Complementary purposes and motivations for writing Black Elk Speaks are stated by Neihardt and Black Elk. In 1930, Neihardt was working on The Song of the Messiah (1935), which concerned the Messianic dream that concluded with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. In an effort to learn more about the movement, Neihardt searched for a medicine man who could provide background information. His search led him to Black Elk, who revealed his own purposes for writing his autobiography: to save his great vision, to convey the reality of Oglala Sioux life, and to teach others the truth and beauty revealed in the vision.
Black Elk’s emphasis on the beliefs and customs of the Sioux nation makes this a worthy book for the study of Native American people. Through the descriptions of visions and ceremonies, Black Elk shows the strong interconnections between the people, the land, and their beliefs. Young adults will become aware of the conflicts caused when two cultures clash.
Contemporary criticism of Black Elk Speaks focuses on Neihardt’s possible literary intrusions into Black Elk’s values and beliefs. As with other Native American books in which translations were necessary, there are questions about how much the book reflects Neihardt’s viewpoint. Materials in the appendices help young readers to evaluate the text and to increase their understanding of the complexity of and issues related to the writing of early Native American autobiographies.