This Date in Native History: On November 24, 1973, John G. Neihardt, 92, poet laureate and author of Black Elk Speaks, died of natural causes.
Born in a one-room cabin near Sharpsburg, Illinois on January 18, 1881, Neihardt relocated many times, always moving west. He became a celebrated poet who caught the attention of Mona Martinsen, a young, wealthy, Manhattan socialite living in Europe, where she was studying with the famed sculptor Auguste Rodin. Neihardt and Martinsen fell in love through an exchange of letters and arranged to marry having never met. When Martinsen descended from the train in Nebraska, it was a far cry from her elegant upbringing.
In their early years together, Neihardt sought to write a sweeping epic and Mona encouraged him to write what he knew: the west, where he had lived and traveled all of his life. When Niehardt encountered Nicholas Black Elk, the Oglala holy man told his companions that Neihardt would write his vision and bring it to the world.
Black Elk Speaks was published in 1932, and has since sold millions of copies worldwide. In the introduction, Vine DeLoria Jr., Lakota, wrote that the book was “perhaps the only religious text of the century.”
According to DeLoria, the book’s importance was not immediately recognized in the 1930s, a time focused on industrialization and mass production. That era brought a lack of humanity to the workplace and introduced mass environmental disasters. By the 1960s, people around the world sought spiritual truth, and Black Elk’s vision through Neihardt’s book, increased in popularity.
According to Charlotte Black Elk, great-granddaughter of Black Elk, “It has become a staple in schools for American Indian history, and in psychology, it introduced the idea of dreams with a perceptive understanding.”
Controversy has always quietly surrounded the book. Scholars wondered whether the book was true to Black Elk’s vision or if it was heavily influenced by Neihardt’s poetic style. A graduate level paper by Colorado State University’s Mark Sanchez compared the style of Black Elk’s speech in the book with notes taken of Black Elk and Luther Standing Bear, who was there to witness that the truth was spoken. Sanchez found that Neihardt’s book quoted Black Elk with a stylized and stereotypical use of language compared with the notes of both Black Elk and Standing Bear. However, even those who find fault with the poetic writing style believe that Black Elk’s vision was accurately recorded.
Nancy Gillis, Cherokee/Choctaw, is the executive director of the Neihardt Center, the small room where Neihardt wrote and which is now a museum in Nebraska. Housed at the Center are gifts that reflect the depth of the friendship between Neihardt and Black Elk. “We have his sacred items. There is a coup stick, his pipe, drum, and personal gifts that were a very honored part of his life and work,” Gillis said.
She said the friendship between the Black Elk and Neihardt was lasting. “It was an amazing relationship between the two men. At first, Black Elk thought his vision was just for the Oglala, and then he thought it was for all tribes. The reason he told it to Neihardt was that he saw it was a message for all people. In Neihardt, he found a way to get that message out, that the healing of the sacred hoop had to be for and by all people,” Gillis said.
Describing Neihardt’s work, Gillis said, “He is the only writer to portray the epic America in the same way the Iliad and the Odyssey was portrayed in European history. The Cycle of the West, a book that Neihardt wrote over a period of 36 years, treated the white settlers, trappers and Native men and women equally. There are no bad guys or good guys.”
Gillis said that with Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt set out to capture the twilight of the old way of life before it was lost. “The interviews took place in 1931-32,” Gillis said. “The book came out in ’32. He thought the elders were the last ones left, and he thought he was recording what was lost but through Black Elk’s vision” Neihardt knew there would be a future.
Black Elk’s great-granddaughter Betty O’Rourke runs Betty’s Market in Manderson, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “We get students from all over the United States. They come here and I show them movies and books and pictures in my collection,” she said. “The store is the site where they finished up Black Elk Speaks. My grandfather, Ben Black Elk, gave me this land, and this is where we sat many times with Neihardt. I told my grandfather that when I have a home, this is where it would be.”
O’Rourke was 2 when her great-grandfather died. She said the impact of the book has continued—it has been translated in many different languages. “It had an impact on education, and not just for Indians. The book became famous through education. There were other books written, Black Elk’s Vision, there is a children’s book about Black Elk, Black Elk: A Man With a Vision, Black Elk: Native American Man of Spirit.”
Neihardt’s daughter, Heidi Neihardt, has also written two books about Black Elk.
Charlotte Black Elk called Neihardt a “colorful man who wrote a good book,” noting the Neihardt family has never provided scholarships or any other donations from the millions the book has earned.
Betty O’Rourke said the book has had an effect above and beyond a good read. “I really believe that the book brought about a revival of spirituality within the Lakota,” she said. “I have a friend who is a pastor, and she teaches spirituality from the book, Black Elk Speaks.