Stirring, wide-ranging biography of the Sioux elder whose testimonials underlay “one of the twentieth century’s most important documents on Native American culture.”
Born in the Powder River country in Wyoming, Hehaka Sapa, or Black Elk (1863-1950), was a Lakota Zelig who had been on hand at some of the key moments in the history of the Indian Wars. He was a confidant of Crazy Horse, a leader of the Sun Dance, a warrior at Wounded Knee, and, in between, a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show—and even, while touring Europe, briefly a suspect in the infamous Jack the Ripper killings. Jackson (Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic, 2012, etc.) surveys a broad swath of world history to place the Lakota spiritual leader in that terribly eventful context, and he does excellent work in doing so, explaining the dynamics of medicine men in Sioux society (there were two classes of them, “war prophets” and “healers”) and the dynamics of an American popular culture that saw John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks grow from a memoir of modest sales to a kind of Bible of the New Age movement, which “would envelop everything related to Black Elk Speaks in a warm and fuzzy nimbus.” One of the best moments in a book marked by many is Jackson’s in-passing examination of the role of the American media in fueling the Indian Wars; another is his examination of the mystery of Black Elk’s conversion to Catholicism, having long been an advocate of traditional Lakota ways. In the course of his narrative, the author provides a parallel biography of Neihardt, Black Elk’s chronicler, who felt great affection for and attachment to his interlocutor even as various players in Indian country tried to drive a wedge between the two.
Of much literary and historical merit and a fine addition to the shelves of anyone interested in this part of America’s unhappy past.