This past year I was fortunate enough to study the book Black Elk Speaks in a Graduate Seminar. I had read the book a year ago and discovered a world filled with tragedy and magic. Black Elk, the Sioux holy man, was chosen by The Six Grandfathers as the savior of the Sioux nation. Unfortunately, white invaders and Manifest Destiny proved too strong for the old man. His people were defeated at Wounded Knee and forced to live on a reservation. I realized in my graduate seminar that Black Elk Speaks is less autobiography and more John Neihardt creating a novel. I feel this way, because Neihardt went to Black Elk searching for information about the Ghost Dance and the Native American "spiritual" world to add to his epic poem Cycle of the West. What Neihardt got was an opportunity to exploit a native Sioux holy man by loosely translating his life history in order to create a true "Indian" book. In this paper, I will give a small history of Black Elk that isn’t present in Black Elk Speaks and a small history of Neihardt to demonstrate the different agendas each one had for the book. I also explore a small amount of translation theory to show some of the issues facing Neihardt when translating Black Elk’s story, and finally, I try to expose Black Elk Speaks as a epic novel and Black Elk its main character.
Black Elk was born in 1863. Throughout his boyhood, adolescence and into early adulthood, he carried a heavy burden. He was chosen by the six powers of the world, the West, North, East, South, Sky, and Earth (the Six Grandfathers), to be the savior for the Sioux nation. Black Elk followed in the tradition of his father and grandfather who were both wichasha wakan. However, unlike his father and grandfather, Black Elk wasn’t just responsible for saving and curing people, but he was responsible for saving, curing and restoring the entire Sioux nation (Olson 5). Unfortunately, white settlers and the U.S. government proved too powerful and overwhelming. After the slaughter at Wounded Knee, much of the life and fight of the Sioux was gone, and in time, Black Elk, like many Native Americans, became a devout Catholic.
According to Raymond DeMallie in his book The Sixth Grandfather, Black Elk had a strong desire to study other religions, and around 1888, Black Elk began studying Christianity (14). Around 1904, Black Elk was baptized and became a Catholic. DeMallie mentions that there were a couple reasons for Black Elk’s conversion. One was in 1903; Black Elk wasn’t sure what to do with a certain part of his vision. This part of the vision gave him the power to use Soldier Weed to wipe out his enemies, "men, women and children" (14). Another event was the death of Black Elk’s wife in 1903, but the "final straw" came in 1904. Black Elk was healing a sick person when a priest entered, grabbed Black Elk’s sacred things, threw them out, and then grabbed Black Elk by the neck and screamed "Satan, get out!" (14). The priest prayed over the boy, then invited Black Elk to the Holy Rosary Mission. Black Elk began to believe the priest’s powers were stronger than his, and a couple weeks later, he became a Catholic (DeMallie 14).
As a convert, Black Elk took an active role in converting and preaching to Indians on the reservations. He memorized scripture and the teachings of the Church, and in time, he was appointed the position of a Catechist (DeMallie 16). Black Elk was still a holy man, only now it was for the Catholic church. One missionary reported that Black Elk was responsible for about 400 conversions (DeMallie 26).
It is easy for readers of Black Elk’s history to get angry that he "sold out," but we begin to see that he found a new way to stick close to his people, heal and pray for them and most importantly, keep the community together. Many of the Sioux dances had been outlawed, and they could no longer join together in groups to practice activities such as the Ghost Dance. However, Catholicism gave them the opportunity to sing, dance, pray, and come together as a community. Black Elk saw in Catholicism a way for his people to practice religion within the confines of the United States laws, and "at the same time, he was able to fulfill the traditional role of a Lakota leader, poor himself, but ever generous to his people"(DeMallie 23).
However, for all the success that Black Elk experienced as a catechist, he must have been reminded of his vision and duty to the Six Grandfathers every time a thunder- storm moved in. It must have been a heavy burden to bear knowing he turned his back on his Gods. Black Elk was intelligent, and as he grew older, he realized the need to preserve his vision if not for his people now, then for the Sioux of tomorrow (DeMallie 28).
