Black Elk deserves to be remembered, says author Alec Marsh. He tells Historia about this extraordinary Oglala Lakota (Sioux) holy man, a mystic and warrior who fought at Little Bighorn yet lived until 1950. Black Elk survived Wounded Knee, joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, converted to Catholicism, and may eventually be beatified. His story influenced Alec’s new book, Ghosts of the West, and one of its characters (an elderly Native American chief named Black Cloud) is partly based on him.
“My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life… if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.”
So begins one the greatest pieces of writing to emerge in the 20th century. Ostensibly an autobiography, Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932 but republished many times since, is the biographical memoir of an Oglala Lakota Sioux medicine man or mystic, in which he gives a first-hand account of his life, and the trials of his people.
It is was in fact written by a poet and author John Neihardt from the transcripts of a series of conversations he had with Nicholas Black Elk, as he had become by then – following his conversion to Catholicism in around 1904 – in the May of 1931 at the remote outpost of Manderson in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
What follows is an astonishing journey into the civilisation and spiritual world of the Lakota Sioux, told by one of the last men alive who could tell the story.
Black Elk is not a man much known to readers in Britain. He should be. He lived one of those storied lives that spanned epochs. In his case he was old enough to fight at what became known as Custer’s Last Stand (the Battle of the Little Bighorn) in 1876 – but also young enough to live until 1950 by which point everything he had grown up with had been destroyed.
Born in December, 1863, on the Powder River in a place that would five years later become the Wyoming Territory (it was another 21 years after that before it officially became a state and entered the Union), Black Elk lived until the grand old age of 86.
By that time the landscape and the world of Lakota Sioux was transformed utterly by contact with white-European population of the United States.
In 1863 his people still lived as hunters, following the great herds of buffalo that abundantly populated the Great Plains of the West. Yet within 15 years those great herds, which had been some 30 million strong in 1850, had been all but eradicated by white settlers and the traders – partly to feed the European market for leather, but also part of a deliberate policy to wipe out the bedrock of the Native American’s civilisation. Kill a buffalo, it was said, and you killed an Indian.
The Plains Indians ate the meat of buffalo; they sheltered beneath its hides in their tepees and their wore its skins, too. It also played a role in their spiritual life.
In addition to eradicating the buffalo the United States government undertook a policy of driving the Native American tribes onto reservations – often on inadequate land, with the conflicting aim of making these hunter-warriors into farmers.
Black Elk saw this all first hand. But first he saw something different – at the age of nine, a great vision, which changed the course of his life forever. He had been very unwell, and explains in detail a vision in which he meets six grandfathers or ‘thunder spirits’ in a cloud tepee. They were “the Powers of the world… the first was the Power of the West, the second, of the North, the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the fifth, of the Sky; the sixth of the Earth.”
What follows is mind-expanding journey to the centre of the earth where Black Elk sees the sacred tree. His future as a healer or medicine man is laid before him when One of the grandfathers passes him a “peace pipe which had a spotted eagle outstretched upon the stem; and this eagle seemed alive… its eyes were looking at me. ‘With this pipe,’ the Grandfather said, ‘you shall walk upon the earth, and whatever sickens there you shall make well.'” The Sixth Grandfather (representing Earth) later tells Black Elk that he will inherit his powers: “My boy, have courage, for my power shall be yours, and you shall need it, for your nation on the earth will have great troubles.”
The Grandfather was not wrong about the troubles.
At the age of 13 Black Elk took part in the perhaps the most famous armed engagement in the history of the United States’ campaign again indigenous people of the continent – the Battle of Little Bighorn, the biggest defeat suffered by the US at the hands of the Plains Indians. His testimony is recorded in chapter entitled The rubbing out of Long Hair (the Lakota Sioux name for Custer).
“There was a soldier on the ground and he was still kicking,” Neihardt reports Black Elk saying. “A Lakota rode up and said to me, ‘Boy, get off and scalp him.’ I got off and started to do it. He had short hair and my knife was not very sharp. He ground his teeth. Then I shot him in the forehead and got his scalp.”
After that Black Elk did what most 13-year-olds would do. He went home to show his mother the scalp. “After awhile I got tired looking around. I could smell nothing but blood, and I got sick of it. So I went back home with some others. I was not sorry at all. I was a happy boy.”
