traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show -- learning English, visiting New York City and attending Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in England. From England he wrote to his family : "So my relatives, the Lakota people, now I know the white men's customs well. One custom is very good. Whoever believes in God will find good ways--that is what I mean. And many of the ways the white men follow are hard to endure." Black Elk traveled with other Wild West shows through France, Germany and Italy. In Europe and England, Black Elk learned about Christianity and was impressed by its precepts. He was simultaneously losing his spiritual powers.
When Black Elk returned to America, he witnessed the atrocities of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Thereafter, the Lakota people refused to accept the white culture or trust the white people. Black Elk abandoned his previous perceptions of the white man and continued his role as the medicine man, but he did not give up on Christianity. His first three sons were baptized, and after the turn of the century, Black Elk joined the Roman Catholic Church. Thereafter, he never practiced the Lakota religious ceremonies. Black Elk was heavily influenced by the Catholic missionaries and in 1908 began missionizing to other tribes. He reported in the Catholic Herald: "Now, my relatives, these people were suffering in spiritual darkness, but now they have joined the church. Therefore we should pray for them." Black Elk still maintained his status as leader of the Lakota people, providing generously for them.
When Neihardt came to interview Black Elk for his book, Black Elk exhibited all the spirituality he was known for. Black Elk described his uncanny familiarity with the strange visitor: "As I sit here, I can feel in this man beside me a strong desire to know the things of the Other World. He has been sent to learn what I know, and I will teach him." He saw in Neihardt an opportunity to record all the lost traditions and beliefs of the Lakota people. He told the writer: "There is so much to teach you. 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. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you."