“Black Elk speaks, doesn't he?” - Facts and Fiction of an Autobiography

Seminar Paper, 2009

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Lost in Transcription: The Different Layers of Black Elk Speaks

3. ‘Reality’ and Stereotypes

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Black Elk Speaks is arguably the single most widely read book in the vast literature relating to North American Indians. John G. Neihardt’s poetic rendering of the life story of an Oglala Lakota holy man captivates the imagination of readers, drawing them into a meaning-charged world of symbols and otherness. (…) Indeed, Neihardt was so successful in blending his own voice with Black Elk’s that they became a single voice, a literary device so convincing that Neihardt faded into the background, allowing readers the sensation that Black Elk was speaking to them directly, without an intermediary.” (DeMallie 2008, 289)

These introductory words, printed in the appendix of the novel itself, give a very clear and critical insight into the topic of Black Elk Speaks by author John G. Neihardt. Largely considered to be an autobiographical narration, it has become one of the most famous books dealing with the story of individuals of Native American origin. Following the tradition of so- called ‘as-told-to’ stories (Georgi-Findlay 1997, 385), it is the story of the Lakota holy man Black Elk, who told it to the author John G. Neihardt who transcribed it and wrote it down.

The story, and its categorization as autobiographical, claims authenticity, and was widely regarded to be an accurate report of Native American life among the tribe of the Oglala Lakota and their culture. Even today, the book is still considered to be one of the first works of Native American literature. (As a matter of fact, the book is listed in the chapter “Indianerliteratur” (Native American Literature) in Hubert Zapf’s “Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte”.) Even though it was written down and published by a person of Euro- American background, the story itself is considered to be uniquely Native American in content. But how authentic is the story, how much of what Neihardt wrote down was fact, and what was actually his own interpretation or even literary freedom that he took to serve certain stereotypes and make the story more appealing for the audience which it was aimed at?

That to examine shall be the main topic of this paper. By having a look at the history of how the book came to be, and by comparing the original transcriptions to the text that was published, I want to show how much of the facts that are being presented to us can actually be perceived as authentic. And I want to uncover the stereotypical depictions of Native Americans which are being presented to us throughout the novel, in form of language, setting or description of characters.

In order to gain an insight into the book and its different layers, it is necessary to not only look at the person of the main character, Black Elk, but also to look at the author of the book, John G. Neihardt. As I will show in the course of this paper, his voice is present throughout the entire book. I might even want to go as far as calling him the narrative voice of Black Elk Speaks , even though the actual protagonist seems to be Black Elk.

That does of course raise the question in how far the book can be categorized as an autobiographical story, when it has such strong fictional elements. Furthermore, the probably even more profound question is: Should the book actually be categorized to be Native American literature? Is the perspective that we find in the book really that of Black Elk, or is it a Euro-American point of view which disguises itself with the voice of the main protagonist Black Elk?

2. Lost in Transcription: The Different Layers of Black Elk Speaks

To understand the different layers of speech that were at work during the creation of the book, it is necessary to go back and look at its history and the people who were involved. Especially the person of Black Elk is of utmost importance in this context, because it is only if one knows the actual story of his life, that it can be seen how much has been altered (by omission or otherwise) in his autobiography.

Black Elk was born in 1863 at the Little Powder River in the area which is today Wyoming. He was a famous holy man of the tribe of the Oglala Lakota, which is a branch of the Sioux tribe and participated in various historical events, such as the Battle of Little Big Horn (which is also known as Custer’s Last Stand) in 1876. In addition, he was injured in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, which is today considered to mark the end of the battles between Native American tribes and Americans throughout the country. For a long time he traveled Europe, participating in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and even performed with that show in front of the English queen. Through that, he probably saw more of the world than most of the Americans of non-native origin ever did. These previously named stages of his life are all described in the book as well. The book roughly covers his life from the time when he was born (his first memories) to the point shortly after the massacre of Wounded Knee, when Black Elk was about twenty-seven years old.

If we keep in mind now that it was in the year 1931, that he told the story of his life to John Neihardt, we can already see that more than one half of his life has been left out. To what extent this part of his life and the omission thereof is crucial for the point I want to make shall be discussed at a later point. First of all I want to go into the parts of his life that are not mentioned in the book.

