Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Black Elk Speaks is written in chronological order beginning with Black Elk’s early boyhood in 1866 and concluding with the end of his people’s dream at the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The early chapters focus on Black Elk’s great vision in which he sees the demise of the buffalo and the need to help his people gain new strength. It is during this experience that Black Elk is physically cured and given great spiritual powers. The vision and developing powers are integral parts of Black Elk’s descriptions of buffalo hunts, ceremonies, and battles. For example, in the chapter “The Horse Dance,” Black Elk details the ceremony and chants that are part of the Sioux tradition. In addition, he describes a vision and explains how his powers became greater as a consequence of the Horse Dance.

The various chapters in Black Elk Speaks include the history, traditions, and symbolism related to the Oglala Sioux. The chapters chronicle the history of the people as they are forced to change from hunters of buffalo to unwilling residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The description of this change in-cludes details of living freely in the beautiful Black Hills, the reports of the tribe’s interactions with soldiers and various government agencies, accounts of battles, and a depiction of life on the reservation. Black Elk’s interpretations of various symbols add to the understanding of the Sioux culture. For...

(The entire section is 547 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Aly, Lucile F. John G. Neihardt. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1976. Presents a synopsis of Black Elk Speaks, with emphasis on the vision, which Aly finds similar to apocalyptic visions in the Bible and to poems by William Blake.

Dunsmore, Roger. “Nicholaus Black Elk: Holy Man in History.” In A Sender of Words, edited by Vine Deloria, Jr. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1984. Concludes that Black Elk’s life story and the wisdom of Ogalala Sioux traditions are not merely a romantic longing for a lost way of life but the story of the responsibility imposed on those who have had a great vision.

McCluskey, Sally. “Black Elk Speaks: And So Does John Neihardt.” Western American Literature 6 (Spring, 1972), 231-242. Discusses Black Elk Speaks as literature. Notes the effective use of the first person and control of verbal rhythms.

Rice, Julian. Black Elk’s Story. Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991. Points out that Black Elk’s story unfolds symbolically like sophisticated fiction, with an intuitive selection of details that create a coherent narrative. Black Elk draws on a wide range of religious metaphors, some of them Christian.

Whitney, Blair. John G. Neihardt. Boston: Twayne, 1976. The author concludes that Black Elk Speaks is a tragic book about a man who is too weak to implement his vision. The book’s function is to preserve that vision for other men.