Black Elk, Woke

On the remaking of a Native American prophet

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Perhaps the prophets and systematic theologians of some future religion will adopt the phrase “American visionary” as a curse, in the same general semantic family as, say, “the world’s policeman” or “presumptive GOP nominee.” It’s certainly true that our history affords precious few honorable examples of visionaries in the American grain, while plenty of ambitious prophetic visions in the New World—from Joseph Smith’s Mormon revelation to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science healings—have run aground on some combination of exhausted charisma, institutionalized compromise, and a vast, undermining array of unintended consequences.

It’s bracing, though, to encounter the idea rendered anew in Joe Jackson’s new book, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Jackson, a former investigative reporter and the author of six historical nonfiction books, chronicles the life of the Lakota medicine man made famous by the controversial Black Elk Speaks. Published in 1932, that book grew out of a long series of interviews between the titular Native American prophet and John Gneisenau Neihardt, an Anglo Great Plains poet of some Depression-era renown. Though initially a publishing bust, it was rereleased in the 1960s and is now a standard text in the canon of American dissident spirituality.

The sixties appeal of Black Elk Speaks isn’t hard to grasp: it offered to a restless postwar generation of American spiritual seekers a version of Native American spirituality that resonated with the romantic image of the vanquished native peoples of the North American continent. At the same time, it connected with an awakening urge among the partisans of the ascendant counterculture to discover and get in touch with a more authentic, deeply grounded version of belief and New World spiritual autonomy than anything on offer in the regnant culture.

For this generation of seekers, Black Elk Speaks was the voice of traditional Lakota life before the forces of frontier imperialism and modernization ravaged the Native American world. Black Elk lived from the last days of what the Sioux called the old life in the 1880s, when his tribe still roamed the unfenced West, to 1950, long after the last of the Indians were contained—diseased, alcoholic, and destitute—on scraps of reservation land.

The fuzz of New Ageism has long attached itself to Black Elk and American Indians.

The history of America’s Indians makes for tricky storytelling, and the task is vastly complicated in this case by relaying the story through the life of a religious figure—one who had himself done a fair bit of self-mythologizing and religious self-editing when he sat down to speak with Neihardt. Even apart from the readerly challenges presented by its subject-cum-narrator, Black Elk Speaks now makes for anything but simple or solace-filled spiritual reading. Black Elk’s legacy has been stubbornly contested, and the contest remains unresolved. To those who saw his countercultural image as a permanent rebuke to American settlers’ domination, extermination, and marginalization of Native American peoples, Black Elk was a tragic prophet who channeled ecstatic visions of Indian pride and independence. Meanwhile, his fervent conversion to Catholicism—which took place in 1904, forty-six years before his death—seemed to Catholic missionaries and their adherents an inspiring proof that ancient and orthodox Christian principles could finally win over the hearts of the “savages.”

Jackson offers a third-way interpretation: the holy man reconstructed in this nuanced, revisionist story was an avatar of neither faith system but instead one of American history’s great voices for social justice. Unfortunately, the claims for peace, the environment, and the rights of natives that many (including Jackson) ascribe to Black Elk Speaks are too often projections of the reader’s own historical frame of reference or preferred cosmology. You may want to believe with Jackson that Black Elk was a “tragic prophet,” but the substance of the prophet’s message keeps slipping away.

Black Elk never outlined the Lakota’s rights and needs. He was no leader of uprisings, no maker of demands or negotiations. An undeniable creativity informs his persistent performance of Indian behavior and ritual—across continents, venues, cultures, and eras. But there’s no specific, actionable call for change contained within the Kahlil Gibran–like pages of Black Elk Speaks. What, then, accounts for Black Elk’s renown? Jackson is most successful at explaining why Black Elk matters to us today when he recounts Black Elk’s early years, before his life on the reservation and conversion to Catholicism. But sadly, as was the case with Neihardt’s initial foray into the medicine man’s world, we’re forced to conclude that much of the rest of Black Elk’s life is not what we came for.

Settle or Starve

Time has shamefully romanticized and dulled the viscera of the American Indian Wars. Jackson’s account of this history is an integral part of the Black Elk saga. “What is an Indian?” commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Morgan asked in the late nineteenth century. His answer, according to Jackson: “Blood and land.” Notwithstanding all the lofty talk about the White Christian continental imperative, bodies and territory were at stake and in jeopardy. In our civic religious theology, the dark, “savage” ones were pitted against America’s destiny. A violent, righteous quest for total dominion began the moment that ambitious, liberty-obsessed whites stepped on the shore of the New World.

