Philip J. Deloria
I first read Black Elk Speaks in the early 1970s. I still have the actual copy (published by Pocket Books in 1972) and it sits beside me now, binding cracked, cover worn, pages loose. Why did I pick up the book that first time? Family legacy issues, to be sure, for my grandfather had known Black Elk, and my father made sure I knew it. But just as important was the way Simon and Schuster (of which Pocket Books was an imprint) framed the book as a “must read” for seekers and aspiring mystics. That category easily expanded to include anxious young people such as myself who were contemplating seriously for the first time the meanings of life. Black Elk’s great vision and his other spiritual experiences—so compellingly narrated “through” the Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt—were to be taken as guideposts and exemplars of a richer, more engaged transcendent life.
The book’s cover featured an odd composite image built around the sad, wise, brown face of an old American Indian man. Disembodied and framed by a brown circle on a black background, the face floats above the shirtless figure of a younger man, arms outstretched in prayer. This young man explodes out of a blue circle that overlaps the brown and is connected by two strips of “Indian design.” His arms echo the lines of the brown circle and the effect is powerful: a complicated sense of relationship between a young man’s sacred experience and an older man’s spiritual wisdom. For those in the know, the complicated image has an odd edge of realism. For the man is indeed Black Elk, with his old face and the “Indian design” drawn based on a photograph taken by Joseph Epes Brown in 1947.