John Neihart - Black Elk Speaks. 1932
Sept. 15, 1998
On Black Elk Speaks
As a background note, I spent the summer of '97 at an archeology field school in upper California and lower Oregon, surveying and excavating land previously inhabited by the Klamath River tribes, particularly the Shastas. During those four weeks I became friends with Mary, a Shasta medicine woman who was working with us, along side us during the surveys but also watching that we did not desecrate anything. Sometimes she told us stories of her past or of the area, and I used to ask her about her belief system and the symbols and stories involved. She made that summer one of the more amazing experiences of my life. What I remember from that summer I took with me when I read Black Elk Speaks, and I feel like I understood much more because of this. I never did talk to her about her visions or the more sacred parts of her role in the community, so that is what fascinated me now about Black Elk's stories.
Getting inside the visions of a medicine man I found to be amazing. He was able to see so very clearly because they were not intellectual endeavors - everything was felt, which made them true, or as true as they needed to be for him to draw strength and confidence from them. It does not matter that maybe they were simple tricks of the mind (I am still a skeptic when it comes to the divining possibilities of visions) - they served to open some window in him through which certain senses, normally drowned out for some reason, were able to come out and be useful. I find his power to be more in seeing the necessities of life for his people and having the authority to bring them together for ceremonies of communal healing, which is done by reaffirming something in doubt, like the survival of the nation. I regret looking at it in such an atheistic and sociological light, but I am not quick to put faith in supernatural powers, perhaps because so much of what religion is able to do seems connected to simple realizations and philosophies of life wrapped in a fancy cloak. Even so, it did take these visions to inspire action, and where they come from I can not know.
One thing I did notice in the visions was the specificity of the animals involved. Every one had its set of characteristics and was common to that environment. Black Elk did not have camels and kangaroos in his visions because they were not known to him, even if they did have powers in the spirit world to tribes half way around the world. Mary told me stories of coyotes and snakes because they were common to her, but I would not be surprised if some of her stories were closely mirrored in stories of any other tribe. Once again this is because humans deal with certain common thoughts and fears as part of their personal or social lives, and these are dealt with by people who have the ability to see the commonalities, the patterns, and use them to find solutions that will make sense to the people. The characters may be region specific, but the stories are drawn from humans, and it takes a certain kind of person to make the connection and use it constructively.
While the book has spiritual value, it is also interesting to look at the retelling of histories from a Native American point of view. Often Mary would point to a cave and say, "The history books tell you that here soldiers were fired upon by a band of Shastas. My grandfather would tell you that the soldiers were the ones who attacked, and for no good reason." It is easy to make villains out of the opposing side, and the question of bias is one that history will have to deal with eternally. I am sympathetic to the Native point of view, if only because I believe their overall vision of life to be closer to some cosmic "truth", not merely a romantic simplicity. It is true that both sides were fighting for their own survival, and both killed indescriminantly, but in the end the natives were living sustainably, and we can not say so for the settlers, especially in light of late 20th century environmental concerns.
There were some statements that did strike me as not in keeping with the Native ideal. Black Elk repeatedly refers to the soldier wanting to take "our land". Is not the land without ownership, a part of the grand brotherhood of all beings that can not be owned any more than a man or beast (yes, Native Americans did historically take slaves)? It may be that Black Elk was just being influenced by Wasichu concepts of ownership, using their vocabulary, but what if he really did feel it to be theirs? Here I tread a line between what I know of Shasta beliefs and the common "noble savage" view of Native Americans. Especially in the '90's we are taught to view all cultures as having their own value, and that native cultures generally are more "noble" than us sweeping scourges of modernity. I do not think, however, that we are too far off these days - it seems that the movement patterns and land practices of native tribes lend themselves to a lack of strict territories, not to mention the religious respect for the land as an autonomous spirit. In the end the tribes were fighting to keep the land free, which would only be possible if the Wasichus were not such a large nation, greedy for land and disrespectful of its resources. Perhaps, however, the tribes simply felt some connection to specific places, areas that they knew, and they thought of it more as land where they belonged then land that they owned.
In the end, perhaps the most important thing about the book is that it was written. It comes from an oral tradition culture, one the verge of dying and forced to adapt in the hope of saving what has not already disappeared. When I left Mary a year ago she said she was going to write a book, tentatively called "What My Grandfather Taught Me." She is now studying to get a degree in Cultural Resource Management and plans to teach in a local Native American high school. This is the modern way to pass on the stories and beliefs, through institutions and hard-bound books. One of the reasons behind Black Elk relating his life, and the whole of his vision, to a man writing a book was to preserve it and spread it in the hopes that perhaps he might be able to complete his task - to bring the nation back together, heal them in a modern way. Shakespeare long ago touted the staying power of books, and if this one stays around long enough, maybe Black Elk won't have been the pitiful man he thought himself to be.