The story of Black Elk as fiction and biography. „Black Elk speaks“ by John G. Neihardt versus “The heartsong of Charging Elk” by James Welch

Term Paper, 2006

19 Pages


List of contents

1 Introduction

2 Characterization and appearances of the main characters
2.1 Charging Elk
2.2 Black Elk

3 Summary of the stories
3.1 “The heartsong of Charging Elk”
3.2 “Black Elk speaks”

4 Links between the books

5 Connections between the two texts especially connections in the travel to Europe
5.1 Atlantic as a border
5.2 Death song
5.3 The Buffalo Bill Show
5.4 The visions and spirit journeys
5.5 The Massacre at Wounded Knee

6 Narrative perspectives and the impression on the reader

7 Conclusion

1 Introduction

In this paper I am going to compare the authobiography “Black Elk speaks” written by John G. Neihardt with the novel “The heartsong of Charging Elk” written by James Welch. Both books show a different perspective on the same topic. “Black Elk speaks” shows the true history whereas the novel from James Welch is fiction. But by reading both books I got the impression that even “The heartsong of Charging Elk” could have really happened. By reading the books a lot of connections or links get obvious.

The paper tries to discuss some of the connections. In the first part of the paper the stories will be summarized and the main characters Black Elk and Charging Elk will be described. In the center part of the paper some of the connections and links will be compared more detailed. Here I will triy to point out especially the connections they have during their travel to Europe.

In the last part I am going to discuss the interesting changes of the narrative perspective and the resulting impression for the reader.

2 Characterization and appearances of the main characters

Both characters raise difficulties in their descriptions. The influence of the dramatical changes of their homelands have impacts on them. The characters change over time probably more than it used to have without these changes.

2.1 Charging Elk

Charging Elk is a beloved son. His father and mother are Oglala Indians. His sister and his brother died in the struggle with the white men.

Charging Elk is described as a tall, strong man and has the typical stereotyped Indian appearance that contents the dark skin color whereas his own is even darker than the usual skin color of the other Indians. The Indians even picked on him about that fact but his mother told him that he was the purest. That’s why he is darker than the others. The long and dark hair means a lot to him.

His appearence is even more outstanding from the wasichu[1] point of view. From the wasichu sight not only his skin color, his dark long hair and his dark eyes make him to someone different. He is described that way:

“He was at least four hands taller than the tallest of them ...” (Welch, 2001, p.12)

His character is dominated by friendliness. Other characters in the book describe him as patient and with good will. The reader gets the impression that these normally good charactertraits are sometimes misplaced. That is one of the reasons why he sometimes has trouble to figure out who is a friend and who is an enemy. It seems that the more the people get to know him the more they rely on him and see him as a good friend.

He loves the nature and the animals and is very proud of his horse “High Runner”.

It is easy to see that he is changing during the novel getting more and more responsible for him and others.

2.2 Black Elk

Black Elk is unlike Charging Elk not really described from other perspectives. If he talks about himself he mostly describes his age and how early he had to be a grown up. So the picture of him I am going to describe is more or less grown by reading his story.

He is an Lakota Indian and believes strong in the Indian spirit. It seems that his life is dominated by his visions and the power he takes out of the visions. But a second point has much influence on his character. That is the continually loss of his motherland. He constantly tries to stop the retreat and is always searching for a way to get the life back his parents used to live and he lived when he was a young boy. At first it seems that because of his visions he is a loner. But later because of the power he takes out of the visions he is more and more respected and integrated in the Indian community.

3 Summary of the stories

3.1 “The heartsong of Charging Elk”

The novel describes the life of an Lakota Indian starting out in his homeland.

Still when he was a boy he had to move in with his parents to live at the Red Cloud Agency. Later they moved to the Pine Ridge Agency. When he was thirteen years old he left with his friend Strikes Plenty the agency to live at Whirlwind Compound. There he lived far from the agency and from school. They had constantly to retreat because of the wasichus who took more and more over their place. He was forced to live in the badlands in a place called Stronghold. This place could be easily defended and the white men, soldiers and settlers were afraid of the Indians who lived out there. Charging Elk stayed there for nine years. Learning the so called old ways of hunting and exploring tought by two old medicine men. These years had a formative influence on him. The life out there was getting more and more difficult. The changes which resulted out of the wasichu dominance forced him to go back to the agency. Otherwise, especially in the winters, it was really hard to survive.

Everything changes when scouts from the Buffalo Bill Show make a contest in the agency where he has to ride and fight on his horse “High Runner”. He is chosen for the Show because of his perfect Indian skills and his perfect Indian appearance.

Now for him starts a new adventure with a travel to Europe. In Europe he works in the Buffalo Bill Show until he gets lost and has to live in a country where he is not only a foreigner but also outstanding because of the fact that he looks totally different than anybody else and is not able to talk their language, and nobody speaks his language. He starts to live there at first with the aim to return. During his days in Europe he is searching more and more for a wife and a family. By trying to achieve the second point it seems that achieving the first point gets more and more difficult. In the end he has the opportunity to go back but he decides to stay with his wife and unborn child in Europe. But during all that time he never forgets and always is reminded especially in bad times of his past life. His dreams and visions are with him all the time.

3.2 “Black Elk speaks”

Black Elk was born as an Oglala Indian araound 1860 at a place that is now the Pine Ridge Reservation. His life is dominated already when he is a little boy by visions. He received the first vision with the age of five. Most of his life he tries to figure out what he has to do with the knowlege he had through the visions. Because of the changing time and the loss of his homeland his childhod is very short. He has early to do the work of a grown up and has to fight already as a boy against the wasichus He receives more visions which are even more powerful. These visions make him capable to help other sick Indians. As a boy he believed that everybody would think he is crazy if he had talked about the visions but later the Indians believe in him and his visions. With fourteen years he and his community surrendered to the wasichus to escape starvation. In that winter in the same agency were Black Elk stayed they killed the great chief Crazy Horse. This had an big influence on the Indians. Many escaped like Black Elk an tried to start a new life in the lands they used to live. Black Elks power was growing stronger in that time and is more and more useful for his people. He receives new visions and with the help of a medicine man he understands more and more what the visions want him to do.

The wasichus slaughtered the last bisons. And most of the Indians also Black Elk, now twenty years old, had to settle down in square gray houses. The circle of life the Indians used to live was broken when the bison herds didn´t arrive as usually. In that time he continued curring the sick. Three years later he goes with the Buffelo Bill show first to Omaha, Chicago and New York and then he crosses the Atlantic and performs in Europe. In Europe he loses all his indian power. After a wihle he gets lost but togetheter with other Indians he manages to get to another show. In that time he has a spirit journey while he is sick . After recovering Pahuska the show leader gives him the money to return back to Pine Ridge. Here he finds his power again and is involved in a side fight of Wounded Knee. A few days after the massacre at Wounded Knee he surrenders with his people the second time to escape starvation.


[1] Wasichu: A term used to designate the white man, but having no reference to the color of his skin.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The story of Black Elk as fiction and biography. „Black Elk speaks“ by John G. Neihardt versus “The heartsong of Charging Elk” by James Welch
University of Rostock
Imaginary Homelands - Indians
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
587 KB
Comparison, Charging, Elk“, Imaginary, Homelands, Indians, black elk speaks, the heartsong of charging elk, black elk, welch, neihardt
Quote paper
Martin Setzkorn (Author), 2006, The story of Black Elk as fiction and biography. „Black Elk speaks“ by John G. Neihardt versus “The heartsong of Charging Elk” by James Welch, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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