The Sioux originally lived as far east as the Mississippi River and the Ohio Valley but were pushed westward in the mid- to late 1600s until some Lakota Sioux reached what became the Dakota Territory. The Lakota are one of three Sioux tribes; Black Elk is from the Oglala Sioux, a sub-tribe of the Lakota. They were largely independent until the mid-1800s, occupying rich territory that American settlers regarded as their own divinely ordained birthright.

In the summer of 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer left Fort Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota, and headed south into the Black Hills—Indian territory. His cavalcade was one of the largest ever amassed in the West: 1,200 men, most of them soldiers, with dozens of scouts, engineers, photographers, and reporters. Custer, a West Point graduate (famously, he graduated last in his 1861 class), had made a name for himself in the Union Army during the Civil War.

He was a notorious dandy, known to the Lakota as Pahuska, or Long Hair. According to the press, he kept his blond hair swing[ing] below his shoulders [and] perfumed with cinnamon oil.” He was also media-savvy. He had recently completed his autobiography, My Life on the Plains, styling himself a great frontiersman. Custer’s expedition had been sent to scout a location for a new fort that would protect the planned Northern Pacific railroad line. The railroad would be a continent-straddling triumph for the white American republic that General William Tecumseh Sherman, Custer’s superior, hoped would “bring the Indian problem to a final solution.”

The expedition violated a six-year-old treaty with the Sioux that gave the Black Hills—a holy area they called Paha Sapa—to the tribe in perpetuity. Although the treaty allowed government agents and employees to pass through, Custer’s group looked very much like an army in search of a fight. Prospectors in the bed of French Creek had found gold. When Custer scaled Harney Peak, a sacred Lakota site, his geologists found the “yellow metal” that made white men “crazy,” as Black Elk said. Within weeks, word spread far and wide. White men with pans and dreams of instant riches came running to the Black Hills.

The Sioux, led by Sitting Bull, now knew that living alongside white men, even on the outer reaches of the vast western plains, was no longer possible. Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever,” Sitting Bull told his tribesmen. “Now they threaten to take that from us also. My brothers, shall we submit? Or shall we say to them: ‘First kill me before you can take possession of my fatherland!’?”

Acrimonious negotiations ensued. The government offered to buy the Black Hills for $6 million. Every chief on the Plains protested. The federal position was essentially: settle or starve. The chiefs left the negotiations, vowing defiance. They were deemed “hostiles,” to be detained or punished. A lawsuit contesting the treaty violation continues to this day.

The tribes spent the last months of 1875 on the grassy plains where present-day Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska intersect. It was a cold winter. In the spring, Sitting Bull called together all the Sioux tribes for the annual summer Sun Dance, a central ceremony of Lakota spiritual life, and afterward warriors and clans from all across the northwest headed toward Little Big Horn, an area the Sioux called Greasy Grass.

Three regiments of troops, one led by Custer, caught up with them on June 25, 1876, just nine days ahead of the United States’ centennial. Around fifteen hundred Sioux warriors, led by Crazy Horse, were waiting. It was a gruesome slaughter, with the soldiers frightened and outmaneuvered. Historians estimate that between twenty-six to one hundred Indians were killed, while “the most liberal accounting put the ratio at one dead Indian for every fifteen whites,” Jackson notes. Among the dead was Custer, shot in the chest and the head; also killed were his two brothers, his nephew, and a brother-in-law. Many of the soldier’s bodies were scalped or mutilated. According to one theory, Custer wasn’t scalped because, under his jaunty hat and above his lush cinnamon-scented sidelocks, he was prematurely bald.

When news of the battle arrived, the rest of the country was outraged. White Americans praised Custer as a gallant hero; he was celebrated in songs and even a poem by Walt Whitman. The federal government soon discarded any remaining shred of diplomatic restraint in negotiations with the country’s Native American population. For more than a decade, Indians tried to hold onto their victory and prior nomadic life, but disease, encroaching settlers, prospectors, and soldiers cut them down—along with the specter of starvation from the declining buffalo population.

It wasn’t until 1890, at the Wounded Knee Massacre, on a creek in Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota, that the nation and Custer’s 7th Cavalry got their real revenge. At least 250 Lakota men, women, and children were slaughtered by soldiers on December 29, their bodies strewn over an area of nearly two miles. Babies cried in the arms of their dead mothers; little girls and boys lay twisted in the coarse, frozen grass. Photographers roamed the area, capturing the carnage for posterity.

Assimilation had long been the policy of the U.S. government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, founded in 1824. The idea was to instruct the Native American population of the country in the canons of property ownership, farming, and Christianity—the pillars of the American dream. This patient course of civic pedagogy, the administrators of the nineteenth-century Indian removal believed, would turn the lazy savages into productive citizens. As the end of the Indian wars approached in the wake of Wounded Knee, the Indians had only two choices, little different from the ones they faced at the opening of negotiations over the Badlands territory: assimilate or die.

