Neihardt and Black Elk
A casual observer looking at the circumstances that brought John G. Neihardt and Nicholas Black Elk together in the summer of 1930 might use the word “coincidence” to describe the encounter that ultimately resulted in the book Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. It is clear, however, from the record of the two participants and other witnesses that neither Black Elk nor Neihardt would have used such a word to describe anything about their relationship.
Neihardt, an established author, had traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to research material for the final song in his epic A Cycle of the West. He was looking for firsthand accounts from old men who had been a part of the Ghost Dance religious movement and had witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee. Black Elk, an old man at the time of their meeting, was no longer living the life of a traditional medicine man and was, in fact, a visible leader in the Catholic Church on the reservation. Though neither anticipated the direction their conversations would take, both soon recognized that they had been brought together to fulfill a sacred obligation: bringing the story of Black Elk’s vision, which had lain slumbering for nearly half a century, to the world outside of Black Elk’s tribal community.
Black Elk Speaks tells the story of the life of the Oglala Holy Man, born in 1863 into a time of turbulence for his people, the Lakotas. Readers learn of his early life on the Great Plains, his relationships among the tribe (including his relationship with his second cousin Crazy Horse), the story of his great vision, the battles won and lost, travels to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and the tragedy of Wounded Knee, which brought tribal life as he had known it to an end.
Neihardt’s 1961 preface to the book also provides information about what led to the encounter—his research for the final piece of his cycle, The Song of the Messiah. Neihardt explains that he had the historical details but felt he could not adequately present the story without getting