Joe Jackson

Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary

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Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary Summary

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Joe Jackson’s Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary is a 2016 biography of the Native American holy man and healer. After experiencing a profound spiritual vision as a child, Black Elk went on to be involved in some of the best-known episodes in Western history, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. The story of his early life is already known to many readers through the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, written by the American poet John Neihardt and based on oral interviews with Black Elk. Jackson draws on Neihardt’s book for the early chapters of his own, adding broader historical context that was unknown to Neihardt and Black Elk. While Neihardt’s narrative concludes with Black Elk in his twenties, Jackson extends Black Elk’s story to his death at the age of eighty-six, including his controversial conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Jackson frames his narrative with the story of Neihardt’s visit to Black Elk’s reservation, the visit that became Neihardt’s book, Black Elk Speaks. Drawing on that book, Jackson turns to Black Elk’s birth and childhood. Black Elk was born in the Powder River country of Wyoming, as a member of the nomadic Oglala Lakota people. Jackson delves into other sources to paint a picture of tribal life before serious conflict broke out with the United States.

Black Elk’s father was a medicine man and healer from a long line of holy men. When he was nine, Black Elk was struck down by a severe illness. He became unresponsive and remained so for several days; however, during this time, he had a profound spiritual vision, which Jackson recounts in detail, annotating Black Elk’s own account with relevant detail about Lakota spirituality. At the core of Black Elk’s vision was a sense of the unity and interdependence of all life: “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.”

Black Elk did not describe the vision in detail until he was seventeen, when he related it to a medicine man, Black Road, who was astonished by the breadth and profundity of what Black Elk had experienced. Black Elk became a healer and a spiritual guide among his people.

Jackson sets out the pressures that began to mount on the Lakota peoples, including the growth of the white settler population, the arrival of missionaries, and the changes in the U.S. government’s approach to “Indian Affairs.” These pressures culminated in the Sioux War and the Battle of Little Bighorn, at which a combined force of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters defeated a U.S. army under George Custer. Black Elk was present at the battle, and Jackson describes his experience in lavish detail: “Black Elk picked his way farther up the gulch…The boys surrounded those retaining the slightest spark of life, shot them full of arrows, pushed those already in their bodies farther in.”

Black Elk traveled to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where he was separated from his traveling party and ended up joining another Wild West show. When he returned to the U.S. Black Elk participated in the fighting at Wounded Knee, where as many as three hundred Lakota were massacred. Although he arrived after the bulk of the killing was over, Black Elk helped to rescue some of the survivors and was wounded in the hip.

Where Neihardt’s narrative leaves off, Jackson begins to paint a picture of an adaptable figure, who displayed admirable courage and versatility to preserve Native religion and spirituality in the face of persecution. Black Elk adapted his experiences in the Wild West show to create shows that were more authentic for Western tourists. He led the revival of the Sun Dance and agreed to speak with Neihardt in order to spread his knowledge of—and vision for—Native American spirituality. Throughout his life, he was guided by the “Great Vision” he received as a child and subsequent visions that confirmed what he had seen.

In light of this, Jackson considers the topic of Black Elk’s conversion to Catholicism, the faith in which all his children were raised. Jackson examines the meaning of religion in Lakota culture, and the role of a holy man, to try to understand how Black Elk’s conversion squares with his Native beliefs and practices.

Jackson concludes that Black Elk remained consistent in his goal of preserving Lakota culture and that in pursuing this goal he was pragmatic. Jackson returns to Neihardt’s visit in its proper chronological order, arguing that Black Elk Speaks was a collaborative project, substantially masterminded by Black Elk himself, to ensure that the holy man’s vision would be preserved and disseminated.

Hailed as “a major contribution to Native American History” by Publishers’ Weekly, Jackson’s Black Elk is also a major study of the role of spirituality in a person’s life.