Enter John Neihardt, poet laureate of Nebraska, born January 10, 1881. Neihardt, at the age of eleven experienced a vision himself. On the Dick Cavette show in 1971, Neihardt said:
When I was eleven I came down with a fever and one night I dreamed I was flying through space…I didn’t know any Indians then. My hands were in front of me, prone like a diver. My face between my arms. And it seemed I was out in space at an infinite distance from the stars. So far that the stars looked weary. I was flying at such a high rate of speed, that everything below me was turned to glass, whether it was air or either. I was going so fast, I tried to stop. I was homesick and I wanted my mother, and I couldn’t stop. And when I would wake up, she would be wiping and patting my forehead with a damp cloth and then I would go back, but I didn’t want to. (Voice…)
Neihardt reports that because of this dream, he became a writer and poet. But this dream also created his desire to search out the "other" world: the spiritual world of man.
When he was older, Neihardt attempted to work as a writer for a newspaper, but was fired. He moved back to Bancroft and began working and publishing stories about his experiences (Voice…). In 1908, the editor of Outing Magazine commissioned Neihardt to travel two-thousand miles down the Missouri and write about his experience for the magazine. This trip affected Neihardt and his sense of the transcendental self and "how the soul is connected to the universe. It was an odyssey of self-realization" (Voice...). This trip, plus his childhood dream, culminated in Neihardt becoming dominated by "one idea--the unity of all life and of the cosmos--and the ramifications of this concept into art, literature...and parapsychological studies"(Richards 2).
As a poet, Neihardt began to see the need in himself to push the boundaries of poetry. His answer was to write an epic poem that captured the spirituality of the land. According to Hilda Neihardt in an interview for the documentary, "John Neihardt: Voice of the Plains," Neihardt wanted to begin with the French Revolution. His wife told him to stick with something he knew: the West. He took her idea and began working on the epic poem Cycle of the West which told "the story of the Ghost Dance and culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee, symbolizing the completion of the white men’s conquest of the New World" (Demallie 26).
Cycle of the West is an epic poem written over a span of thirty years. It contains five sections: The Song of Three Friends, The Song of Hugh Glass, The Song of Jed Smith, The Song of the Indian Wars, and The Song of the Messiah. In Neihardt’s introduction to Cycle, he said the poem deals with that period of western expansion "which was one of discovery, exploration and settlement, a genuine epic period" (Neihardt v). He said Three Friends and Hugh Glass deal with the early period of exploration, "the ascent of the river and with characteristic adventures of Ashley-Henry men in the country of the upper Missouri and the Yellowstone." Jed Smith was about "the first band of Americans through South Pass to the Great Salt Lake, ...the first Americans to reach California... and the first white men to cross the great central desert from the Sierras to Salt Lake." Neihardt said Song of the Indian Wars "deals with the period of migration and the last fight for bison pastures" between whites and Plains Indians (vii). For these four sections, Neihardt was able to write from his research and studies of history as well as the numerous interviews he had with older people who remembered these times. He respected what these interviews brought to his material and he "made it [his] business to find people who had lived our history and talk to them. That way [he] could get a real feel for the times [and] make them come alive" (H. Neihardt 10).
For Messiah, he wanted to interview Indians who were part of the period of time when the Ghost Dance was strong. His goal was to find a piece of spirituality that would give life to Messiah (DeMallie 31). He also wanted to show the "conquering of [Native Plains Indians] and the worldly end of their last great dream and the end of Indian resistance on the Plains" (Neihardt vii).
He and his son set out for Pine Ridge Reservation. Neihardt went out strictly to get information about the Ghost Dance; what he got was a gold mine. At the reservation, he talked to Agent Courtwright who suggested he talk to some of the gathered Sioux (H. Neihardt 12). Neihardt talked to the Sioux and they told him of an "old man who lived in the hills...who had taken part in the Ghost Dance...and was a kind of preacher" (H. Neihardt 12). Neihardt asked if one of them would take him and his son and act as an interpreter. A man named Flying Hawk volunteered .
