Book Review: Black Elk
by Joe Jackson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
The subject of veteran nonfiction writer Joe Jackson’s terrific new book is Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man who stars in John Neihardt’s 1932 book Black Elk Speaks. Neihardt’s book was largely ignored when it first appeared, but it’s since taken on the kind of immortality that only college Cultural Studies reading lists can impart, filling the biddable imaginations of countless undergraduates with exactly the kind of Grade-A sheep dip Black Elk made an eighty-year career of producing. The stuff that Black Elk speaks in Black Elk Speaks is premium hooey from start to finish, and the truly amazing thing about Jackson’s big biography of the man is that he can serve up the hooey for 600 pages with all the conviction of an earnest Iowa undergrad and yet balance it throughout with the most extensive and impressive research anybody’s ever brought to bear on the matter. Jackson’s Black Elk is as starry-eyed and credulous as a high school yearbook, but it’s also a masterpiece of American biographical reconstruction.
Maybe more re-imagination than reconstruction. Black Elk was born 1863 in what’s now Wyoming, and according to his own deeply, sloppily mendacious oral accounts, he began seeing visions when he was only a child and began receiving visitations from fantasy beings who sympathized with both his sketchy tribal loyalty and his already-overweening egomania. As Jackson puts it about some later moment of clap-trap:
Now he understood. This was his mission. This was the reason for his birth and the meaning of his name. The Grandfathers had given him the sacred gifts of life, and with them, “I was going to cure these people.” Somehow, in a way he did not yet understand, the sacred tree and the daybreak herb would restore a lost balance. He’d been chosen to save a dying world.
That cure took a curiously roundabout route. Black Elk told stories about how he was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn, told stories about how he was present at the death of his cousin Crazy Horse, told stories about how he was present at Wounded Knee, and in 1887 he toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West extravaganza. He embraced Catholicism with the the same kind of facile hypocrisy that saw him through most of his life, and Jackson recounts it all with enthusiasm and a consistent awareness of the larger picture, especially Black Elk’s place in it:
Where warriors liked to retell their deeds in all their glory, holy men considered their knowledge sacrosanct. There had been two wars for them: the military campaigns emblazoned in the history books, and a lesser-known but more far-reaching crusade waged by the government and church to eradicate the medicine man and all traces of traditional religion. This war on identity would be the most protracted experiment in social engineering ever conducted in American history, a multigenerational attempt to “kill the Indian in the Indian” for his own good – a failed endeavor to replace the soul of one people with that of another, the ramifications of which still resonate today.
Jackson’s Black Elk is, inevitably and hilariously, a grubby kind of messianic figure, which is just exactly the kind of fortified peach cobbler he used to love selling to anybody who would listen. John Neihardt was just such a champion listener, and Jackson’s nice long book works wonders in the shadow of that 80-year-old confection of cobwebs and cow dung. His Black Elk is still a compulsive trimmer and liar, still a chameleon opportunist who liked nothing more than play-acting the Spirit of His People if the money was good … but Jackson is a champion listener too, and he invariably finds the man beneath the subterfuges (even if he ends up believing too many of the subterfuges for some readers’ tastes), the human being who, by the end, was simply worn out and open to any happy change that came along:
So many losses, and despite his best efforts, people continued to die. He had not saved his people, as the Grandfathers commanded; he was hunted and persecuted by the authorities, doubled over from ulcers, and going blind. Little made sense any longer. He was tired.
Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary is an unapologetically sympathetic biography, for all its wide-ranging source-work. But even sinners need some sympathy, especially when it’s as smart as the sympathy offered here.