Black Elk Speaks: a review

Dear M,

Black Elk Speaks is supposed to be a spiritual classic for American Indians.  Not just for his tribe, but for all of them.  It's so far advanced in this direction that now, almost a hundred years after its first publication, it's beginning to get its own schools of theology, and a horde of uninspiring idiots argue about its more obscure passages.  But this is how it goes.  Inspiration leads to confusion leads to policy.  The Spirit gives life, and the letter kills it. 

Black Elk
Black Elk himself, so far as I can tell, was touched in some measure by God -- or at the very least by some lesser daemon.  By the time this book was recorded by a white man, John G. Neihardt, it was the 1930's and Black Elk was an old blind man.  No fellow Indian had bothered to record him, or if they had bothered, no talent to do it.  Neihardt, an Indian lover and an amateur historian, had taken off to get interviews about some Indian rituals and ran into this mystic -- who claimed to have a message from the Great Spirit.  Neihardt was entranced.  This book, part memoir and part Book of Revelations, was the result.

Unfortunately, Neihardt just couldn't keep himself from a slice of prophet pie.  As a writer I sympathize with him greatly (after all, not all great messages are given perfectly), but the introduction and footnotes make it clear that many of the passages of Black Elk's book weren't stated by Black Elk in the transcripts, and in fact were insertions by Neihardt.  Many passages.  Whole paragraphs.  The most quoted line from the entire book, according to the footnotes.  Little embellishments here and there, which clarify the story and make it whole, but which in the end make you wonder -- did you go to a man touched by God, or to a man who was desperate to make one?

The truth is Black Elk Speaks is a mix.  If the stories herein are true, many of which are an important and interesting part of our history, Black Elk was given visions of a Biblical quality.  Psychedelic in the extreme, with horses whose nostrils had lightning in them, and winds from the east bringing X and other such symbols, he was transported to a world (as he says) behind this world; a place which is more real than this place, and which signified things which were, and are, and are yet to come.  The theologians will be playing with this book until the end of time.  That is my prophecy.  I know this by reading history.

However some of these inspirations, and I would argue the more important ones, were of a different nature.  Aside from apocalyptic visions, Black Elk had premonitions.  He described them as queer feelings, but whatever happened, he began getting messages from animals and such that danger was on the way -- and he got them so frequently that people began to believe in him.  These people included those least likely, at least in our Western tradition, to take a holy man seriously: his own family, whom he saved on multiple occasions by predicting what was about to happen.  I hesitate to call this powers.  He was spoken to, and he took the voices seriously.

Holy men are an interesting lot.  First off, Black Elk was glad he went blind so that he could focus on "reality" -- not a bad choice for a man who saw too many bad things and had dreams of something better.  What were these dreams?  I haven't finished the whole book*, but it appears that after all the bloodshed and robbery and failure**, he saw his people unified and led, in a holy manner, back to a place of glory and unity and rest.  Not too unlike the Hebrew prophets in exile in Babylon.  Christ says it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Partly because, as James says, rich men, having power, are too busy ruining life for the rest of us.  Partly because, being satisfied here on earth, they refuse to turn their eyes skyward.

Today Black Elk would be labeled by professionals a schizophrenic**** and put on meds, but I think a successful prophecy or ten, confirmed by friends and family, puts him securely out of this range.  At least it does with me.  And even if his last prophecies, the unfulfilled ones, are outlandish and unlikely, does it matter?  John's revelation has inspired millions of Christians to get through their ordeals, and if not the end of the world, then certainly the more horrible ends of theirs.  It might come true today but it hasn't for the last two-thousand years, and that's the point.  An unfulfilled prophecy is the only prophecy that can fortify you.  Black Elk Speaks gives hope to his Indian brethren, and asks them to dream of themselves more nobly.  We only wonder why they prefer this over the Bible, which is a finer, far deeper book in general, and furthermore whether they were inspired by Black Elk -- or whether they were led by Neihardt, the savior honky.

Your father,

*Is it fair that I've reviewed this book before finishing it?  No -- but is it fair that I should finish it if it doesn't inspire me?  What I got out of this book -- the reminder that there's a life beyond what we know, and we should listen hard for God, and that we can be blinded by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life -- this reminder I got was good enough for me, and the most of this book is memoir: interesting, but uninspiring.  Certainly not inspiring enough to be the one book Indians rely on as their Bible.

