01 Apr

John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (1932)

Black Elk (1863-1950) was an Oglala Lakota known for his visions and curative powers. When Black Elk was 19, he cured a sick boy and became a medicine man among his people. Black Elk worked in a store for the Wasichus (non-red people) and as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was a part of the Ghost Dance movement. Black Elk also participated in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (i.e., the Battle of Little Big Horn) in 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Shortly after the massacre, Black Elk was baptized as a Catholic.

John G. Neihardt interviewed the Sioux about their history in 1930 and published Black Elk Speaks in 1932. The book remains controversial because it is a white man’s re-telling of Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota’s history. Neihardt interviewed Black Elk, but Black Elk did not speak English. A translator relayed Black Elk’s story to Neihardt who took notes of the accounts and later reconstructed the notes into a narrative. Scholars have recognized inconsistencies in Neihardt’s retelling and in the history of the Oglala Lakota. Others have suggested that Neihardt embellished the narrative to make it more appealing to white audiences in the 1930s.


Black Elk Speaks tells the story of Black Elk’s life as a medicine mane. According to Neihardt, Black Elk received visions from the spirit world—the first at the age of 9 and the second when he was “lamenting on a hill.” The visions were of an herb with curative powers. Black Elk and One Side found the herb. Soon after, Black Elk used the herb and the power of the spirits in a ceremony to cure a sick boy. The narrative relays Black Elk’s doubts about being able to cure the boy, but his eventual success. Black Elk was 19 at the time he cured the boy. Thereafter, many came to him for help and Black Elk became a medicine man.

Black Elk Speaks also recounts the relations between the Oglala Lakota and the Wasichus (non-red people). Neihardt relates Black Elk’s account of the failed treaties and promises with the white men. Black Elk’s people suffered starvation and disease. Land was stolen from them by the Wasichus. According to the narrative, the Oglala Lakota awaited for the appearance of a sacred man, a messiah-like figure, who would save them from death and destruction by the white men. Black Elk was unsure of this figure, but thought hard about this man and his own visions. In anticipation of this sacred man and the coming world of peace, the Lakota held ghost dances as a way of contacting and seeking advice from the spirit world and their ancestors. Black Elk joined in the ghost dances. People linked arm in arm to dance and sing. During the dances, Black Elk had visions and out of body experiences. Once he saw a vision of two men wearing holy shirts. Black Elk made holy shirts like the ones he saw in his visions. He told people about his visions through songs.

For an excerpt of this text see: John G. Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks. In American Religions: A Documentary History, 341-351. Edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Ghost Dance Movement in History

Historians have attributed Oglala Lakota resistance to assimilation into white culture to the Ghost Dance Movement. The Ghost Dance Movement connected the earthly and spiritual worlds. It focused on the power of the circle and anticipated an earthly time when people would not suffer under white men. The Ghost Dance Movement gave hope and encouragement to men and women whose lives, livelihoods, and lands had been stolen. Despite the non-violent nature of the ghost dances,  the U.S. government and white American settlers perceived the Ghost Dance Movement as a religious movement meant to incite war. Tension mounted as the U.S. government arrested leaders of the Ghost Dance Movement throughout 1890. The U.S. government called for the continued forced removal of the Oglala Lakota from their lands. In December 1890, the U.S. army surrounded a group Oglala Lakota  travelling to the Pine Ridge Agency. The group included men with weapons as well as women and children. The U.S. army attempted to disarm the men in order to board them on trains for removal. In the process, shots were fired and the  U.S. army massacred Oglala Lakota men, women, and children near Wounded Knee Creek.