When they arrived at Black Elk’s home, Black Elk was outside as though he were expecting them. The three got out and greeted Black Elk. Neihardt introduced himself and his son, gave Black Elk some gifts and began talking (H. Neihardt 14). Neihardt explained his past and why he was at Black Elk’s home. He told Black Elk what he was doing and that he hoped to get information about the Ghost Dance (H. Neihardt 14). Black Elk was quiet and listened. Neihardt told him about the section in Cycle that ends with the death of Crazy Horse and Black Elk interrupted saying Crazy Horse was his second cousin. Neihardt acknowledged and kept on talking. Finally, he tried asking questions that pertained to the Ghost Dance and, according to Hilda Neihardt, Black Elk gave short, easy answers, and finally, Neihardt was quiet for a while (14). Then Black Elk spoke. He said he felt a "great desire in [this] man to know things of the other world...and that he had been sent to save what [Black Elk] would tell him" (H. Neihardt 14). The two began talking and Black Elk spoke a little bit about his visions. Neihardt, having had similar dreams and "visions" as a child, as well as his interest in the "other world" listened to Black Elk’s past with sympathy and empathy (Richards 3).
One can only imagine the surprise on Neihardt’s face when Black Elk invited him to come back and record his vision. This was beneficial to Black Elk because he found a way to preserve his vision for future generations as well as transfer "this burden...to another man--someone who could record the old Lakota ways as testament and memorial to a way of life now gone forever" (Demallie 28). This was a great risk for Black Elk and it wasn’t taken lightly. He sensed in Neihardt an "interest and a power that was kindred to his own and he felt compelled to respond to it" (Demallie 31). For Neihardt it was an opportunity to add the spirituality of the Ghost Dance to Messiah as well as an opportunity to create another book: a book based on the life history of Black Elk.
When Neihardt returned home, he presented the project to his publisher. Neihardt explained that "the book should give not only the story of the holy man’s life but also the story of his people during the period [from Black Elk’s childhood to the Battle of Wounded Knee]--that the book should go beyond his vision" (H. Neihardt 17). Neihardt told his publisher it was an opportunity to write a book about an "old holy man who lived the old-time nomadic life of the Plains Indians,...[who had visions]...[and] had been a hunter and a warrior (H. Neihardt 18). He also told his publisher that it was an chance to write "a truly Indian [book] from the inside out" (H. Neihardt 18).
It is apparent that both Neihardt and Black Elk had different agendas in creating Black Elk Speaks. Neihardt wanted to create a "truly Indian" book; Black Elk wanted to preserve his visions and the lifestyles/culture of his people that was gone. One wanted to write a novel, the other, an anthropological record of Siouxan religion, culture and life style. Because Neihardt was writer, he was able to translate Black Elk’s history loosely thus misrepresenting Black Elk’s agenda.
On May 9th 1931, Neihardt and his two daughters, Enid and Hilda arrived at Black’s home. They had three weeks in which to transcribe and translate everything Black Elk had to say. It was a translation process by which Black Elk would speak, his son, Ben, would repeat what he said in English, Enid would write it down in short hand and at night type it up and make corrections as she went along.
One problem that arises with this process of translation is the loss of truth. Black Elk tried to ensure he spoke the truth by having Luther Standing Bear present at all times. Neihardt also realized the importance of getting to the truth of Black Elk’s story. For example, in a letter to Black Elk dated Nov. 6, 1930. Neihardt says "…your life ought to be written truthfully…because religion and war are of great importance to history…I would use as much of your language in it as possible…and I can promise you it will be an honest and loving book" (Neihardt 278). We see that both people had the same intention in mind, to speak the truth about Black Elk’s past. Unfortunately, Neihardt is translating from information that is three times removed from the source. In effect, he is translating Enid’s translation of Ben’s translation of Black Elk’s vision.
When it came time for Neihardt to write Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt was faced with a dilemma: should he retype Black Elk’s words from Enid’s typed manuscripts or should he create a text that captures the energy of the times, the "voice" of an old Sioux, as well as the tone of a period in time that was one of devastation and loss? The problem for Neihardt was whether to create a "text" or a piece of art.