After the massacre of Wounded Knee, Black Elk soon got married. His first wife, Katie War Bonnet, was catholic; hence their children were baptized as well. It was in the year 1903 that Black Elk himself converted to Christian Catholic belief. Even though he remained the spiritual leader in his tribe, for he saw no contradiction in the Christian belief system in the Sioux belief system of Wakan-Tanka (the Great Spirit), it has to be kept in mind that this change might have caused him to subconsciously re-evaluate his own personal view of things that happened in his past, changing his perception of things.

In this regard, also the time factor has to be kept in mind, since Black Elk told his story to Neihardt over forty years after the massacre of Wounded Knee, that means forty to sixty years after the events described in the book happened. Therefore he must have (consciously or sub- consciously) re-evaluated the happenings over and over again.

Since this is the problem with nearly all auto-biographies though, this shall not be the primary subject of this paper. It has to be kept in mind though, that for the above named reason, no auto-biography can be taken as absolutely authentic.

However, in the case of Black Elk Speaks there are even more factors that make the authenticity of the Native American narrator questionable1.

When Neihardt visited Black Elk in Pine Ridge Reservation in 1930, he could not speak English, and when he returned one year later with his daughter Enid, the situation had not much changed. Hence Black Elk’s son had to serve as a translator. While Black Elk told his story, the son simultaneously translated the story for the Euro-American listeners. Since there are no transcriptions of the original story as it was told in Black Elk’s native tongue Sioux, one can only guess how much got lost in the process of translation. It may have not been a lot, just vague notions of things he said that were slightly altered, especially when it comes to the rituals and sayings which are uniquely Sioux and had no equivalent in the English language.

For those things, the son had to choose words to use, and I would not exclude that some of the meaning was misunderstood or brought over slightly altered. This is of course a question which can never be resolved and therefore has to remain open for discussion and opinions.

Another point in this regard is the second layer, which was Neihardt’s daughter Enid, who transcribed the story while Black Elk was telling it (or more accurately, transcribed the translation that Ben Black Elk, the son, was telling).

It was from these transcriptions, that Neihardt eventually created the book that we today know as “Black Elk Speaks”. But how accurate are these transcriptions actually? They are the only written leftover from the conversations, but in how far they are actually exact remains to be guessed. It is hard to tell, whether the daughter maybe omitted parts of the story, or shortened passages which seemed unimportant to her, but may have been crucial to the story. That is another layer which will never be resolved, since there are no audio-recordings or the like of the actual conversation that took place.

And the fourth factor is of course the author himself, John Neihardt, who then wrote the actual book from the transcriptions. He takes the place of an author here, since, as we will see in a bit, he did not just edit the actual transcriptions to make them work as a book to be published. What he did was in some cases almost re-writing the voice of Black Elk. He reviewed the material of the transcriptions and consciously decided what to use and what to omit.

Before I go into a deeper analysis and comparison of those transcriptions to the actual text, I want to have a look at what the purpose of this book was. Because knowing its purpose is crucial to understanding the reasons behind the changes that were consciously being made by the author.

The book aimed at giving a Euro-American audience an ‘authentic’ (put into brackets here, because it is not actually authentic, which I will explain in a moment) view into Native American culture and way of life. (In contrast to contemporary Native American fiction, which is often produced for a Native American audience, Black Elk Speaks was solely aiming to reach a Euro-American audience!) But the Euro-American market had a certain expectation of what Native Americans were like and had to behave like, and most importantly, had to speak like. As I have mentioned before, Black Elk traveled a lot, and had seen more of the world than most Euro-American upper class people at that time had. That is clearly reflected in the way he talks, as can be seen in the original transcriptions. His language is not only very sophisticated, but also cannot be distinguished from that of a person of Euro-American descent. Therefore, simply publishing the edited transcriptions of what Black Elk said in the conversation would have not sold on a Euro-American market, since it would not have been recognized to be authentic.2 And that brings us to the very interesting question of what is authenticity actually? Especially in the case of Black Elk Speaks it poses a very interesting conflict. If we remember the opening quotation of this paper, in which DeMallie argued that the book was “allowing reader the sensation that Black Elk was speaking to them directly, without an intermediary”. In other words, the books creates a sense of authenticity, allowing the reader the illusion that an authentic Native American individual is talking to them and offering them insight into their culture. The paradox here is just that Black Elk’s voice had to be altered by Neihardt to create that sense. The original authentic person of Black Elk would not have been able to create that sense of authenticity in the reader’s, hence would not have been accepted as a Native American narrator.

