Black Elk Speaks ‘new’ Truth: Reviewing ‘Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala’

Pat McGuigan, February 1994 
In John’s Gospel, there is that poignant moment when a reluctant Pontius Pilate, about to send Jesus of Nazareth to his death, rebukes the Galilean with the question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38 KJV) Relying too much on reason, Pilate was unable to find faith, and thus unable to know truth.

After reading Michael F. Steltenkamp‘s biography of an enigmatic symbol of Native American spirituality — Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (University of Oklahoma Press, 211 pages with index and bibliography, $19.95) — one concludes with reasonable certainty that at some point in his last five decades, Black Elk studied that encounter between one of this world’s rulers and the ruler of all.

Perhaps he even preached on it. If he could speak today, what lessons on truth might Black Elk give Americans of all ethnic backgrounds?
This book persuades that his message would be controversial, shocking those who consider Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux a precursor of New Age sensibilities and religion. 

As Steltenkamp reports, Black Elk was “Born when buffalo was still the staple of Plains tribes” and “he shared in the victory of Little Big Horn” (1876) – when the Sioux and allies under Sitting Bull defeated the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry under Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Black Elk was a key figure in the 1890 “ghost dance” movement, a final, largely spiritual resistance which ended at Wounded Knee, in a massacre Black Elk could describe powerfully decades after the fact.

The neo-pagan vision of Black Elk is mostly drawn from two studies which have been treated as if they were original source materials: John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1932) and John Epes Brown’s The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953).

Steltenkamp’s book (released in September 1993) is sure to spark controversy among serious historians of the American West. This book may leave in tatters the reputation of Neihardt, a poet who, on the basis of lengthy interviews with the subject, wrote Black Elk Speaks.

As Sam Gill noted in his Oct. 31 review for The New York Times, “Neihardt’s treatment focuses on the first 25 years of Black Elk’s life, ending with the tragedy at Wounded Knee. Black Elk, as Neihardt presents him, is a pathetic man whose past has been lost and whose future is impossible. ” But as Steltenkamp observes, The real Black Elk lived until 1950: “Neihardt and Brown both erred by depicting him solely as a 19th-century figure. ” In “amazement, I learned that Black Elk had preached Christian doctrine to his people for the greater part of his life and that he had been formally invested with the office of catechist. ” 

Black Elk, The Christian

Black Elk converted (in 1904) to Christianity as taught by Jesuit missionaries. He preached that Catholic faith to fellow Sioux, as well as other tribes, until his death.
This is not merely an issue of historical nit-picking. Emotional words from Neihardt’s 1932 book provide the ending of the 1971 best-seller, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Yet Steltenkamp, with magnificent restraint in his references, indicates that many of the words attributed to the holy man cannot be found in extant transcripts of the original Neihardt-Black Elk interviews.

(Tulsan Wes Studi, the actor of Cherokee ancestry, in the early 1990s dominated the nation’s screens as the title character of the film, “Geronimo. ” One of Studi’s first successes was a staging of “Black Elk Speaks” which also starred Will Sampson and David Carridine.) 

Thus, the contemporary image of Black Elk is based, in Steltenkamp’s charitable characterization, on “the poetic craftsmanship of John Neihardt. ” It is possible for readers inclined to harsher judgments about Neihardt’s sense of responsibility to history to feel more kindly toward Joseph Epes Brown, who — in a letter — encouraged Steltenkamp’s search for the truth: “I have felt it improper that this phase of his life was never presented either by Neihardt or indeed by myself. I suppose somehow it was thought this Christian participation compromised his ‘Indianness,’ but I do not see it this way and think it time that the record was set straight. ” 

Stories from Pine Ridge

The resigned Black Elk of Neihardt’s book contrasts comprehensively with the hopeful Black Elk of Steltenkamp’s book, drawn from interviews with those who knew and loved him, voluminous references to original and secondary sources, and publications from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where the holy man lived most of his life.

His daughter, Lucy (Black Elk) Looks Twice, was an ardent Christian who regarded the violent 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee — when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) evoked Black Elk’s name — as unworthy of her father’s memory. In her own way, however, she eventually reconciled to the image of her father presented in ‘Black Elk Speaks.’

At the end, Black Elk was not obsessed with a world past, but worried about the pathological behavior he saw growing among young Indians at Pine Ridge. He was confident about his own fate, however. He told Lucy he believed God would send a sign that his exhortations to Christian faith and behavior were the proper path for the people.

A Night of Signs?

Many believe that when he died on Aug. 17, 1950, signs were indeed given. John Lone Goose, one of his friends, remembered “that night very well, and those bright stars. … God sent those beautiful objects to shine on that old missionary. … The night was still and warm with nothing fearsome about it – just quiet and nice. God was with us at that time. ” Many others recalled Black Elk’s night of passage. William Siehr, a Jesuit brother at Pine Ridge since the 1930s, attended the wake. 

About 10:30 p.m., “When we left the place, we noticed that light. The sky was just one bright illumination. I never saw anything so magnificent. I’ve seen a number of flashes of the northern lights …, but I never saw anything quite so intense as it was that night. ” He continued, “the whole horizon seemed to be ablaze. That’s the first and the only time I ever saw anything like it. ” He wondered “at the immensity” of the display, which he described as “almost like fireworks” in the sky.

There is a logical explanation for all of this, but the words of William Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar,” Act II, scene 2) come to mind: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” 

In Steltenkamp’s book of unusual depth, itself an act of charity, we beggars meet the Black Elk we never knew.

Note: McGuigan wrote this February 1994 review during his time as chief editorial writer for The Oklahoman, the state’s largest daily newspaper. For this fresh posting, sub-heads and some editing revisions were made.