John G. Neihardt and Nicholas Black Elk
Raymond J. DeMallie
Black Elk Speaks is arguably the single most widely read book in the vast literature relating to North American Indians. John G. Neihardt’s poetic rendering of the life story of an Oglala Lakota holy man captivates the imagination of readers, drawing them into a meaning-charged world of symbols and otherness. We come away from our experience of Black Elk through Neihardt not with analytical understanding of the old Lakota religious life, but, as Neihardt wrote after his first meeting with Black Elk, with insights into the holy man’s “inner world, imperfectly revealed as by flashes.” That experience, in Neihardt’s words, is for us, as it was for him, “both strange and wonderful” (BES, xvii).
The mystery of the intellectual and emotional bond that these two men recognized between one another, and that led to their creative collaboration, adds a very human dimension to the narrative. As Neihardt explained to Black Elk in a letter about the proposed book about his life, “I would use as much of your language in it as possible” (SG, 29).1 Indeed, Neihardt was so successful in blending his own voice with Black Elk’s that they became a single voice, a literary device so convincing that Neihardt faded into the background, allowing readers the sensation that Black Elk was speaking to them directly, without an intermediary.
Having grown up hunting buffalo, witnessing Custer’s demise at the Little Big Horn, experiencing visions and living as a medicine man, traveling with Buffalo Bill, and participating in the Ghost Dance and the aftermath of Wounded Knee, Black Elk’s life stretched back across the historical epoch that Neihardt celebrated in his epic poem, A Cycle of the West. Admittedly, when he first met Black Elk, Neihardt’s only intention was to gain a sense of what the Ghost Dance beliefs were like and how the ritual felt in order to infuse his Song of the Messiah with an emotional authenticity. But in that first meeting in August 1930, Black Elk offered