Willis Barnstone in his book The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice, presents numerous theories and ideas regarding translation. For example he quotes Cicero, De Oratore: "Literalism is a feature of boorish translators" and Vladimir Nabokov: "The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase" (30). Barnstone gives "Fifteen Quick Looks at the Philosophy of Literalism." The problem lies in discovering what one’s goal is when translating. If one wants to aim toward literalism, Barnstone presents both the good and the bad. The good is "it attracts great stylists such as Nabokov and Walter Benjamin, …it recovers pure truth, claims fidelity and virtue…[it] dresses itself in the authority of dictionaries…its credo is word for word…[it] transfers information perfectly and offers the monolingual reader truth" (30-31). Unfortunately, it also "aspires to operate like a machine,…abhors variation and difference…[and] art as an indignity unworthy of serious scholarship…[it] leaves more behind than it carries over…[and it] falters symbolically into mistranslation, which it calls accurate and literal…Literalism censors literature…[and]can be a cover for genius… Literalism diminishes the literary" (31) Octavio Paz contends that servile translation is not even translation but "a depository made of a string of words to help us read the text in its original language. Something closer to a dictionary than a translation" (Barnstone 31). In Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt, as a poet and writer, chose to forgo the literalism and create a work of art.
Another idea of translation that Barnstone mentions is "Translation as Dream, or Parable of the Dreaming Scrivener." Barnstone says there are three types of translators. One being the individual writer who takes an original work and puts it into another language. The second is the writer who "borrows and adapts the idea or story of an earlier writer to create a new original work" (129). The third translates a work representing an entire people or religion (129). This translator works not for personal fame and glory but for the glory of that people or religion (129). Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks falls within the third category. Barnstone quotes Pierre Grange from his book Dream time and Other Earthly Signs, Grange says:
"Writing is an art, translation is a religious art, even when it is heretical and going its own way, since God of the sacred original is hanging over the shoulder of the translator, along with his critical angels, hunting for any shift in dogma, smelling out disobedience, assuming total authority. The inspired translator is a friend of disobedient Eve, a Gnostic who rejects imposed faith and believes her life is a return to the realm of light where both her soul and the soul of the original writer (speaker) will merge and reside in a new interpenetrating permanent third text. The way to that text, however, is not through the eye of the Demiurge nor by obedience to his first created word (128-9).Grange seems to be speaking about Neihardt. Neihardt in a letter to his publisher said "There was a very peculiar merging of consciousness between me and Black Elk, and his son Ben, who interpreted for me. Very often it seemed as though Black Elk were only repeating my own thoughts or my own poetry…"(DeMallie 41). These differences in literalism are exemplified by comparing Black Elk Speaks, The Sixth Grandfather, and Luther Standing Bear’s book, My People the Sioux .
The beginning of Black Elk Speaks is the easiest to demonstrate the use of literalism vs. translation as art. The Sixth Grandfather and Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux begin with the birth histories of Black Elk and Standing Bear. In Sixth Grandfather Black Elk and everyone in the circle begins by giving their names, ages, birth dates and place of birth. For example Black Elk said: "I was born on Little Powder river in 1863, the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed" (101). Another person present, Fire Thunder said: "I was born at the mouth of Beaver Creek in Wyoming during the Year When Indians Died of Cramps" (101). Once everyone’s names and birthrights are established, Black Elk begins by saying:
I am the fourth of the name Black Elk. My father was a medicine man…[he]was the cousin of Crazy Horse’s father. My grandfather was killed by Pawnee. My mother’s name was White Cow Sees. I remember my grandmother on my mother’s side—her name was Plenty Eagle Feathers…I was three when my father was in the Fetterman fight…he got his right leg broken. Just about the year of the Big Foot massacre [the Wounded Knee Creek Dec. 29, 1890] my father died and was buried out in these hills in 1889 (2).Black Elk sets down the facts of his birth and the facts of his historical background. There is nothing really artistic about how he gives the facts, nor is there any stereotypical "Indian" talk. The translation is straight forward. The tone is that of an educated person with some background in the English language. The beginning of Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux is very similar:
It was in a cold winter…in the year of ‘braking up of camp,’ that I was born. I was the first son of Chief Standing Bear the First. …we had no calendars, no manner of keeping count of the days; only the month and the year were observed. Something of importance would happen every year, and we kept track of the years in that manner….My mother was considered the most beautiful young woman among the Sioux at the time she married my father. Her name was ‘Pretty Face.’ My grandfather…was a chief, and accounted a very brave man (3).The language is straight forward and we get the history of his background.
