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Black Elk, the Native American holy man, is known to millions around the world from his 1932 testimonial, Black Elk Speaks. Adapted by the poet John Neihardt from a series of interviews, it is one of the most widely read and admired works of American Indian literature. Cryptic and deeply personal, it has been read as a spiritual guide, a philosophical manifesto, and a text to be deconstructed - while the historical Black Elk has faded from view.
In this sweeping book, Joe Jackson provides the definitive biographical account of a figure whose dramatic life converged with some of the most momentous events in the history of the American West.
Born in an era of rising violence, Black Elk killed his first man at Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Upon his return, he was swept up in the traditionalist Ghost Dance movement and shaken by the massacre at Wounded Knee. But Black Elk was not a warrior, and instead chose the path of a healer and holy man, motivated by a powerful prophetic vision that haunted and inspired him, even after he converted to Catholicism in his later years.
In Black Elk, Jackson has crafted a true American epic, restoring to Black Elk the richness of his times and gorgeously portraying a life of heroism and tragedy, adaptation and endurance, in an era of permanent crisis on the Great Plains.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Rory C. Dowd on 08-11-18
An interesting man.
This book was okay. I think Black Elk seems like an incredible person with spiritual insight, but I kind of wish I’d just read “Black Elk Speaks.” If you know a lot about the Great Sioux War,” Crazy Horse, Custer, etc. a lot of this was review. It won awards, so I’m probably wrong, but I just didn’t feel it was that well written. It could be very repetitive and sometimes went off on seemingly unnecessary tangents. The narrator is also a little boring. But I was able to finish and didn’t regret learning about Black Elk.
By Bryan on 03-23-17
The Evil That Men Do
"The evil that men do is remembered long after their deaths, but the good is often buried with them." - William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2 - modern translation)
Black Elk was born around December 1863 to an Olgala Lakota (Sioux) Native American family somewhere along the Little Powder River in present day Wyoming or Montana. He became a famous Lakota Medicine or Holy Man, was the cousin of the famous War Chief Crazy Horse, he participated in the Battle at Little Bighorn (aka Custer's Last Stand), and he fought at the Wounded Knee Massacre. After the Indian Wars, Black Elk went on to tour throughout America and Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and another lesser known western show; at one point he even performed for Queen Victoria herself.
In this award winning Biography of Black Elk, Joe Jackson recounts in great detail the life of this legendary Native American and the clash of cultures between the modern European Americans and the hunter-gatherer Native Americans of the Great Plains during the 19th century. Like Helen Hunt Jackson's 1881 book A Century of Dishonor, and Dee Brown's 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Jackson's 2016 Biography of Black Elk puts a face to a name in this gut wrenching story of the sufferings of the Native Americans of the Great Plains. He recounts the systematic genocidal actions of the U.S. federal government and their agents to eradicate the Native American people and destroy their culture, way of life, and their spirituality through total warfare, the annihilation of the North American Buffalo, a string of broken promises and treaties, forced relocations, the denial of citizenship and constitutional rights, and numerous other injustices perpetrated on the Native Americans.
With 20/20 hindsight we can look back and condemn the generation of Americans who perpetrated these grave injustices on the Native Americans in the name of manifest destiny and social darwinism. The most notable of these injustices was the Wounded Knee Massacre where around 300 men, women, children, and infants were slaughtered by the U.S. Army. Even after a formal investigation, shockingly no one was ever held accountable and over twenty men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor! (It certainly wasn't their finest hour.)
However, we must temper our condemnation of that generation by taking into account the misguided culture of the times, and we need to admit that the Native Americans themselves were not innocent bystanders in these disputes either. Hatred and prejudice ran high with good and evil men on both sides. But to the victor go the spoils and to the vanquished goes ignominy.
Black Elk was a mystic and felt a deep calling since childhood to save his people. Black Elk's first wife, Katie War Bonnet, converted to Catholicism and raised all her children in the Catholic faith. After Katie's death in 1903, Black Elk converted to Catholicism too and took on the name Nicholas Black Elk at his baptism. He subsequently spent the rest of his life as a Catholic lay minister, teacher, and evangelist. I believe Black Elk somehow found peace and hope in the midst of all of his sufferings through his faith in Jesus Christ who, like Black Elk, also suffered at the hands of evil men. Black Elk died at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on August 19th, 1950.
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