In my opinion, this case resembles very much the phenomenon of the American Minstrel Show, a form of amusement where white people blackened their face with coal and pretended to be African American people on stage, imitating their ways of moving and behavior. Later however, when African Americans themselves started to appear in minstrel shows, they as well had to blacken their faces to appear more authentic.

So speaking of authenticity in the case of ethnic constructions in works of literature or other forms of amusement industries seems a little tricky in this regard. It does not refer to portraying the actual person, but rather the expectation that the audience has for that person to be. If that expectation is not met, the audience will not recognize the person shown to be authentic. That makes clear that authenticity does not relate as much to reality as it relates to the construction of stereotypes. Native Americans, as well as African-Americans, were mainly seen under the influence of these stereotypes, since Euro-Americans rarely had any real insight into their cultures. Therefore, media and literature helped to create forms of stereotypes which would then be perceived to be authentic.

If we have a look at Black Elk Speaks, and the language being used in there, even today we would still recognize it to be distinctly Native American. If we look at the very first page of the very first chapter of the book, we can clearly recognize what we still identify to be a clearly Native American tone. The book starts with the sentences: “ My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. ” (Neihardt 2008, 1)

In this first passage, we are introduced to the character, who is the first-person narrator of the book. He is presented to us as humble, and the address that he uses at the beginning of the passage (“my friend”), makes clear that he considers the audience to be an intimate friend.

However, this feature of conversation has also become somewhat typical for Native Americans to use in conversations. Frequently, the counterpart is being addressed as ‘my friend’ or ‘my brother’. The most popular examples in Germany might be the narrations by Karl May, where Old Shatterhand is frequently addressed as ‘my white brother’. We can even see this feature in numerous Western movies or television series. Whenever a Native American person is present who is friends with a Euro-American person, there seems to be the need that they address them with ‘my brother’, or ‘my friend’.3 This has obviously become almost a literal (or cultural even) tradition when presenting a Native American person in a scene of intercultural contact with a Euro-American person.

Another feature which we would clearly define to be ‘typically’ Native American is the relation to nature. Even in the first six lines of the first passage we already have three different references to nature. The first one is of course winter. Black Elk – as any Native American person – would not count his age in years, but in winters, summers or springs even.

Then there are clearly metaphorical meanings when he talks about “bend him like a heavy snow”, or “to be grass upon the hills”. The next passage becomes even more distinct in its references to nature: “ It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two- leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit. ” (Neihardt 2008, 1)

This entire passage is packed with what a Euro-American audience would perceive as typically Native American spirituality. The reference to the holiness of all things, and the connectedness to nature support the idea of Native American people worshipping nature and all things in it. This is another one of the typical misconceptions of Native American religion as it was constructed during the nineteenth century. The idea of ‘Manitou’, one Great Spirit is generally assumed to be the one Native American God. In order to recognize misconceptions and stereotypes, it is important that one has a look at the reality of the subject one wants to understand.


1 All information (unless stated otherwise) on Black Elk’s autobiographical data and the history of how the book „Black Elk Speaks“ was created are taken from Raymond DeMallie, “The Sixth Grandfather – Black Elk’s Teachings given to John G. Neihardt” (See bibliography for full information)

2 Since the inaccuracy of the translation as well as the transcriptions can only be guessed and speculated about, I will assume that they are indeed correct, since cannot be proven otherwise. Therefore when I speak of the transcriptions, I will assume their accuracy as being the actual translation, word-by-word, of what Black Elk told. However, the very likely discrepancy between actual story and translation, and translation and transcription should not be discarded and be kept in mind.

3 The Karl May movies might be the most popular examples here. But also the contemporary American television show “Dr. Quinn - Medicine Woman” supports this cliché at various moments in several episodes.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


“Black Elk speaks, doesn't he?” - Facts and Fiction of an Autobiography
Free University of Berlin  (John-F. Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerikastudien)
Ethnic (Post) Modernism and the Invention of Ethnicity
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Facts, Fiction, Autobiography
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Katharina Reese (Author), 2009, “Black Elk speaks, doesn't he?” - Facts and Fiction of an Autobiography, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163262


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