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Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary

Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary

Winner of the PEN / Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

Winner of the Society of American Historians' Francis Parkman Award
Best Biography of 2016, True West magazine
Winner of the Western Writers of America 2017 Spur Award, Best Western Biography
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
One of the Best Books of 2016, The Boston Globe

"An astonishingly rich saga . . . Jackson's biography works to represent 'the flesh-and-blood wicasa wakan' (holy man) . . . We see Black Elk balancing tradition and modernity, with fleeting but vivid scenes of him on a ferris wheel and in a movie house. We hear of struggles within subsequent generations over his legacy and Lakota identity more generally. Jackson succeeds in interweaving the secular and the spiritual to the point that the non-native reader can experience Harney Peak in the Black Hills . . . as what [Black Elk] knew it to be: the centre of the world." ―Christine Bold, The Times Literary Supplement

"Jackson panoramically renders a narrative as majestic as the American West in this fine account of the life of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota holy man. With compassion and clarity, Jackson portrays Black Elk as a man haunted by his inability to make sense of the 'Great Vision' that came to him as a child . . . He brilliantly frames it with an incisive discussion of the creation of John Neihardt’s 1932 as-told-to-book, Black Elk Speaks. Jackson digs into Native American culture and what it meant for Black Elk to be a holy man, especially in light of his 1904 conversion to Catholicism. He has produced a major contribution to Native American history." ―Publishers Weekly

"Joe Jackson has penned an extraordinary history of Lakota warfare with the United States wrapped around a thorough biography of the legendary Black Elk. Outstanding." ―Robert M. Utley, author of The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull

Black Elk, the Native American holy man, is known to millions of readers around the world from his 1932 testimonial Black Elk Speaks. Adapted by the poet John G. Neihardt from a series of interviews with Black Elk and other elders at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Black Elk Speaks is one of the most widely read and admired works of American Indian literature. Cryptic and deeply personal, it has been read as a spiritual guide, a philosophical manifesto, and a text to be deconstructed—while the historical Black Elk has faded from view.

In this sweeping book, Joe Jackson provides the definitive biographical account of a figure whose dramatic life converged with some of the most momentous events in the history of the American West. Born in an era of rising violence between the Sioux, white settlers, and U.S. government troops, Black Elk killed his first man at the Little Bighorn, witnessed the death of his second cousin Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Upon his return, he was swept up in the traditionalist Ghost Dance movement and shaken by the Massacre at Wounded Knee. But Black Elk was not a warrior, instead accepting the path of a healer and holy man, motivated by a powerful prophetic vision that he struggled to understand. Although Black Elk embraced Catholicism in his later years, he continued to practice the old ways clandestinely and never refrained from seeking meaning in the visions that both haunted and inspired him.

In Black Elk, Jackson has crafted a true American epic, restoring to its subject the richness of his times and gorgeously portraying a life of heroism and tragedy, adaptation and endurance, in an era of permanent crisis on the Great Plains.

Excerpt from Chapter One, "Chosen"
Extinction loomed in his life from the day he was born. It waited over the horizon like the thunderclouds rolling across the Plains. He feared those storms and the gods perched in their black folds. His second cousin Tasunke Witko, whom whites called Crazy Horse, advised him to submit to Their will. He’d been given a gift, a Great Vision to save his people. If he acted on it, all would be well.

He was not alone in such fear. His people, the Oglala Lakota—called the Sioux by their enemies—felt the apocalypse first and foremost with the disappearance of the buffalo. The vast herds remembered fondly by grandparents were doomed by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1842, the annual kill of Pte by civilian hunters exceeded 2.5 million; between 1850 and 1885, the railroads transported more than 75 million hides to eastern factories, where they were turned into gun belts and upholstery for high-end furniture. “Kill every buffalo you can,” Colonel Richard Irving Dodge told an English sportsman. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

Perhaps, like a river, Pte had drained underground. The Lakota believed that the bison came from the womb of the earth, and in evil times returned. Wind Cave in the Black Hills was that route to the underworld; at least, so said the medicine men, and Black Elk did not question them. His was a family of medicine men, stretching back for generations. Before he was Black Elk, still known by the childhood name Kahnigapi, or “Chosen,” he knew that only the foolish discounted the warnings of seers and holy men. They spoke of a new people who could not be stopped, no matter how many were killed. “They will be a powerful people, strong, tough,” the holy men admonished. “They are coming closer all the time.”

The most famous prophecy was that of Sweet Medicine, the powerful seer of their friends the Shahila, or Cheyenne. He warned of a “good-looking people, with light hair and white skin” who would come from the east in search of a “certain stone.” At first there would be just a few, but more would come, killing off the animals of the earth with an instrument that “makes a noise, and sends a little round stone to kill.” They’d replace the old four-leggeds with a new one with white horns and a long tail. They’d bring a drink that drove men crazy, and take the tribe’s children to teach them their ways. But these children would learn nothing. They would be shadows, lost between worlds.

Neither resistance nor reason could stop them, Sweet Medicine warned. “What they are going to do they will do.” Instead, the People would change: “In the end of your life in those days you will not get up early in the morning; you will never know when day comes; you will lie in bed; you will have disease, and will die suddenly; you will all die off.”

The Lakota prophet was no more comforting. Drinks Water—sometimes called Wooden Cup—died about twenty years before Black Elk was born. Black Elk’s father told him of the vision, as had his father before him. And he, the grandfather, had been told by Tries to Be Chief, the old bachelor who served as Drinks Water’s helper. Thus, the story had to be true. In this vision, a strange race would weave a spider’s web all around the Sioux. In some versions, the web was made of iron. As Black Elk grew older, he recognized this as a variation of the Iktomi, or spider, story, and Drinks Water’s dream seems the first reference comparing whites to the Iktomi. At some subconscious level, the image was chilling. Myths are strange and powerful narratives with the ability to “shape and direct [life], for good or ill,” wrote Richard Slotkin in an early version of his cultural history Regeneration Through Violence. “They are made of words, concepts, images, and they can kill,” and Drinks Water’s words would be fatal in every way. When the new people finished their web, he said, Oglalas’ lives would forever change. They would no longer live in their tipis: a tipi was warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and could be disassembled and moved in a pony drag to follow the herds. If the Grandfathers had meant for man to stay in one place, they would have made the earth stand still. But in the dominion of the Iktomi, the People would live in square gray houses rooted to the earth in a barren land. “When this happens,” said Drinks Water, “alongside of those gray houses you shall starve.”

The old man lay down after finishing his account and refused to rise. He would die soon, he told his family, and he wished to be cremated so thoroughly that nothing remained. His clan built his bonfire on the prairie west of Paha Sapa, and it burned four days. Its light could be seen from every direction, a grim beacon for a New World his people hoped they would never find.