The Mother Church, Spurned

Black Elk was twelve when he helped his cousin, Crazy Horse, cut down Custer’s troops at Little Bighorn, taking his first scalp. He was twenty-seven when he escaped the massacre at Wounded Knee. Both events, and the Sioux’s eventual fate, were foretold in his visions, Jackson writes. After decades of practicing as a Lakota medicine man and holy man, Black Elk converted to Catholicism in 1904, becoming one of the Church’s most successful catechists—some have credited him with winning four hundred souls for Catholicism. Pine Ridge Jesuits praised him as an Indian heir to the Apostle Paul, rescuing his people from sin and damnation. He died in 1950 in a simple cabin on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in what is now the poorest area in the United States.

Black Elk would probably not be known outside his tribe today if it weren’t for Black Elk Speaks, which became a lodestar for a predominantly white American readership hoping to learn more about “traditional” Lakota life. It has been translated into at least a dozen languages and is a regular entry on college history and religion syllabi. Young Indians, who for generations had been shamed and taught to despise their history, also embraced the book as an invaluable record of how pre-reservation Lakota proudly lived and believed.

Neihardt bumped across the South Dakota prairie in his 1929 Gardner in search of an Indian holy man to interview.

In Black Elk Speaks, the Lakota prophet recounts the early years of his life and the visions that came to him before the age of ten when he was told by the “Great Mystery,” Wakan Tanka, what he must do to save his people. These and subsequent visions are filled with natural imagery: rainbows, animals, and plants are all imbued with spiritual significance. Black Elk Speaks is a compelling work of literature. But to identify its specific religious teachings is difficult. Beyond basic iconography and images, there are mainly bromides: “It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost,” the prophet announces at one point. A boilerplate warning about the snares of consumerism, attributed to Black Elk, now peppers the internet: “Any man who is attached to things of this world is one who lives in ignorance and is being consumed by the snakes of his own passions.”

There are some conspicuous blank spaces in Black Elk Speaks where the title character’s own spiritual odyssey should be. Black Elk revisits the battles with the U.S. military that took place in the late 1800s, including the Wounded Knee Massacre, but he barely mentions the last forty-six years of his life, after his conversion. This is one reason why the book has proven so controversial: Black Elk portrays himself as a mystic warrior defending Indian tradition, foreseeing and foretelling the future of his people, while also fighting alongside them in defense of their rights and, when the Sun Dance and medicine men were outlawed on the reservation, carrying on with both. Because Black Elk Speaks ends where it does, these acts of indigenous protest seem to be the end of the story.

It wasn’t, however, and the Jesuit fathers on Pine Ridge Reservation who had converted Black Elk were enraged. “To suggest that one of their most valued catechists—the man they’d paraded to the world as an ‘Indian Saint Paul’—still practiced the old religion horrified them,” Jackson writes. In a broadside denouncing the book immediately after publication, Father Placidus Sialm wrote: “The story of Black Elk clearly proves that the old times had more ways of starvation”—i.e., starvation of the spirit—“than the latter days.”

The other chief criticism of Black Elk Speaks concerns the way it was written. This is where Jackson begins his study, with Neihardt, poet and ethnographer, bumping across the South Dakota prairie in his 1929 Gardner in search of an Indian holy man to interview for an epic poetry cycle Neihardt was then working on. A man at the Pine Ridge Agency sent Neihardt out a dirt road to Black Elk, who was standing outside the cabin’s doorway. When the medicine man met Neihardt, he explained that the white poet’s appearance had been foreordained. The collaboration would prove life-changing for both men. All Neihardt’s other accomplishments, including his thirties renown as “the Shakespeare of the Plains” and his appointment as Nebraska’s poet laureate in 1921, paled next to his role in propagating the Black Elk myth.

The old Indian welcomed the interviews. Black Elk’s son, Ben, translated his father’s words from Lakota to English, Neihardt repeated them for accuracy, and once father and son consented, they were transcribed in shorthand by Neihardt’s daughter, Enid, who later typed up her notes. Throughout May 1931, the quartet labored, while Lakota elders often listened in to ensure accuracy. Yet could such a process really capture the meaning and rhythms of the Lakota language? More important, could any one man profess to know and embody “traditional” Indian beliefs? Some Lakota Indians condemned Black Elk for sharing his people’s holy rituals with a white man. Neihardt, others claimed, took advantage of Black Elk, inducing him to trade his holy wisdom for personal financial gain.