Later Black Elk tells of the murder of the war leader who led the Sioux to victory in 1876 – Crazy Horse, his second cousin – when he was unarmed in a scuffle at Fort Robinson, Nebraska in 1877. “They could not kill him in battle,” said Black Elk. “They had to lie to him and kill him that way.”
Black Elk then tells how his people went onto the reservations – “the Wasichus [white men] had slaughtered all the bison and shut us up in pens” – and the run up to the Ghost Dance religious phenomenon that ultimately led to the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on 29 December, 1890. That was when 250 mostly Lakota women and children were gunned down by the US Seventh Cavalry.
Black Elk arrived after the massacre in time to see the aftermath. “It was a good winter day when all this happened,” Black Elk told Neihardt. “The sun was shining. But after the soldiers marched away from their dirty work, a heavy snow began to fall. The wind came up in the night. There was a big blizzard, and it grew very cold. The snow drifted deep in the crooked gulch [valley], and it was one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away.”
“I did not know how much was ended,” recalled Black Elk. “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age… I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
Along the way, Black Elk ended up joining Colonel William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s Wild West show, one of around 1,000 ‘show Indians’ who took part in its re-enactments of the old west for worldwide audiences.
Travelling East through Chicago, he declared: “I was surprised at the big houses and so many people, and there were bright lights at night, so that you could not see the stars.”
After several months performing out East, however, he drew a low opinion of the white man’s world: “The Wasichus [white men] did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation’s hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could use, while crowds of people had nothing at all. They had forgotten that the earth was their mother.”
Then during a visit to London in the 1887 with the show – other performers included sharp-shooter Annie Oakley – he met ‘Grandmother England’, or Queen Victoria as she is known to us. She spoke to the Native Americans in the company, which gave her a private performance.
“She was little and fat but we liked her, because she was good to us,” he said. “She said something like this: ‘I am sixty-seven years old. All over the world I have seen all kinds of people; but today I have seen the best-looking people I know. If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around like this.’”
In 1904 Black Elk converted to Catholicism. In the years that followed he preached and converted hundreds of Sioux, though he continued to hold traditional Lakota beliefs too.
In recognition of his work, the bishops of the US Catholic church voted in 2017 to begin a process of beatification, meaning that Black Elk could become a saint. That would be a fascinating conclusion to a long life.
The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, published by the University of Nebraska, calls him ‘probably the most influential Native American leader of the 20th century’.
In 1980 the United States Congress named a 50-sq-km section of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota in his honour. The highest point of the Black Elk Wilderness was also named after him. It’s the highest point in the state.
In the author’s postscript to Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt describes how the aged medicine man points up to Harney’s Peak (as that highest point was then known prior to being redesignated) and recalls the Six Grandfathers taking him there in his vision before taking him to the centre of the earth to see the sacred tree. Black Elk says he would like to return. So they go back.
Standing at the peak, clutching his sacred pipe, Black Elk assails the Grandfathers and great spirit and recalls his great vision. “It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives,” he said. “Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds. Hear me not for myself, but for my people.”
Controversial in some quarters – for what Neihardt emphasised or omitted of Oglala Lakota life and beliefs – and hailed in others, Black Elk Speaks is the account of an epoch, as well as a man and his people. And whether or not Black Elk is beatified, he undoubtedly stands tall in American culture, as tall, in fact, as the 7,200-feet peak named after him. Every inch.
It’s partly set in the USA and has a Native American theme.
Alec’s previous Drabble and Harris book, Enemy of the Raj, took the pair to India. For Historia, Alec has written about another remarkable man, one who appears in that book, in It’s time to remember Ganga Singh: maharaja, reformer, statesman.
Black Elk, dressed as a chief, photographed two years before his death: South Dakota Hall of Fame
Nicholas Black Elk, daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife Anna Brings White, photographed in their home in Manderson, South Dakota, c1910: Wikimedia
Nicholas Black Elk, c1940: First People
The Battle of Little Bighorn, painting by Sioux chief Kicking Bear, 1898. In the centre of the picture are the chiefs Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face, Crazy Horse and Kicking Bear; on the right, the red figure is the defeated Custer: Wikimedia
Bureal of the dead at the Battle of Wounded Knee S.D. [sic], 1891; US soldiers putting Native American bodies in a common grave: US Library of Congress
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and congress of rough riders of the world A congress of American Indians, circus poster: Picryl
Black Elk and Elk of the Oglala Lakota as grass dancers touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, London, 1887: Wikimedia
Black Elk Peak in South Dakota by Skye Marthaler: Wikipedia