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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

BLACK ELK SPEAKS by John G. Neihardt (1932 with reissue in 1961).

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

I moved from Texas to Nebraska for graduate school in 1983. There I began to discover Nebraska writers, many of whom became favorites of mine and still are to this day. So to begin my book reviews, I wanted to share four of my top picks from those Nebraska days. I won’t usually write long comprehensive book reviews but will just share a basic comment on the work and/or author and what they have meant to me. I am nowhere near a trained literary critic, just a reader and seeker of understanding.

To my memory, my first graduate class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall of 1983 was held in Neihardt Hall, which was then mainly still a student dorm but had some classrooms on the first floor (or that is how I remember it). So I became curious about who John G. Neihardt was and soon discovered his great work on the life and vision of Black Elk. Neihardt (RIP 1881-1973) was an American writer, poet and ethnographer, writing mainly about life on the western plains at the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, during a time of vast cultural change, as the pioneer days were ending and the life of American Indians were continuing to be challenged and changed by the sweep of colonialist American culture.

Black Elk (RIP 1863-1950) was an Oglala Sioux Medicine Man whose early life saw the battle of Little Big Horn where Custer was killed in 1876 to the massacre of the Sioux people at Wounded Knee in 1890. Black Elk became ill as a child of about nine years old and during this time he had his great vision about the life of his Lakota people as they became further destroyed by and enmeshed with white settlers and culture. In 1931 Neihardt meet Black Elk while seeking to find older medicine men who remembered and retained the old ways and religious beliefs of the Sioux. Black Elk decided to share his story and vision with Neihardt in hopes that his vision would not be lost for the future of his people. The book is a very personal account of the life and times of Black Elk and the Sioux people. It is also a completely different authentic light from which to view history and Eurocentric values. In contrast, Black Elk’s vision is universal in its scope and offers a unified hope for humanity. Definitely one of those books that illuminated and changed my life.

-Terry M Pace (2020)

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