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Black Elk Speaks The book Black Elk Speaks was written in the early 1930's by author JohnG. Neihardt, after interviewing the medicine man named Black Elk. Neihardt wasalready a published writer, and prior to this particular narrative he was atwork publishing a collection of poems titled Cycle of the West. Although he wasinitially seeking infor-mation about a peculiar Native American religiousmovement that occurred at the end of the 19th century for the conclusion hispoetry collection, Neihardt was instead gifted with the story of Black Elk'slife. Black Elk's words would explain much about the nature of wisdom as wellas the lives of the Sioux and other tribes of that period. The priest or holy man calling himself Black Elk was born in theDecember of 1863, to a family in the Ogalala band of the Sioux.
Black Elk'sfamily was well known, and he counted the famed Crazy Horse as a friend andcousin. Black Elk's family was likewise acknowledged as a family of wise men,with both his father and grandfather themselves being holy men bearing the nameBlack Elk. The youngest Black Elk soon experienced a vision as a young boy, avision of the wisdom inherent in the earth that would direct him toward his truecalling of being a wichasha wakon or holy man like his predecessors. BlackElk's childhood vision stayed with him throughout his life, and it offered himaid and wisdom whenever he sought it. It is from the strength of this vision,and the wisdom in his heart that Black Elk eventually realized his place as aleader and wise man in the Ogalala band of the Sioux. The wisdom possessed by Black Elk is immediately present in hisrecollections of various lessons learned by himself and by others.
These storiesran the whole gambit of life experiences from the most innocent acts of a boy inlove, to the hard les-sons learned from the treachery of the whites. Throughthese stories a greater insight can be gained into the ways of the Sioux, aswell as lessons into the nature of all men. Most important in these lessons onthe nature of man was wisdom, and in all of Black Elk's recollections somewherea deeper wisdom can be found. The story of High Horse's Courting stands out as a perfect example ofone of Black Elk's narratives. Typically, Black Elk's narratives try to bestowa lesson (or les-sons) that the listener can learn from, just as the subject ofthe story sometimes does. High Horse's Courting begins when a youth named HighHorse falls madly in love with a girl of his tribe.
High Horse neitherpossessed the respect nor the wealth to obtain this girl from her parents, so hehad to resort to stealth and trickery to gain any access to her at all.Eventually, High Horse did made contact with the girl and learned of her similarfeelings for him, but also learned that she wished to be earned from her fatherlike a lady and not to be stolen away dishonorably. The disclosure by the girl only acted to frustrate High Horse more, andhe eventually had to turn to his cousin Red Deer for help. To help his cousin,Red Deer advised High Horse on two separate occasions to sneak into the girl'steepee and make off with her, both attempts ended as comical failures. Finally,in a fit of disgust and embarrassment, High Horse proclaimed that he was goingon the warpath since he could not have the girl. Red Deer, still wanting tohelp his friend and cousin, decided to follow.
High Horse and Red Deer fellupon a Crow encampment that night. The two youths killed the sentry guardingthe Crow horses, and each made off with a small herd for himself. Returning to the tribe with his new herd, High Horse immediately rode upto the girl's family teepee. When shown the herd of horses that High Horseoffered the girl's father acquiesced and allowed him to have his daughter, butnot solely because of the amount of horses High Horse had offered. Instead thefather revealed that the true price High Horse paid was in his showing that hewas a man in obtaining the horses in such a skillful manner, and thus able totake care of his only daughter.
Thus the lessons of life are displayed to the listener of the story.High Horse gets the girl through persistence and brave acts, Red Deer shows therewards of loyalty by following his cousin on the warpath and coming out awealthy man, and the girl's father caps it all with his display of guile inselecting a suitable husband for his daughter. This is how the wisdom of BlackElk comes through in the narrative, as a simple but relative story possessingmany nuggets of observant truths. The period in American history in which Black Elk lived witnessed themassive movement of whites into the Sioux territory seeking land and gold. Muchof the narrative in Black Elk Speaks describes the tribesmen's actions and fearsconcerning the encroachment onto their lands. This underlying dread of what isto come is pervasive in the text. From his birth to his old age, Black Elklived through the entire westward expansion of whites into the land of hisancestors, therefore he possessed a unique perspective on slowly going from astate of total freedom to one of dependence and servitude.
The loss of the wisdom gained by his people was a concept that mortifiedBlack Elk. Wisdom was paramount to Black Elk's whole existence since his visionas a child. This wisdom that he relied on so fully predicted the coming of thewhites, and it helped him to advise during the struggles that eventuallyfollowed. Though his life seemed full of loss and destruction, Black Elk alwaysfound meaning in the people and things around him, and his strongest traitseemed to be his ability to see the truth or joy in life when there was not muchto be happy about or believe in. Therefore, after seeing his people's cultureall but destroyed, Black Elk realized that the wisdom of his vision must not die.Black Elk felt that the telling of his story was '. . .
incumbent upon him.His chief purpose was to 'save his Great Vision for men (preface - xix).'' Thisis why he decided to tell his tale to Mr. Neihardt, because it is not just hisstory, it is the wisdom of his people and of his vision. The lessons gained in Black Elk Speaks are some that are as relevanttoday as they were almost two-hundred years ago. The lessons on bravery andwisdom would benefit a child today just as in previous times. Even morepoignant is the correlation between the wise posture of the Ogalala towards theland and its peoples, contrasted with the scheming, greedy advancements of theAmericans. The Ogalala and the tribes alongside them walked these same landsfor possibly thousands of years before the introduction of the white man.
Inall that time the land stayed fertile, and the people lived like contentchildren under the sun. In little over a hundred years since, the white manhas prospered here at the expense of the land. Possibly, Black Elk was actingout of prophesy when he suggested that he needed to tell his story, for he knewwhat the white men would eventually mean to the health of the land. Black Elkknew that only when the white man acknowledged what he had done to the land andher people, would wisdom ever shine on his nation as it did on the Sioux.
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