Saturday, September 19, 2015

On Reading "Black Elk Speaks"

I am reading Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt. Nicholas Black Elk was born in 1863. We are told in this book that he met with John Neihardt on several consecutive days in 1930 and told him the story of his early life. Also present (at Neihardt's request) were several of Black Elk's friends, older than he, who could fill in details of events that occurred when Black Elk was a young child (and would not have seen everything nor fully understood the happenings). Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux, spoke no English; John Neihardt did not speak the Sioux language. Ben Black Elk, Nicholas Black Elk's son was brought in to translate. Neihardt also brought his two daughters to the meetings, one of whom was a trained stenographer who took down what Ben translated. Normally she did so in shorthand, but particularly important statements she wrote down in longhand.

Before he began to explain his life, Black Elk held a ceremony in which he gave Neihardt and his daughters Oglala names, effectively adopting them into his family. (This apparently was required as he was to share details of visions that he had never shared before.) After the telling was completed, a bull was killed and eaten in the old Oglala fashion (one wonders how daughters brought up in Nebraska in the roaring 20s liked eating raw beef liver, fresh from the newly killed bull). The Oglala dressed in full dress and all danced.

Neihardt's specific interest in this work was to understand the Ghost Dance cult that spread across the western Indian tribes in 1890. An aspect of the cult were ghost shirts which the members of the cult believed would, if worn in battle, keep them safe from bullets. Not surprisingly, the idea of thousands of Indian warriors from many tribes rising against the federal troops, believing that they were invulnerable, had worried army leaders. The army was bringing in Sioux bands to the Wounded Knee reservation in conjunction with this concern when the Wounded Knee massacre occurred.

Black Elk had been a warrior at the time and took part in Custer's last stand as well as Wounded Knee. He was also a visionary who had his own visions and led his own vision dances. He participated in a Ghost Dance, learning of the vision of a western Indian, began to make ghost shirts, and began to organize his own ghost dances to further spread the cult before Wounded Knee. Thus he seemed a perfect subject for Neihardt's purposes.

The Story

A significant portion of the narrative is devoted to the battles between the Sioux (and other Indians) and the soldiers. There are a number of smaller engagements, ones we hear relatively little about normally, ending with "Custer's Last Stand" and the Wounded Knee massacre, told of course from the point of view of the Indians. I would note that Black Elk was raised in a hunting gathering culture; killing animals, skinning them, cleaning them, and butchering them would have been commonplace in his life; indeed, he must have enjoyed eating the raw liver of freshly killed buffalo, and must himself have killed small birds and animals for the family pot even as a child. His was a culture that had little exposure to hospitals (which might have done more harm than good, given the state of medicine in the 19th century); deaths of babies, of old people and from epidemics of infectious disease would have been more common then than now -- life expectancy at birth would have been short for the planes Indians and death would frequently have occurred in the tepee. Black Elk would probably have been exposed to more human death growing up than we are today. It may well have been that modern Americans will have difficulty relating to what may have been a rather matter of fact approach to killing, blood and death of Black Elk in his early years as a warrior.

John Neihardt apparently was most interested in understanding the Ghost Dance and related issues. We are told that he was not an anthropologist, nor was he expert on the religious rituals of the Oglala, and that he did not include in his narrative information provided by Black Elk on other Sioux rituals. He goes into some depth about a long vision that Black Elk had when he was seriously ill and unconscious as a boy; this is presented as a central event in Black Elk's life. As the story is told, Black Elk does not immediately tell others about his vision, feeling he will not be taken seriously as a child. When he comes of age parts of the vision are shared with his village, with the aid of much older visionaries, through elaborate dance rituals. Black Elk dresses and paints himself in a manner designed to express the visions and he enlists maidens and young warriors from the tribe to play key roles. He composes and sings special songs related to the vision. The witnesses to the performance take part dancing, and the dancing goes on for hours.

Neihardt thus establishes that some Indians are seen as granted special visions from the spirit world, and that they are communicated through dance rituals. One can imagine the impact of such a ritual on the exhausted dancers to be very great indeed.

Wovoka—Paiute spiritual leader
and creator of the Ghost Dance
Neihardt then describes the mission sent by the Sioux to the Paiutes to learn about the Ghost Dance vision that a Paiute had that foretold that
proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to native peoples throughout the region.
The message also included designs of a new "Ghost shirt" that would keep its wearer safe from bullets.

