Black Elk Speaks


John G. Neihardt

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Black Elk Speaks Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John G. Neihardt

John G. Neihardt was born in Sharpsburg, Illinois on January 8, 1881 and grew up in Kansas and Nebraska. He enrolled in the Nebraska Normal College in Wayne, Nebraska in 1893, where he supported himself by working as a bell-ringer, ringing a bell to notify teachers and students when it was time to change classes. His first published work was the Divine Enchantment (1900), a long poem which expanded on his Protestant upbringing to explore a more universal take on spiritual experience. As a young man, Neihardt worked for an Indian trader in Bancroft, Nebraska, a town outside the Omaha Reservation, which spurned his fascination with American Indian culture. He became acquainted with many Omaha Indians during this time and wrote several short stories inspired by these friendships, publishing them in magazines like Overland, Outing, and the American. In 1908, Neihardt married Mona Martinsen, a sculptor who studied with Rodin in Paris, and they had three children together: Enid, Hilda, and Sigurd. In 1921, Neihardt was named Poet Laureate of Nebraska. One of Neihardt’s most well-known works is A Cycle of the West (1949), a book of five epic poems written over 30 years that traces the history of western settlement and the displacement of American Indians. He worked as an editor and critic for the Minneapolis Journal, the Kansas City Journal-Post, The New York Times, and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. Neihardt’s relationship with Black Elk began in 1930, when he wanted to speak with a holy man who had firsthand experience with the Ghost Dance movement in order to complete Song of the Messiah (1935), the final installment of A Cycle of the West. Black Elk and Neihardt engaged in a series of conversations about Black Elk’s life and involvement in the movement, and they developed a deep, meaningful connection. Black Elk Speaks, which is derived from these conversations, was published in 1932. Over the course of his career, Neihardt taught at the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri. He died in 1973 at the age of 92.
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Historical Context of Black Elk Speaks

Black Elk receives his great vision in the Black Hills, which the Lakota view as sacred. Much of Black Elk Speaks focuses on the Lakota’s struggle to defend their rightful, sacred land against white colonizers. The Lakota people assumed control of the Black Hills in 1776, after conquering the Cheyenne. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868—an agreement settled between the U.S. government and the Ogalala, Minneconjou, and Brule bands of the Lakota tribe, as well as the Dakota and Arapaho tribes—dictated that the Black Hills would be exempt from white settlement. In 1874, however, Lt. Col. George Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills to scout a location for a military post, which led to the discovery of gold in the Hills. As a result, hundreds of miners flocked to the Black Hills to mine illegally, disregarding the provisions outlined in the 1868 treaty. By 1889, the U.S. government seized control of the Black Hills and forced the Lakota to relocate to government agencies across South Dakota.

Other Books Related to Black Elk Speaks

One important aspect of Black Elk Speaks is its focus on Black Elk’s quest toward spiritual discovery. Other books that chart a protagonist’s spiritual journey include Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Black Elk Speaks isn’t authored by Black Elk exclusively: the book is a representation of Black Elk’s story, as told through Neihardt. This aspect aligns Black Elk Speaks with a sub-genre of autobiography coined “as-told-to” narratives, or firsthand accounts conveyed through authors, anthropologists, or ethnographers. Plains Indians, in particular, were common subjects of such works. Some other notable “as-told-to” autobiographies are Pretty-shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows by Frank B. Linderman and Cheyenne Memories by John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty. Many regard Black Elk Speaks as a somewhat problematic work due to issues of authenticity that arise from Neihardt’s authorship. While Neihardt’s depiction of Black Elk’s story has been said “to read like extensions of [Black Elk’s] consciousness,” issues of translation, cultural differences, and the artistic liberties Neihardt took to transform the transcripts of his conversations with Black Elk into a cohesive book make it impossible to regard Black Elk Speaks as a direct, wholly accurate portrayal of Black Elk’s life and views. Raymond J. DeMallie’s study of Black Elk Speaks, titled The Sixth Grandfather, presents direct transcripts from Black Elk’s conversations with Neihardt, thereby granting the reader a more accurate representation of Black Elk’s story.
Key Facts about Black Elk Speaks
  • Full Title: Black Elk Speaks
  • When Written: 1932
  • Where Written: U.S.
  • When Published: 1932
  • Literary Period: American Realism
  • Genre: Biography
  • Setting: Great Plains, Western U.S.
  • Climax: Tensions mount between the Wasichu soldiers and the Sioux as the Ghost Dance movement revitalizes the Indian resistance. These tensions culminate in the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which many Lakota—mainly women and children—are murdered by U.S. soldiers.
  • Antagonist: The U.S. government 
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Black Elk Speaks

Sacred Land. Harney Peak, the location in the Black Hills where Black Elk received his great vision, was renamed Black Elk Peak in 2016.

The Title that Never Was. Neihardt originally wanted Black Elk Speaks to be called “The Tree that Never Bloomed,” after one of the main sacred symbols in Black Elk’s vision.