This being said I've followed Montaigne by accident.  He said when I was young I read for ostentation; in the middle years, for wisdom; in later life for fun.  I'm square in the middle years.  The book was fun -- but nowhere near as profitable as Montaigne.

**When I say bloodshed and robbery, I mean from both the Indians and the Americans.  Neihardt's interpolations focus, many times, on the injustices committed against Indians -- but Black Elk's own words testify of their own injustices against their "brethren."  For one thing, despite Black Elk's self-portrayal of oneness with nature and Indians, women, even the women of your own tribe, are viewed as property, and can be kidnapped and kept for life if you're hot-headed enough for them.  Second, the warpath, or the organized attempt to kill people of a different group, can be waged by two or even one person against an enemy you're not currently at war with -- an act known in modern times as murder.  Third, prisoners of war and other such unfortunates are killed off cruelly, and with laughter.

This being said, Black Elk, and usually Neihardt speaking for him, makes some declarations that white people are liars.  Particularly about land, which Black Elk's Lakotas were promised as long as the grass grows green.  This proves to me that Neihardt himself was a lousy white man.  Black Elk, of course, had good reason to not know why white men promised one thing and eight years later did another.  But Neihardt had no excuse, and could have explained it easily.  He could have told Black Elk that eight years could mean a total change in administration, and that the man who promised something probably wasn't the man who broke it.  He could have said that not all white men were the same, or wanted the same things, or agreed about the things other whites said.  He could have told Black Elk that there wasn't one white nation; and that the United States was a series of governments many times at odds with one another, and that the fight between the states and the feds is constant and ambiguous.  The red man was split into tribes, sometimes at peace and other times at odds.  But nobody (including God) told Black Elk that white men were split into religions and classes and governments and cultures, and that all of these could exist under the same flag -- that German settlers weren't like the Scots-Irish, and New York produced men wildly different from Kentucky's -- and that knowing the difference as an Indian is a life-saver.

Beside this, T.R. Fehrenbach explains in Lone Star what Black Elk in his memoir describes -- that well before the soldiers came the settlers.  The Spaniards, who owned most of the New World before we got here, had no such pioneer instinct.  The land was claimed by the crown, and a few thousand settlers, granted land by the state, "populated" Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.  I repeat, only a few thousand.  There was little growth and little migration.  Conquest, at least nominally, preceded settlement.

But in the world of the Anglo Saxons things were backward.  The Anglos had established the east coast, and our Scots-Irish immigrants, peoples totally indifferent to and oftentimes ignorant of the American Enlightenment, and beyond this of American law, forged well ahead of the American border.  They saw open, undeveloped land and they took it.  They were enterprising, and hardy, and violent, and rude-mannered, and self-reliant.  And the government, oftentimes powerless to stop them, found itself powerless to ignore them.  First off whites were getting in wars with the Indians, and the atrocity stories were whipping up a frenzy.  Second there was the threat of new nations forming on the fringes.  Third there was the opportunity of an easy expansion.  The established white nations, sitting easy on the east, saw wild lands cleared and wild men chased out.  When the wild men were chased out the "respectable folk" moved in.  By the time the government arrived -- official US government, many times to clean up a mess -- it had only put an official stamp on an already existing civilization.

Black Elk saw it but he couldn't explain it.  White men like Neihardt could explain it but they didn't care to.  The white man isn't a liar.  At least not in whole.  The Indian never evolved his understanding of white men -- that we aren't the same, and that the reason for our success is our inability, oftentimes intentionally, to control one another.   

****We're now finding out that schizophrenics are different across nations.  Yes, they hear voices -- but what do the voices say?  Rebecca Solnit, in her otherwise idiotic book Men Explain Things to Me, says professionals report that Indian schizos (in India) hear their ancestors telling them to clean house, and Americans hear voices telling them to kill strangers.  Solnit believes it's a result, more than anything else, of our culture.  You have a man like Black Elk, close to friends and family his whole life, covered by sky and treading on grass, and the voices tell him a great wind is coming from the East, and the thunder beings are marching from the West; and he sees, not too unlike his real life, great migrations of unified peoples.  In America, the schizo is shut up in his house, probably with a family also borderline psychotic and disordered.  He fills his eyes with the tv, where he'll see a hundred thousand-plus outright murders before he turns 18.  Then he gets treated like garbage because he's a misfit, and the voices take what's in him, and he blows away a middle-school.

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  1. Have you read Empire of the Summer Moon? I recommend it highly. Keep up the interesting, thought provoking articles.

    1. I own it, but haven't gotten to it yet. So many books and so little time!


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