Black Elk Biography


(Native Americans: A Comprehensive History)

Article abstract: Black Elk, one of the greatest of Lakota holy men, witnessed and described many of the most important events of nineteenth century Lakota history.

At the time of Black Elk's birth, the Lakota and other Indian peoples were already suffering from the encroachment into their territory by European Americans. In spite of the constant threat of conflict between the U.S. Army and the Indians, Black Elk lived in traditional Lakota fashion until he became a young adult. His was the last generation to live in that way.

When he was about five years old, Black Elk had a vision in which two men came down from the clouds, “headfirst like arrows slanting down.” There was thunder that sounded like drumming, and the two men sang a song, telling Black Elk, “A sacred voice is calling you.” Black Elk did not know what to make of his vision, and he was afraid to tell anyone what had happened. From that point on, however, he could hear and see things that no one else could perceive. He sometimes heard voices; he had the feeling that the voices wanted him to do something, but he did not know what.

When he was nine years old, Black Elk had a great vision that was to shape his life for many years. The vision was long and complex; it is described in detail in Black Elk Speaks (1961), by John Neihardt. In the vision, Black Elk was summoned by the six grandfathers: the powers of the four directions, of the sky, and of the earth. Black Elk was made to understand that he was being given abilities that would enable him to help the Lakota people in times of trouble. He still did not know what to do, however, and it was not until he was seventeen that he began to put what he had learned in his vision into practice.

Black Elk became a warrior by 1876, and he fought in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, which is called the Battle of the Greasy Grass by the Lakota, during which George Armstrong Custer and all his troops were killed. Custer had moved, on June 25, 1876, to attack the camps of Crazy Horse (Black Elk's second cousin) and his followers, but the Indians far outnumbered Custer's troops, and they responded quickly and effectively to Custer's attack. Black Elk's account of the battle, as given by John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks, is one of the most important descriptions of that famous event.

On September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse was arrested and taken to Fort Robinson, where he was murdered when he refused to enter a jail cell. With his death, serious resistance to the U.S. Army ended. It was clear that the traditional Lakota way of life was coming to an end, but Black Elk's family stayed away from the Indian agencies that had been set up by the U.S. government and lived as they always had.

It was during this period that Black Elk told another holy man of his great vision and learned that the vision had to be performed as a dance by the Lakota...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)

Black Elk Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Black Elk, also known as Nicholas Black Elk (his Indian name was Hehaka Sapa), is most recognized as the narrator of his so-called life story titled Black Elk Speaks. This narrative, dictated to poet and researcher John G. Neihardt, was transcribed from notes after being interpreted from the original Sioux in English by Black Elk’s son, Ben. This work has been honored by some and maligned by others for the “poetic filter” Neihardt placed upon it and for its incompleteness; it is instead a symbolic representation of the American Indians’ plight previous to and subsequent to the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.{$S[A]Nicholas Black Elk;Black Elk}

Black Elk was born into the Oglala Sioux—also known as Lakota Sioux—who were Plains Indians that depended, as hunters, on the buffalo that populated the midwestern plains of North America. In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk discusses not only his personal life but also the ceremonies and customs of his people. Included are graphic depictions not only of the Indians’ way of life but also of their betrayal at the hands of the “white man.” Mystical and philosophical, the work also gives witness to the murder of Crazy Horse and several important battles such as Little Bighorn (1876) and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

At age nine, sick with a mysterious illness and unconscious for twelve days, Black Elk was possessed of a great vision. In this multilayered vision, six grandfathers present him with metaphysical powers of healing, cleansing, awakening, growth, vision, and eternal youth. The vision itself was oriented around the circular hoop and four corners (an inherent American Indian mandala). Termed a near-death experience, this vision was the focal point not only of Black Elk Speaks but of Black Elk’s...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Black Elk Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Couser, G. Thomas. “Indian Preservation: Teaching Black Elk Speaks.” In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. Provides teaching strategies and critical commentary on Black Elk Speaks.

Rice, Julian. Black Elk’s Story: Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. Places Black Elk Speaks in perspective, purporting to correct many misconceptions and inaccuracies in John G. Neihardt’s transcription.

Steltenkamp, Michael F. Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Biography based on interviews with his daughter Lucy Looks Twice, which attempts to demonstrate the effect of the Sioux elder’s later years on his spiritual outlook.