Black Elk Speaks, however is different. It begins with language that is very "westernized" and stereotypical speech of Native Americans. Neihardt 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 (1).In the second paragraph, Neihardt presents the philosophy of the entire book which over laps with his philosophy regarding the "other" world:
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 the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit (1).Neihardt captures and give Black Elk a distinct voice. Not only does Neihardt give Black Elk a distinct voice, but when Standing Bear speaks and is "quoted", Neihardt translates his English. For example:
When I was four years old, I played a little here and there and while playing I would hear a voice [singing] now and then, but I did not catch it very well" (DeMallie 108).Standing Bear:
That year I was eight years old…at this camp on Powder River. In the fall we camped. There were lots of cottonwood trees here. It was windy all day and all night. While sleeping that night I was awakened by a noise, so I heard some one say that an old woman had gotten killed by the falling of a tree. [the wind blew the tree over on the tipi.] (DeMallie 109).In Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt translates this into:
Black Elk Continues:
I do not remember where we camped that winter but it must have been a time of peace and of plenty to eat.Standing Bear Speaks:
I am four years older that Black Elk, and he and I have been good friends since boyhood. I know it was on the powder that we camped where there were many cottonwood trees. Ponies like to eat the bark of these trees and it is good for them. That was the winter when High Shirt’s mother was killed by a big tree that fell on her tepee. It was a very windy night and there were noises that ‘woke me, and then I heard that an old woman had been killed, it was High Shirt’s mother.Neihardt took the original and altered it. He took some of what Black Elk said, "I was four" and saw that Standing Bear was four years older and creates the line, "I am four years older than Black Elk." Neihardt also alters the tone that Standing Bear uses as well as word usage, such as changing the spelling of "tipi" to "tepee" and "awakened" to "‘woke me." It is as though Neihardt is altering the language to capture the stereotypical voice of a man who wears a headdress and clothing made out of deer skin. He doesn’t give the readers the true voice of Black Elk or any other native American in the book. Neihardt doesn’t outright lie, but for a man who said to Black Elk "your story should be told truthfully," Neihardt stretches and bends the truth to create a good "Indian" story.
There is one section, however, that he does stick pretty close to what was said. Toward the end of the book Black Elk gets shot in the stomach, following the massacre at Wounded Knee. Black Elk and some others were on the top of a hill where they were fighting soldiers. Black Elk says:
They sent a voice to me saying: "Black Elk, this day is the kind in which to do something Great!" so I said, "How!" [Yes!] I got off my horse and started putting dirt all over myself. I had a rifle and I proceeded up the hill and right below here the soldiers were firing and they told me not to go up…then I recalled my vision, the north where the geese were; then I outstretched my hands and then made the goose sound. They pumped away at me…but not a single bullet came near me—they couldn’t hit me (DeMallie 277).In Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt translates this incident closer to the original with a few exceptions. When Black Elk says "How!" Neihardt doesn’t tell us that it means "Yes!" When Black Elk rubs dirt on himself, Neihardt translates it to "…[I] rubbed earth on myself, to show the powers I was nothing without their help" (265). And when Black Elk rides down the hill, Neihardt slips in the line "…my people called out to me not to go…[that] I should be killed for nothing" (265). The last little intrusion Neihardt makes is when Black Elk mentions he recalled the vision of the goose. Neihardt gives the sound effects: "Stretching out my arms…like a goose soaring…I made the sound the geese make-- br-r-r-p, br-r-rp, br-r-rp; and, doing this, I charged" (265-6). Due to the comic implications, Neihardt should have mentioned that the reason the soldiers’ sharp shooters missed was because they were laughing too hard to get a good aim. The difference in each version is that one is very ritualistic, serious and noble; the other is clownish and to a certain extent, depicts Black Elk as a pathetic warrior who, under pressure, can only say "How!" and belch like a squawking goose.
