A Great Indian Poet
In 1931 John G. Neihardt was not only a researcher preparing to write the story of the life and vision of the Oglala Lakota Holy Man Black Elk but was also a respected member of the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Since 1926 he had been literary editor for the newspaper, providing the bulk of the material for “Of Making Many Books,” a daily column of book reviews and literary essays. Over the years Neihardt had developed a close relationship with his readers, and so it is not surprising that he would want to tell them about this most extraordinary man that he had just met.
Neihardt knew, as he acknowledges in his 1972 preface to Black Elk Speaks, that the general public of the early 1930s had “practically no knowledge of Indians.” The prevailing attitude was that Native culture was uncivilized. In fact, the book had “a very modest reception,” and within two years it was forgotten. However, Neihardt thought highly enough of his readers to try to connect them with the wonder he had felt in his interaction with the holy man. Neihardt was not a writer given to overstatement. He often spoke in his columns against hysterical critics who exhausted their vocabularies of superlatives in attempts to out shout each other with praises of the “greatest this or the mostest that” ever written. N eihardt gave praise when he felt it was due, and when he did find genius, he made it clear to his readers. It is remarkable praise indeed, this acknowledgment to his readers that “he had been sitting at the feet of a poet fit to dine with the finest spirits that have sung in his discordant world and are now among the tallest of the dead.”
The following was originally published as “A Great Indian Poet” on June 20, 1931.
This writer has just returned to the modern world after spending a month in a contemporary antiquity that, in certain cultural respects, may be described as pre-Homeric. In company with his two daughters he has been living with his friends, the Ogalala [sic] Sioux, in lonely country empty of white men where there was little to remind one of our civilization save the usual injustice and the resultant poverty of a conquered people who deserve a better fate.
The writer had only casual contacts with the younger generation, who, having little of their own racial culture and less of ours, seem lost some-