The reader finds the communication of a message from the spirit world to the living by means of ritual dances to be familiar from Black Elk's own life experiences.

Indeed, the Ghost Dance does spread to the Sioux, Black Elk takes part in one, accepts the teaching, begins making Ghost shirts and begins conducting Ghost Dances for others. As history tells us, the Sioux began to perform the Ghost Dances very actively, and the army became concerned. It was as troops were bringing in a band of Sioux who had been conducting Ghost Dances away from the headquarters of the reservation that fighting broke out and the soldiers massacred men, women and children from the tribe. Black Elk, having been on the reservation, joined with other young men to travel to the gunfire and see what they could do. He describes his successful efforts to save a few mothers and their children from the killing fire of the soldiers, and his assault on the troops wearing his Ghost Shirt, during which he is not wounded by the fire of his enemy.

Black Elk and Elk in the Buffalo Bill
Wild West Show in Europe, 1887

Behind the specific events there is a story of loss of the traditional Oglala culture. In the 1860s the Oglala were living on what they thought to be their own land. They hunted buffalo from horseback, using bows and arrows and some guns. The lived in tepees, and could move camp quickly and relatively easily. They had a complex ritual life that they found satisfying. In 1931 when Black Elk told his story, the buffalo were gone. The Oglala lived in square houses of European design, on a small reservation, in poverty. They were struggling to define a new culture to fit their new circumstances, and we know that even today the Oglala live in poverty and have grave difficulties with substance abuse. It is not surprising that the "good old days" look very good in retrospect. Nor is it surprising that they blame the white man that destroyed the buffalo, took their land by unfair treaties, used armed force to confine them to reservations, took the gold from the Black Hills for themselves, and for many years deliberately moved to destroy Sioux and other tribal cultures.

Do You Believe?

Nicolas Black Elk and John Neihardt
Of course you believe me, because I am writing this on a blog, and you are reading it on the Internet. How could it be less than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Do you believe Black Elk? He was an old man, telling about the distant past; did he remember accurately? Is he remembering things in a way that makes him look better than he actually was; most of us do that don't we. Does he have a purpose in telling this story now, and is that purpose best served by the story he tells rather than his best estimate of what really happened? Did he see enough of the key events to know what really happened, or is he relying on things he heard (and perhaps now thinks he remembers from direct observation). We know he converted to Christianity and indeed served as a missionary and a teacher of Christianity to the Sioux; did his conversion influence his telling of the stories of the old Sioux religion?

Do you believe Ben Black Elk, the translator? He had not lived in the old Oglala culture. Did he understand its nuances well enough to find the right words to translate what his father was seeking to tell Neihardt? We also know his English was not perfect. Was it sufficient to make his father's ideas perfectly understood by his white audience? I have been in the role of translator between people who did not understand each other's language, and found myself choosing the translation carefully, so as not to have the statements of one annoy the other. Professional translators are a very special breed of people of great skill, and Ben does not seem to be in that number.

Do you believe young Neihardt who was transcribing the conversation? Did she get it all? Did she get it all right? Were her transcriptions perfect? It appears that in some cases there would be give and take to try to make a point of Black Elk's clear to John Neihardt. Did John's daughter accurately capture the final version as understood by her father?

Do you believe John Neihardt's narrative, as it got past his editor? We know he deleted some of what Black Elk told him as not fundamental to the story he was telling, and that he added material that he felt his readers would need in order to understand Black Elk. We know that Neidhardt was not a trained anthropologist, nor was he expert in Oglala culture nor Sioux culture more generally; could he have gotten things wrong? Especially, we know he used his considerable command of language to produce a voice for the literary Black Elk; we must remember that Black Elk did not speak English and Neihardt did not speak Black Elk's language, so the English in the book is an invention of Neihardt's. Finally, we know that Neihardt believed that he himself had received life guiding visions, and had acted upon them, that he had a specific purpose in writing the book; can we fully trust his narrative?

I am simply pointing out that the truth of this narrative is not simple, and indeed scholars have been disputing points in the narrative for decades. (The experts apparently have put forward their own guesses as revealed truth!) The problem of reports of cross cultural dialog is that one can not take them as simple truth. It is better to simply regard them as what they are -- recordings of what one person thinks another person told him/her across a cultural gap.

Hilda Neihardt, Black Elk, Standing Bear, John Neihardt