Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt Essay
Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt
Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt is the story told by an Ogalala Lakota Sioux of his life in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Yet Black Elk is reluctant to tell “his” story because he does not separate himself from all life, “my friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, … It is the story of all life that is holy and good to tell” (Neihardt 1).
Within the Lakota there is a sense of community that is both innocent and refreshing. For Black Elk the community includes all life, “of us two-leggeds sharing it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are the children of one mother and their father is one Spirit” (Neihardt 9). The community was the earth and everything that lived on it and the great spirit above.
Prior to the arrival of the Waischus, the Americans moving from the east, the Lakota life seems idyllic, “once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us” (Neihardt 9).
Contrast this “universal community” with that in O! Pioneers by Willa Cather. The community of the pioneers in Nebraska was much more tightly focused into increasingly smaller groups: the community, the neighbors, the family and the individual. This smallness of community did not lead to a community of satisfied people sharing a life together. Instead, it seemed to lead to a desire to compete for more and more land. Yet, when they had worked hard for their land, they didn’t find happiness, they weren’t satisfied, they just wanted more.
When people begin to talk about Alexandria’s friend Carl who was staying with her and people are saying that Alexandria is going to give him her money. Her brothers are angry, they had planned that Alexandria would leave her property to her nieces and nephews. “‘Give him?’ Lou shouted. ‘Our property, our homestead?'” (Cather 142). It wasn’t their land but they wanted it, they wanted if for the money it would make, not because their money and property had made them happy, for it hadn’t, but just because they didn’t want someone else to have it (Cather 140-147).
The Lakota did not own property, but they were happy. They lived with it. They took what they needed and left the rest.
Despite the prominence of the community in Black Elk Speaks, there is an acceptance of what is different. When Black Elk told his father of his vision, his father accepted it immediately and began helping him develop his power. Contrast this with the treatment of Crazy Ivar in O! Pioneers. Crazy Ivar was a man who chose to live alone in a sod house, wore no shoes, ate no meat and spent his time reading his Norwegian Bible or building a pond where migrating birds could rest. People were afraid of Crazy Ivar because he was different. They were frightened of him and wanted to put him in an asylum (Cather 84-5).
Unlike the Lakota, the Waischus wanted to acquire land and they fought to change it and mold it into the way they wanted it to be. Alexandria, in O! Pioneers is an admirable woman. She is strong, courageous, and self-sufficient. Alexandria was in many ways the ideal American pioneer who worked hard and gained her fortune. Even today the American public is much more likely to admire a self-made millionaire than they are a man who leads a simple life and is happy.
Despite this attitude, the fast-paced life of the hardworking American today seems to lead to anger, road rage, and frustration. The damage that has been done to the planet in the last century will take years to repair, if it can ever be done. Given these things, one wonders if the Waischus chose the right path.
|Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1932.
|Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. Los Angeles: LRS, 1997.