The book Black Elk Speaks was written in the early 1930’s by author John G. Neihardt, after interviewing the medicine man named Black Elk. Neihardt was already a published writer, and prior to this particular narrative, he was at work publishing a collection of poems titled Cycle of the West.
Although he was initially seeking information about a peculiar Native American religious movement that occurred at the end of the 19th century for the conclusion of his poetry collection, Neihardt was instead gifted with the story of Black Elk’s life. Black Elk’s words would explain much about the nature of wisdom as well as the lives of the Sioux and other tribes of that period.
The priest or holy man calling himself Black Elk was born in the December of 1863, to a family in the Ogalala band of the Sioux. Black Elk’s family was well known, and he counted the famed Crazy Horse as a friend and cousin. 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 name Black Elk.
The youngest Black Elk soon experienced a vision as a young boy, a vision of the wisdom inherent in the earth that would direct him toward his true calling of being a wichasha wakon or holy man like his predecessors.
Black Elk’s childhood vision stayed with him throughout his life, and it offered him aid 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 a leader and wise man in the Ogalala band of the Sioux.
The wisdom possessed by Black Elk is immediately present in his recollections of various lessons learned by himself and by others. These stories ran the whole gambit of life experiences from the most innocent acts of a boy in love, to the hard lessons learned from the treachery of the whites.
Through these stories, greater insight can be gained into the ways of the Sioux, as well as lessons into the nature of all men. Most important in these lessons on the nature of man was wisdom, and in all of Black Elk’s recollections somewhere a deeper wisdom can be found.
The story of High Horse’s Courting stands out as a perfect example of one of Black Elk’s narratives. Typically, Black Elk’s narratives try to bestow a lesson (or lessons) that the listener can learn from, just as the subject of the story sometimes does. High Horse’s Courting begins when a youth named High Horse falls madly in love with a girl of his tribe.
High Horse neither possessed the respect nor the wealth to obtain this girl from her parents, so he had 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 similar feelings for him, but also learned that she wished to be earned from her father like a lady and not to be stolen away dishonorably.
The disclosure by the girl only acted to frustrate High Horse more, and he 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’s teepee 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 going on the warpath since he could not have the girl. Red Deer, still wanting to help his friend and cousin, decided to follow. High Horse and Red Deer fell upon a Crow encampment that night. The two youths killed the sentry guarding the Crow horses, and each made off with a small herd for himself.
Returning to the tribe with his new herd, High Horse immediately rode up to the girl’s family teepee. When shown the herd of horses that High Horse offered the girl’s father acquiesced and allowed him to have his daughter, but not solely because of the amount of horses High Horse had offered. Instead the father revealed that the true price High Horse paid was in his showing that he was a man in obtaining the horses in such a skillful manner, and thus able to take 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 the rewards of loyalty by following his cousin on the warpath and coming out a wealthy man, and the girl’s father caps it all with his display of guile in selecting a suitable husband for his daughter.
This is how the wisdom of Black Elk comes through in the narrative, as a simple but relative story possessing many nuggets of observant truths. The period in American history in which Black Elk lived witnessed the massive movement of whites into the Sioux territory seeking land and gold. Much of the narrative in Black Elk Speaks describes the tribesmen’s actions and fears concerning the encroachment onto their lands.
This underlying dread of what is to come is pervasive in the text. From his birth to his old age, Black Elk lived through the entire westward expansion of whites into the land of his ancestors; therefore he possessed a unique perspective on slowly going from a state of total freedom to one of dependence and servitude.
The loss of the wisdom gained by his people was a concept that mortified Black Elk. Wisdom was paramount to Black Elk’s whole existence since his vision as a child. This wisdom that he relied on so fully predicted the coming of the whites, and it helped him to advise during the struggles that eventually followed.
Though his life seemed full of loss and destruction, Black Elk always found meaning in the people and things around him, and his strongest trait seemed to be his ability to see the truth or joy in life when there was not much to be happy about or believe in.
Therefore, after seeing his people’s culture all 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).'”
This is why he decided to tell his tale to Mr. Neihardt, because it is not just his story, it is the wisdom of his people and of his vision. The lessons gained in Black Elk Speaks are some that are as relevant today as they were almost two-hundred years ago.
The lessons on bravery and wisdom would benefit a child today just as in previous times. Even more poignant is the correlation between the wise posture of the Ogalala towards the land and its peoples, contrasted with the scheming, greedy advancements of the Americans. The Ogalala and the tribes alongside them walked these same lands for possibly thousands of years before the introduction of the white man.
In all that time the land stayed fertile, and the people lived like content children under the sun. In little over a hundred years since, the white man has prospered here at the expense of the land.
Possibly, Black Elk was acting out a prophecy when he suggested that he needed to tell his story, for he knew what the white men would eventually mean to the health of the land. Black Elk knew that only when the white man acknowledged what he had done to the land and her people, would wisdom ever shine on his nation as it did on the Sioux.