It was during August, 1930, that I first met Black Elk. I was then working on The Song of the Messiah, which now stands as the fifth and final narrative poem in my Cycle of the West. This Song is concerned with what white men have called the “Messiah craze”—the great Messianic dream that came to the desperate Indians in the middle 80’s of the 19th century and ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.
With my son, Sigurd, I had gone to Pine Ridge Reservation for the purpose of finding some old medicine man who had been active in the Messiah Movement and who might somehow be induced to talk to me about the deeper spiritual significance of the matter. I had known many of the Oglala Sioux for some years, and had good friends among the old “longhairs.”1 It was not information that was lacking for my purpose. I had the facts, both from the records and from old men who had lived through that time, sharing the great hope and the tragic disillusionment. What I needed for my purpose was something to be experienced through intimate contact, rather than to be received through telling. (Those of my readers who may be familiar with my Song of the Messiah will know what is meant.)
Mr. W. B. Courtright, then Field Agent-in-Charge at Pine Ridge Agency, was a “fan” of mine, being especially well acquainted with my Song of the Indian Wars, and through him I learned of an old Sioux by the name of Black Elk, who lived among the barren hills some twenty miles east of the Agency near the combination store and post office called Manderson. Black Elk was a “kind of a preacher,” I was told—that is to say, a wichasha wakon2 (holy man, priest)—and he had been of some importance in the Messiah