The darkest stain on American history is undoubtedly slavery. But America’s treatment of its native peoples was almost as cruel – forcing Indian tribes onto bleak reservations, hunting the buffalo almost to extinction, solemnly making but routinely breaking treaties, killing women and children as well as the warriors who sought to defend them. That by the end of the 19th century any Native Americans were willing to work with white people – wasichus, as the Lakota Sioux called them – is surprising. That Hehaka Sapa, Black Elk – the Lakota “medicine” or holy man, whose oral history was the basis of the 1932 book “Black Elk Speaks” by John G. Neihardt – believed he had a divine mission to bridge the gulf between the groups is as amazing as his life itself.
In “Black Elk,” Virginia Beach author Joe Jackson does a magnificent job of relating, explaining and commenting on that life in what is by far the most comprehensive biography of its subject to date. Jackson portrays Native Americans with a clear-eyed sympathy that avoids sentimentality, bringing historical figures such as Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull to life and providing fascinating insights into Indian life, culture and, most notably, religion.
Sweeping in scope, this book covers events as disparate as Custer’s Last Stand, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in New York and London, the Paris of la belle époque, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. What links them is Black Elk’s evolution from Lakota warrior to medicine man(wicasa wakan) to Catholic catechist.
The life of Black Elk (1863-1950) stretched from the Civil War to the nuclear age and spanned two world wars as well as the Indian Wars in which he and his tribe fought, occasionally winning battles over the better-armed and better-supplied U.S. Army. Born in the Powder River Country that crosses northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, he almost died, perhaps from meningitis, at age 9 and during his illness experienced the grand vision that would shape the course of his long life.
Black Elk later said that Thunder-beings, the most powerful Lakota spirits, took him to the Grandfathers, spiritual representatives of the west, north, east, south, heaven and earth, the six directions in Lakota religion. Through showing him several scenes – some beautiful, some terrifying – and several symbols such as a cup of water and a bow and arrow, the Grandfathers brought Black Elk to understand that the sacred medicine hoop of the Lakota was, he said, “one of many hoops that made one circle.” In a revelation that perhaps few of his people would have accepted then, Black Elk realized that, as Jackson puts it, “for the Sioux to survive, all must survive, even the hated wasichu.”
But his vision did not prevent Black Elk from shooting and scalping a U.S. soldier in 1876 when the Lakota and their Indian allies defeated the Army troops under Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Nor did his vision prevent him from fighting members of the Crow tribe over scarce food after some of the Lakota crossed into Grandmother’s Land – their name for the Canada of Queen Victoria’s empire. Jackson relates these incidents in a refreshingly factual matter, without making the all-too-common mistakes of either excusing the beliefs and actions of a historical figure or condemning the person for being of his time and place.
Although not a historian by training, Jackson is a gifted storyteller with an eye for telling detail as well as the broad canvas of a chronicle such this one. He has published six nonfiction books and a novel, including “Leavenworth Train,” a finalist for the 2002 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime; “The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire”; and “Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic.” Jackson was an investigative reporter for The Virginian-Pilot for 12 years, covering criminal justice and the state’s death row. He now holds the Mina Hohenberg Darden Chair in Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.
Based on extensive research, well documented, and reflecting Jackson’s thoughtful and thorough analysis of its subject’s times as well as his life, “Black Elk” will appeal to scholars as well as to readers interested in Native Americans or the history of the American West. The book contains a helpful list of “dramatis personae,” several maps, and a number of striking photographs.
In 1882, barely six years after fighting Custer and only four after fighting the Crow, Black Elk began fulfilling his grand vision by becoming a medicine man and healing the sick through religious ceremonies and medicinal herbs. In another four years, curious about the white world he had heard of but never seen, he joined Cody’s Wild West Show and performed first in New York and then in London, where he met Victoria. After missing the boat back to the United States, he joined “Mexican Joe” Shelley’s Western show and toured in England and on the Continent. In Paris he had a love affair with a woman named Charlotte, an episode that had a lasting impact on him, as attested by his great-granddaughter, the activist Charlotte Black Elk, quoted in Ian Frazier’s 2000 book “On the Rez.”
After returning to the United States in 1889, Black Elk became involved in the “Ghost Dance” religious revival that made the U.S. government nervous about a possible Indian uprising and led to the Wounded Knee battle in 1890 that turned into a massacre of more than 150 Native Americans – an event that Black Elk witnessed. The holy man became convinced that if his people were to survive into the 20th century, they would have to adapt to the modern world.
Seeing similarities between the Lakota religion and Catholicism, Black Elk, baptized “Nicholas,” became an ardent catechist and converted more than 400 Native Americans to Catholicism. But as revealed in “Black Elk Speaks,” he never entirely ceased to practice his native religion, which distressed the priests with whom he worked at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
The final quarter of the book, which discusses Black Elk’s work for the Catholic Church and his giving to Neihardt his oral history, is understandably slower than the crowded events that precede it, but vital to understanding his life and legacy. One finishes “Black Elk” with a profound respect for the man Jackson correctly calls an “American visionary.” Equally important, one gains a deeper understanding of our country’s native peoples, who, ever since Europeans and then Americans coveted their territory, have celebrated many triumphs but suffered even more tragedies at their hands.
As one Lakota said of the wasichus, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.”