Joe Jackson’s important biography of the visionary Black Elk is much more than the story of one man’s life. It is a sweeping, comprehensive, elegantly written history of white and Indian relations; bloody, deadly battles; and the steady, deliberate destruction by the U.S. government of the native culture, language, traditions and way of life. It is a fascinating, heartsick read.
Black Elk was born in 1863 and over the course of his life (he died in 1950) he saw his people, the Oglala Lakota (Sioux), go from proud, self-sufficient hunters and warriors to impoverished captives forced onto increasingly small allotments of land, dependent on handouts — which were never enough — from the government.
A cousin of Crazy Horse, Black Elk came from a long line of medicine men and healers and had his first and greatest vision during a serious illness when he was 9. Jackson — who based some of his reporting on the original transcripts of John Neihardt’s 1931 interviews with Black Elk — recounts the vision in three pages of vivid detail: “He saw the two warriors approach again from the clouds. They flew headfirst, each with a spear thrust before him, and from each tip flowed lightning. … The messengers pointed to a magnificent bay horse standing in the clouds. … He saw before him the entire spectrum of Sioux cosmology.”
This vision would define Black Elk’s life, and he came to understand that his role on Earth was to save his people by helping to bridge the gap between whites and natives. “For the Sioux to survive, all must survive, even the hated wasichu.”
Jackson follows the strange trajectory of Black Elk’s life — as a child, as a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show traveling across Europe, as a warrior at Little Bighorn and at Wounded Knee, as a traditional medicine man, as a convert to Catholicism (which might have been a pragmatic decision — his children, he pointed out, “had to live in this world,” and traditional native religion had been outlawed), and, finally, as a blind, frail elderly man living in a one-room log cabin.
In his storytelling, Jackson takes his time. The book is long (600 pages) and occasionally meanders, but it always does so with a purpose, such as when the author breaks away from Black Elk’s story to describe the conditions in Indian boarding schools, where students were stripped of their culture and language, beaten for speaking Lakota, and finally sent home only to find their experiences had left them comfortable in neither world.
The book is bookended by Neihardt’s interviews with Black Elk, which became the book “Black Elk Speaks.”
Neihardt, a journalist and the poet laureate of Nebraska, came to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1930 hoping to interview “an old medicine man who’d been a Ghost Dancer.” But with Black Elk, he got much more. Though there had been no advance warning of Neihardt’s visit, Black Elk was not surprised by the visit; indeed, he appeared to expect Neihardt. By telling Neihardt his story, Black Elk felt he was finally fulfilling the purpose of his life — keeping if not his people, then at least his culture, alive.
“With Black Elk’s story, Neihardt felt he had discovered an alternative to the American myth that the West could only have been ‘civilized’ by means of ‘savage war,’ ” Jackson writes. “The beauty and grace one found in life came from balance, not conflict, and he saw Black Elk’s quest as a search for greater understanding in every sphere. Too many secrets had been lost in the national slaughter. Truth did not reside in a gun.”
For those who grew up on cowboy and Indian movies and have only a passing understanding of what happened at Little Bighorn, at Wounded Knee, and to the lives of our native people, “Black Elk” is a crucial book. It is a rich, engrossing read that will educate, surprise and infuriate.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks
Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary
By: Joe Jackson.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 600 pages, $30.