Black Elks Speaks

“History is written by the victors, not by the vanquished.”

Rarely do we have an opportunity to view history from the perspective of the vanquished.  “Black Elks Speaks”, by  John Neihardt, gives us another window through which we may look at the past.  Neihardt’s window shows us a completely different view of history.  A view in which honor and dignity belongs not to the victors, but to the vanquished.

“Black Elk Speaks” grants a Lakota medicine man named Black Elk a voice, and every reader an opportunity to revisit the past.  Be warned that this is not a pretty past, it is a troubled one, but one from which each of us can learn a great deal.

Black Elk has a powerful voice, and Neihardt’s work lets us hear it.  Listen carefully and you’ll hear the rustling of the winds, you’ll see the symbols he sees, and you’ll understand that deep down, Black Elk was simply a human – just like you or I.

Black Elk, was one of the vanquished.  As a youth, he survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.  Fourteen years later, in 1890, he managed to escape death at the Wounded Knee Massacre.  Neihardt’s work is presented as a narration of Black Elk’s words, it includes but is not limited to these incidents.

I have long held that there are two sides to truth.  “Black Elk Speaks” is the other side of the truth Americans generally see.  Through Neihardt’s lens the glorious past does not look as glorious, it looks downright shameful.

What is “Black Elk Speaks”?

It is not some fanciful romanticized Cowboys and Indians tale of the sort on which I was raised.  It is another version of the truth, one in which an honorable, dignified, and ancient culture were systematically cheated, misled, murdered, and ultimately destroyed in the name of western progress.

It is a powerful revelation of how misuse and abuse of power inevitably results in tragedy.  It is a tale of rampant greed allowed to go entirely unchecked.  It is a tale of a government spurring its people on, allowing them to ride roughshod over those who get in the way of their vision of progress.  It is a tale of symbolism misunderstood.  It is a tale of tragedy.

Is “Black Elk Speaks” a fun read?  Absolutely not.  It disturbed me deeply to learn that, in regard to US History, I had never been told the whole truth.  Equally disturbing is the realization that came with this knowledge, that many of the supposed truths I had accepted were so badly biased toward one side that they amounted to outright lies.

Why read something that isn’t enjoyable?  Where do you derive enjoyment and satisfaction, from learning, or from being blissfully unaware?

If we can’t learn from the past, then we should hold no hope for the future.  Black Elk Speaks grants us a glimpse of a past in which many mistakes were made.  It really is a learning opportunity for the future.

“Black Elk Speaks” is not a “story” or a “tale”, it is another peoples’ truth.

My further thoughts.

Black Elk’s version of history differs substantially from my romantic childhood visions of the glorious Wild West, in which the Indians were the villains and the Cowboys the heroes.  My apologies to all Native Americans, please bear with me for a moment.  We have learnt a little of dignity in the last 40 years, we’re starting to understand that terms people find insulting should not be used.  But we still have a lot to learn.  We need to do more than not use derogatory cultural terms, we need to stop believing them.  A substantial part of that disbelief is readily available within “Black Elk Speaks”, which shows us the human side of those we are so willing to dehumanize with derogatory labels.  Once we realize that people are people are people, once we begin to understand that we are all the same on the inside, once we learn that we all have similar aspirations, once we are able to tear off the labels and look at the individuals…  Then we begin to realize that the world is a world of we, not a world of me.  Hopefully we also begin to realize that dignity is not granted by our discarding offensive labels such as “indian”, it is granted by the way we act towards the people we so labeled.

While we cannot make right the wrongs done in the past, we can learn the other side of truth.  Are knowledgeable people less likely to repeat past errors?  We can only hope they are.

My exposure to “Black Elk Speaks” distressed me sufficiently to prompt this tweet.

Western civilization
is a culture of conquer, and claim,
everywhere it rides is thunder and acid rain,
without conscience, or shame.

Who holds honor, the deceived, or the deceivers.

Where lies shame?  With those whose ancestors faced a ruthless foe and succumbed, or with those whose ancestors were ruthless and destroyed?

I think human nature encourages us to believe we are honorable, and that our heritage is honorable.  Sadly this is often not the case, {In my  case, my ancestors displaced the peoples of southern Africa.} yet when the evidence shows otherwise, we close our eyes.  We’re good at finding excuses and exemptions for our poor behavior, or for poor behavior exhibited by others that benefits us.

