Black Elk and the Fabrication of Memory
Like millions of readers, I became aware of Black Elk through the work of John Neihardt, an amateur historiographer and poet who interviewed the Oglala Lakota medicine man at length about his life. These recollections were fashioned into the classic Black Elk Speaks, a poeticized rendition of the account.
A great many readers have been alerted to Black Elk Speaks by Joseph Campbell, who was especially impressed by one particular episode, which he referred to many times in writing and speaking.
When Black Elk was nine, the story goes, he took ill for twelve days, lying in a coma, in an apparent shamanic initiatory crisis of the kind we have discussed several times on the blog, such as here.
During his coma, Black Elk experienced what he later called his “Great Vision,” an elaborate journey through the sky to the the Rainbow Teepee where the Thunder Beings dwell. The culmination of his vision, to which Campbell glowingly referred, was a journey to the center of the earth, and his discovery that all people are one.
As Neihardt gives it, in Black Elk’s voice:
I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy. (1)
As a footnote to the comment that he was taken to the center of the world, Neihardt notes “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” (2)
It was the latter comment that amazed Campbell, who marked its similarity to the Hermetical teaching of the late Middle Ages that “God is an intelligible sphere whose circumference is infinite, and whose center is everywhere.” On its face, this does seem to be a remarkable correspondence.
I was sufficiently impressed myself to quote this passage on this very blog, and to pick up a copy of Black Elk Speaks. But when I began to read it, I was immediately troubled.
The book begins:
Black Elk Speaks:
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 a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. (3)
Although I was not particularly familiar with the Lakota oral style, I have read a certain amount of world literature, and I was immediately convinced that this is simply not how Black Elk would have spoken. It reads to me like an undistinguished author writing under the strong influence of Goethe’s early work and the American Transcendentalists.
I began researching, and learned that Niehardt transformed Black Elk’s simple speech, dressing it up in free verse and rearranging it into a story format. Purist that I am, I became deeply concerned about the degree of Neihardt’s interpolation – particularly in the above-quoted revelation. Was Campbell’s convergence a true example of like images arising in distant lands, or was it simply Neihardt’s invention?
I was gratified to learn of the existence of Raymond J. DeMallie’s The Sixth Grandfather, a beautifully annotated publication of the raw transcripts of Black Elk’s conversations with Neihardt, as rendered into English to Neihardt by Ben Black Elk, Black Elk’s son, and transcribed by Neihardt’s daughter Enid.
DeMallie’s book immediately confirmed my worst suspicions. Black Elk’s account is far more plain-spoken, though no less engaging. I was not surprised to learn that the introduction passage quoted above was a pure fabrication.
I was, however, quite surprised to learn that the oft-quoted passage about the great hoop of all peoples was not only completely invented by Neihardt, but is, in fact, quite contrary to the actual content of the vision.
The closest we come is this:
They [the spirits] said: ‘Behold the center of the earth for we are taking you there.’ As I looked I could see great mountains with rocks and forests on them. I could see colors of light flashing out of the mountains toward the four quarters. Then they took me on top of a high mountain where I could see all over the earth. Then they told me to take coverage for they were taking me to the center of the earth….
[The] western black spirit said: ‘Behold all over the universe.’ As I looked around I could see the country full of sickness and in need of help. This was the future and I was going to cure these people. … After a while I noticed the cloud over the people was a white one and it was probably the white people coming. (4)
There is nothing about “the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle.” On the contrary, he strongly differentiates between his own people, the Lakota, and the white people. Much of his vision is, in fact, a premonition that he will lead his people to victory against the whites in battle.
In the transcript, Black Elk continues:
The sixth grandfather showed me a cup full of water and in it there were many small human beings. He said: ‘Behold them, with great difficulty they shall walk and you shall go among them. You shall make six centers of the nation’s hoop.’ (Referring to the six cups of water, meaning that the six centers of the nation’s hoop were the different bands or tribes: 1) Hunkpapas, 2) Minneconjous, 3) Brulés, 4) Oglalas, 5) Shihela [Shahiyela, Cheyennes], 6) Idazipcho (Black Kettle)…. ‘Behold them, this is your nation and you shall go back to them. There are six centers of your nation and there you shall go.’ (5)
This passage, which was simply omitted in its entirety from Black Elk Speaks, elucidates the hoop of the peoples solely with respect to the Lakota and Cheyenne. These are not all peoples, they are his people.
As for the comment that “anywhere is the center of the world,” nothing like it is found in the transcript. Perhaps he said it elsewhere to Neihardt, but I have serious doubts.
I’m truly surprised that Campbell was taken in by this. From a very young age, he studied the anthropology, ethnography and lore of the Native Americans, including the Lakota. The stylistic problems should have been immediately obvious. Nobody’s perfect, I guess.
I do not mean to imply that Black Elk’s story is diminished or not worth reading – on the contrary. Anyone interested in spirituality or American history is sure to enjoy his account. But I urge the reader to shy away from Neihardt’s version, and go for The Sixth Grandfather instead. The Lakota, after all, have a right to their history, and Black Elk has the right to his memory.
1) Neihardt JG. Black Elks Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, As told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow). University of Nebraska Press. 1993. pp. 42-3.
2) Neihardt, p. 43.
3) Neihardt, p. 1.
4) ed. DeMallie RJ. The Sixth Grandfather; Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Neihardt, p. 134.
5) DeMallie, pp. 140-1.