Readorama: Reissued book ‘Black Elk’ chronicles life of a Native American healer

07/02/2014 4:13 PM

07/05/2014 8:11 PM

The book first appeared more than 80 years ago, and its author died 40 years ago.

And yet “Black Elk Speaks” and its author, John G. Neihardt, remain contemporary.

The University of Nebraska Press, which republished the book in 1961, now has produced a new edition of what arguably is “the signature publication of the press’ long history,” said Derek Krissoff, editor-in-chief. First published in 1932, the book presented the recollections and visions of Oglala Lakota healer Nicholas Black Elk, as detailed by Neihardt.

Neihardt was a poet and newspaper editor who spent some of his boyhood in Kansas City and from 1949 through 1965 served as a lecturer at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Neihardt encountered Black Elk in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and returned the next year to interview him formally.

Neihardt was taken by Black Elk’s personal recollections of crucial moments in the Plains Indians story of the late 19th century, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn, the rise of the Ghost Dance movement and the subsequent massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

But just as riveting were the transcendent visions of Lakota culture and destiny that Black Elk first experienced when he was a boy, and which he chose to share with Neihardt some 55 years later.

“When Neihardt stumbled upon Black Elk, he knew immediately he had a great story,” said Timothy Anderson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism faculty member who has just completed a biography of the author.

“But Black Elk also changed the way Neihardt thought about the Native American plight.”

Controversy still surrounds the book. Neihardt interviewed Black Elk through an interpreter, Black Elk’s son, and Neihardt relied on the notes taken by one of his own daughters, a stenographer.

Some readers, Anderson said, still feel wary about that transaction.

“It was a two-family, two-generation operation,” Anderson said. “And yet Neihardt truly believed that he and Black Elk had found a conduit between the two of them.”

For information about the latest edition of “Black Elk Speaks,” go to NebraskaPress.UNL.edu.

To learn more about Neihardt Day, scheduled for Aug. 3 at the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site in Bancroft, Neb., go to NeihardtCenter.org.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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