However when we’re faced with the very real suffering that such behavior inevitably causes, then we start to think that perhaps things are not quite as just as we held them up to be.  That is what I felt in “Black Elk Speaks”.  I believe Neihardt’s work is the very real memories of one man, as told to another.  This isn’t a fictional story, but a translated memory of the events that shaped a person.  Black Elk was actually there, physically present at some of the brutal massacres perpetrated by the US military.  Yes, the author acted as intermediary, yes there is the potential for translation errors, and yes, understanding the symbolism of a culture foreign to your own is very confusing.  However none of those factors matter to me.

Black Elk was a man, I am a man.  Black Elk wanted a life for his family, I want a life for mine.  Black Elk expected to be treated with dignity, as do I.  We’re all just humans, as humans have been for thousands of years, and as we’ll probably continue to be for thousands more.  Yet to this day distrust exists between the various sub-species of human. Our behavior toward those that differ from us is as repugnant as the behavior of those who virtually destroyed the Lakota sub-species. The lessons in Neihardt’s work are just as applicable today as they where during those tragic times, let us learn from them.

Black Elk uses symbolism to illustrate his vision of past and future. Unfortunately, as a westerner to whom his culture is no longer accessible, I feel that I miss a great deal of what the symbols he invokes represent.  However that does not in any way detract from the power of Neihardt’s work. Black Elk’s symbolism gives us a glimpse of a deep understanding between man and nature, so deep as to be unity.  Black Elk does not separate and hold himself aloof from nature. Perhaps in Black Elk’s mind the bonding force between man and nature is spirit.

In western European culture we take great pride in how our spirit remains indomitable beneath the elemental forces of nature.  In Black Elk’s culture, and within the symbols of it which Neihardt’s work presents, I sense an entirely different outlook.  In Black Elk’s vision of the world nature does not attempt to dominate man, thus there is therefore no need to man to be indomitable.  Only when man no longer hears Nature’s call is there reason to fear nature.  In Black Elk’s world nature encompasses man within its benevolent protection.  I see the escape of Black Elk’s people beneath cover of a blizzard as an example of nature’s protection.

Why do we westerners make the mistake of thinking we can dominate nature?  “Black Elk Speaks” brings home to me how the Lakota people never held this view.  I wonder how it is that our modern, technologically advanced society has forgotten things an ancient culture knows?

As I said, I’m of western European origin, which means some of the symbols Black Elk considers obvious are not obvious to me at all.  However, simply because we don’t understand symbolism does not make it any less symbolic.  Though the symbolism of a different culture is difficult to grasp, it is still worth making the effort to understand.  Cultural symbolism offers us insights into why people are the way they are.  Ultimately what we uncover, is that people are people no matter who they are.

“Black Elk Speaks” gives us a glimpse of an ancient culture that is no more, washed away by what we so self-righteously assume is the progress of the western world.  The western world is not the only viable model for successful society, think on that the next time you hear unsubstantiated headlines designed to make you do anything but think.

Black Elk Speaks brings home the cost of “the right of conquest”.  The vanquished lose everything, while the victors gain everlasting shame. Shame does not lessen with the passage of time, it waits, biding its time until something uncovers it and demands redress.

Additional reading material on some of the topics covered in this post are available below.

About C.G.Ayling

Musing misuser of words, lover of lyrical literature, author, occasional contrary thoughts. An honorable man’s name, in memoriam.
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2 Responses to Black Elks Speaks

  1. Susan Howell says:

    Your writing approach in the above post shows me that you have a natural ability and gift for taking a leap of faith to truly “feel” the root/origin of a life crisis.
    When a crisis is continually met by a wall of ignorance, fear and silence, that profound lack of empathy is like fuel feeding a fire creating an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy.
    From my personal experience you exemplify a rare quality of strength for “listening” to your own feelings and intuition for guidance to discover the real truth under layers of deception.
    As someone who doesn’t have the time or patience to read, I prefer to tell the story without writing .. your interpretation was completely engaging, easy to read, honest, direct without any BS. Thank you sooo much !

    • C.G.Ayling says:

      Thank you for adding such insightful comments to the thread. The acts of violence and deceit perpetrated against the native people of all colonized lands, sadly North America was not alone in this, are matters to be remembered with eternal shame. When one group of humans deceives, maltreats, and murders another they do enormous damage to themselves. A damage they might never notice, but that taints their psyche. Evidence of that damage is everywhere, we only have to look and we see it in the callous treatment of people worse off than ourselves that predominates this horrible thing we call “modern society”.
      I am of Caucasian descent, it is my ancestors who have committed the most atrocious deeds throughout recorded history. We aren’t the master race, we are humanities dregs, yet somehow we’ve risen to the top of the pond. Sad.

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