“The controversy over who ‘owns’ Black Elk’s spiritual legacy is still raging,” says Mark Clatterbuck, an associate professor of religion at Montclair State University. (Clatterbuck’s Demons, Saints, & Patriots: Catholic Visions of Native America through The Indian Sentinel (1902–1962) is cited in Jackson’s book. Clatterbuck is also, as it happens, my brother-in-law.) “As far back as the early 1930s, Catholic missionaries among the Lakota were already asserting that Black Elk had abandoned the old Indian ways of his youth in exchange for his Catholic faith,” Clatterbuck continues. “Of course, that generated lots of pushback, with others insisting that Black Elk’s Catholic ‘faith’ was more of a pragmatic choice than a profound expression of religious devotion—or, at the very least, that Black Elk practiced both traditions side by side until the end.”

Jackson’s prodigiously researched narrative excels at parsing these controversies, concluding that Black Elk’s faith was a syncretic one, blending Lakota beliefs and rituals with Catholicism. It skillfully reconstitutes Black Elk as a testament to the ways in which ancient cosmologies can be merged and revitalized to form a new, more resilient brand of modernized religious tradition. What’s harder to accept is Jackson’s more expansive claim that Black Elk is not merely an authentic voice from the Native American past but also an enduring truth-teller, his visions accurate, his prescriptions for a better society prescient and wise.

Balance for Whom?

Trying to give substance to Black Elk’s visions, Jackson’s writing often wanders into an exoticized, spiritual softness. He acknowledges that the fuzz of New Ageism has long attached itself to Black Elk and American Indians. “By the late 1960s, Black Elk Speaks and the spiritualism it made famous released a New Age flood upon the reservations, the likes of which the tribes had rarely seen.” But he fails to muster sufficient critical detachment, finding that his subject “might be the only tragic prophet in American letters.” There’s a tincture of the “noble savage” in Black Elk, a fetishizing of authenticity. The Lakota—and all Native Americans, for that matter—were in syncretic cultural contact with outside influences for centuries, from settlers to trappers to missionaries. The idea that Black Elk was a lone conduit to “traditional” ways rests on the dubious assumption that those ways never changed or shifted before the tribe was pushed onto the reservation.

Jackson vividly describes Black Elk’s time with William F. Cody’s “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” Cody often picked Lakota performers for his show straight from the Pine Ridge reservation, hauling them around the eastern United States and then across Europe. The show was a primary source of Europe’s fascination with the American West and of its particular interest in the plight of the American Indian. (Cody, of course, sidestepped Europe’s own complicity in the Indian genocides of the New World, focusing on the U.S. frontier.) Millions of Old World devotees of the Wild West shows gulped down this bowdlerized version of Indian lore, commodified for Anglo and European consumption. When it was published, Black Elk Speaks was very much of a piece with the tradition of the Wild West Show.

“Black Elk did not live as a paralyzed victim of Western subjugation or a despairing old man, but as a vital presence,” wrote Clyde Holler in his 1995 study, Black Elk’s Religion: The Sun Dance and Lakota Catholicism. Likewise, the Black Elk that Jackson shows us is no defeated old Indian. Thanks in part to Neihardt’s narrative skill, the holy man is both a voice in the wilderness and an avatar of the wilderness itself. Jackson writes:

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.’ The typical account blamed Native Americans as instigators of a war of extermination; Neihardt rejected the national narrative, and hoped to show otherwise by exposing the real ‘savages’ at Wounded Knee. 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.

Neihardt died in 1973—the year of the American Indian Movement’s seventy-one-day siege at Wounded Knee—satisfied that Black Elk Speaks was being embraced by a new generation. “How does one survive in [the modern] world?” Jackson asks. “The Machine is overwhelming and unstoppable, larger than any one woman or man. Black Elk saw it early, though he never used such dystopian terms. Perhaps the only true defense is the most intimate—preservation of one’s soul. Seen like that, his life is more than just another tale of Indian versus white. It becomes instead a parable of modern man.”

That is one way to tell the story of Black Elk: the hopeful way. But there’s another: modernism won, capitalism won; the genocide of American Indians has gone unpunished; and today they live with the highest poverty, unemployment, suicide, and mortality rates in the country. The banner success of Black Elk Speaks and the impassioned testimony of Jackson’s Black Elk can’t change that.

Black Elk’s legacy is a witness—a first-hand account of the horrors that accompanied national expansion and the cruel containment of the native population. It’s also a warning; in celebrating our righteous prophets, we are often too enchanted by their personalities to address the pressing needs of their people.

Ann Neumann, a visiting scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU and a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine, published her first book, The Good Death, in 2016.

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