Not only does Neihardt translate Black Elk Speaks freely, but as one reads Black Elk Speaks, one recognizes the importance of Black Elk’s dreams and visions as well as a richness in religion and community. But what else begins to take shape is Black Elk as a character. It is as though Neihardt created a novel and Black Elk is its main character. Or, maybe Neihardt found a way to create Cycle of the West in narrative form and actually, Black Elk Speaks is an epic.
Paul A. Olson, in his essay "Black Elk Speaks as Epic and Ritual Attempt to Reverse History," says "…epic commonly deals with a period of disintegration and reintegration in the history of an area and its peoples. The history reveals what heroic activity is required to stop disintegration and sustain reintegration; the allegory tells what forces the hero must lay hold on" (3). Olson says that Black Elk, "like the Homer in Alfred Lord’s Singer of Tales, was caught…between old culture (ritual, circular, formulaic)…and...the record keeping and linear progressions of the new" (5). Black Elk chose Neihardt as his "scribe just as an oral-formulaic master may have chosen a literate collaborator at some point in the development of Homeric epic" (5). Black Elk saw that the powers of the Grandfathers existed and were permanent aspects of reality, "but their capacity to act in the ordinary world which we see has been disrupted by the action of white intruders" (5). Black Elk’s responsibility was to keep the ritualistic and communal aspects of Sioux life alive and moving from present history into the future as well as find a way to return the Sioux life back to the "good red road." This responsibility is like no other of any ""holy man" in the native tradition" and Black Elk’s "destiny as the bearer of the nations burden is epic in the traditional sense" (Olson 5). Olson goes on to say that Black Elk was lucky to have found Neihardt who had schooled himself in nineteenth-century idealistic philosophy and Hindu scriptures because no other writer whose "epistemology is based on naturalistic assumptions could have done the job" (6).
The "hero" of this epic is Black Elk and his journey is to be pitted up against the "evil" whites who are destroying his native culture. According to Neihardt, Black Elk’s character is fighting a losing battle. Black Elk is pathetic in comparison to white conquerors, and throughout the book, the reader is reminded of Black Elk’s inability to fulfill the wishes of the Grandfathers, especially at the end of the book:
A people’s dream died there [Wounded Knee]. It was a beautiful dream.Unlike The Sixth Grandfather and My People the Sioux, Black Elk Speaks doesn’t begin with the ritual of setting down the birth history of the people present. With the exception of Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks lacks the individual and communal heritage of the other two books. Black Elk Speaks seems to focus more on Black Elk expressing himself as a pathetic old man who wasn’t worthy of such great power. Neihardt translated from Enid’s transcripts very loosely and if one is to find Black Elk’s true voice and agenda, one needs to look to the visions and moments when Black Elk acts very human. If one wants to understand the "literal" Black Elk, then perhaps one is better off reading The Sixth Grandfather. It is more specific regarding rituals and Sioux life, however, as Barnstone reported, it is more machine-like and less artistic than that of Black Elk Speaks. So it is up to the reader to choose between the "encyclopedic, dictionary" Black Elk and the Black Elk who was "subconsciously" linked to John G. Neihardt. The important thing to remember is that both books are educational and most importantly, both books preserve the Vision of Black Elk as well as a piece of Siouxan culture that is gone.
And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth,---you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead. (270)
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Olson, Paul A. "Black Elk Speaks as Epic and Ritual Attempt to Reverse History."
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Voice of the Plains. Videocassette. Prod. Cultural Affairs Unit. University of Nebraska,
©Copyright Mark Sanchez