Wednesday Writers to Read: Bernice Olivas on “Black Elk Speaks”

39643_1558273003200_3731908_nBernice Olivas is a Composition/ Rhetoric Ph.D. student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is an indigenous Latina American. She is a teacher. She is married plus kiddos. She is a writer in deep but complicated relationships with academic prose, fiction, and creative nonfiction. She relies on humor, coffee, and, occasionally, good beer to get by.

Black Elk Speaks did not follow other contemporary works into oblivion. Throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties it drew a steady and devoted readership and served as a reliable expression of the substance that undergirded Plains Indian religious beliefs. Outside the Northern Plains, the Sioux tribe, and the western mind set, there were few people who knew the book or listened to its message. But crises mounted and, as we understood the implications of future shock, the silent spring, and the greening of America, people began to search for a universal expression of the larger, more cosmic truths which industrialism and progress had ignored and overwhelmed. In the 1960s interest began to focus on Indians and some of the spiritual realities they seemed to represent. Regardless of the other literature in the field, the scholarly dissertations with inflections and nuances, Black Elk Speaks clearly dominated the literature dealing with Indian religions.

-Vine Deloria Jr.

I mourn not finding an old, faded copy of Black Elk Speaks in a dusty bookstore—a bookstore with a cat. I regret not finding a book with thin edges and maybe some esoteric marginalia scratch in faded pencil. I imagine if I had, I would have found a mystical, iconic Black Elk in those pages. Instead, my first meeting with the holy man was in Raymond DeMallie’s annotated edition. Don’t get me wrong. I love the edition. It’s a thing of beauty. I even advocate for teaching this edition. But I advocate for it for all the same reasons I wish I had stumbled onto an older edition first. The Black Elk of this edition is demystified, laid bare, his regalia carefully labeled and his face uncovered. The annotations change everything; they made me almost too aware of the duel voices at work and so I stepped into the story with a bit of cynicism. I started out looking for the places where the braided voices frayed, looking for places that might hint at the motives or intentions of one or the other author.

And I stand by that skepticism too. The annotated edition is critically important because the annotations split the braided voice created by the collaboration between the Black Elk and John G. Neihardt. They force the reader to see this text as written by two authors—with two different worldviews, goals, and experiences. It forces us to ask critically important questions. What happens to this “story” of “Indian” spirituality if it is being told in two distinct voices that come from two very different lived experiences, with two different sets of intentions? What does it mean if Neihardt is telling a story in which “the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered” and Black Elk is telling a story of endurance and survival. What does this duality mean to a Native American audience? What does it mean to a white audience? How does it affect the “universality” of the “ethics/ morals/worldview” that this story seems, at least before the annotated edition, to tell?

But I do mourn the loss opportunity to have experience Black Elk in all of his bringing-down-the-magic glory that so many readers identify as part of the experience of this book. The first time I read Black Elk Speaks it was in a classroom setting over the summer, through a program that offers further education opportunities for teachers. All of my classmates were teachers and many of them knew Black Elk Speaks but were just coming to know the annotated version. The new edition raised questions about the reasons/motives/effects of Neihardt’s choices and we talked extensively about what it meant to them to view the book as containing two agendas and two ideologies, rather than a single braided voice. Many of these readers, who had all read older editions and had various types of relationships with the book, were forced to shift in their perception due to the annotations in the DeMallie edition.

I remember being struck at how many were older, and how many of them had read the book in their youth. They spoke of the book as “’an awakening’ in their consciousness.” In many ways this reaction experience with Black Elk Speaks mirrors the experience many Chicana women have written about having (myself included) the first time they read Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. For me, reading Anzaldúa contained a moment, when as a reader, I heard my own questions/frustrations about my mixed-up mestiza identity echoed back in words that made so much more sense than my own thoughts—in the eloquent, beautiful words of another. Even more importantly, Anzaldúa gave words to things I felt but could never articulate. So although I feel that the annotated version is the version to teach, I mourn not finding Black Elk on my own. I regret not getting to know him as mestiza, as indigenous, and as open to the magic, the spirituality. I mourn never being touched by the God in him.


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