What is the author's (John G. Neihardt) main thesis in Black Elk Speaks and what is anthropologically significant about the Sioux, the thesis, and the book in general?
(So far from reading, I've gathered that Neihardt uses Black Elk's great vision as his thesis to guide the narrative and provide an autobiography of Black Elk, as well as an ethnographical account of the Sioux people, covering the transition from pre-reservation to reservation life.)
Hello! You asked about Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. You are right that the book provides an autobiography of Black Elk as well as an ethnographical account of the Sioux people.
May I say that the main thesis is that this is the story of nations preserved for future generations of Lakota Sioux, solely for its guidance and encouragement as the Sioux navigate their way through modern America? Through Black Elk, younger generations now have a context to judge their past, decide their future and incorporate elements of the traditional faith and vision into a successful modern microcosm of ancestral Indian life. Black Elk's vision is considered by many an Indian bible today, although some disparage the account by Neihardt as a possibly fictionalized and highly cliched work marred by European and Anglo sensitivities and presuppositions about Sioux history. They cite the fact that Neihardt's translations may be flawed in different areas. I imagine you will have decide which group you agree with as you read the book for yourself. That's one of the great things about books: they challenge us to ask questions, to do our research, and most of all, to keep an open mind as we read.
Black Elk is a wichasha wakon (holy man/priest). The first inkling we have that Black Elk wants Neihardt to preserve the precious history of his people and his vision for the Sioux comes early in the book:
Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you.
The history books tell us about Crazy Horse, the Battle of Little Big Horn, Buffalo Bill and the horrendous massacre at Wounded Knee, but Black Elk relates to us all these historical events from the vantage point of the Indian perspective. So, this is anthropological gold: we can sense Black Elk's urgency to preserve his people's voice for future generations so that his vision for his people's eventual healing is realized, however far into the unknown future it may come to pass. We can feel his hopelessness as he laments his impotency as a holy man: his job is to heal his nation, but he has not been able to achieve this.
If a man or woman or child dies, it does not matter long, for the nation lives on. It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it.
Black Elk tells us that
Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us. But the Wasichus (white Europeans) came, and they have made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed.
Our North American forefathers viewed the land differently than the Sioux. The land was for dividing and parceling out for the purposes of agriculture, commerce, transportation, business and housing. That's the European background; the Sioux depended on the bison for fur, meat, skin, and nothing was wasted. They grew their own food and roamed the land as free men. The Europeans soon saw a profitable trade in bison/buffalo hide which could be used to make machine belts. Bison were now shot for profit and for sport. The killing of bison increased exponentially. Some also thought the killing of bison would take care of the "Indian" problem. Both sides had opposing worldviews and philosophies on societal structure and economic autonomy. They could not find common ground.
Black Elk's sincere desire to bridge the divide is evident:
Maybe if I could see the great world of the Wasichu, I could understand how to bring the sacred hoop together and make the tree to bloom again at the center of it.
I looked back on the past and recalled my people's old ways, but they were not living that way any more. They were traveling the black road, everybody for himself and with little rules of his own, as in my vision. I was in despair, and I even thought that if the Wasichus had a better way, then maybe my people should live that way. I know now that this was foolish, but I was young and in despair.
He laments that "there is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." At the end of the novel, Black Elk's great prayer is that the Great Spirit hears him and that his people "may once more go back into the sacred hoop and find the good red road, the shielding tree."
So this book, as I hypothesized above, is all about regaining the lost spirit and identity of the Sioux nation. It may be autobiographical, but more than anything, it is a preservation of one holy man's exhortation to his people to remember their history and the traditions which guided them for generations. Without it, the Sioux will always be lost. Black Elk Speaks was a collaboration between two cultures and two different voices united in the desire to save a people's identity.
Thanks for the question! Below are two links that might prove interesting to you:
The descent of civilization: the extermination of the American buffalo (I include this link because the bison was the heart of Sioux life. The bison is key in helping us understand both the European and Indian perspective on life.)