English, Department of


Date of this Version



From: Vision and Refuge: Essays on the Literature of the Great Plains, ed. Virginia Faulkner & Frederick C. Luebke (University of Nebraska Press & Center for Great Plains Studies, 1982), pp. 3–27.


Modern Siouan storytellers make a distinction in speaking of the difference between bedtime and sacred stories. Moreover, Lakota masters of the sacred arts are inveterate constructors of figural or allegorical systems. They interpret, apply, and reapply the iconological resources of their culture through ritual, myth, storytelling, symbolic action, and clothing. This Sioux symbolic tradition is one context in which John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks (1932) must be understood. Conceptualizing it as an epic may assist both Western and non-Western readers to clarify the uses to which a culture's symbol system may be put in mediating conflicting values, especially those deemed significant in times of cultural crisis. Neihardt himself was deeply interested in the epic as a literary form. He conceived of his Cycle of the West (1941) as a record of the general period of the last three-quarters of the nineteenth century and developed it as an epic.

The nineteenth century was a period of great movement for the Lakota people as well as the Euroamericans. Both were threatened by the loss of cultural bonds and by intense individualism. It was a period when an old culture appeared to be dying and a new one was, in Matthew Arnold's phrase, "powerless to be born." It is possible that Neihardt shaped Black Elk Speaks as a kind of epic composed from the Lakota perspective to accompany his Cycle of the West, which was written, at least in the initial books, from the perspective of the conqueror. A second, more likely, possibility is that Black Elk, as a religious thinker and master of ritual speech, acted at that moment in the life of the Sioux nation when epic as the meaningful combining of allegory and history, was possible' and had a function in assisting the culture to survive.4 Black Elk, like the Homer portrayed in Alfred Lord's Singer of Tales, was caught between the recurrent, ritualistic, and formulaic aspects ofthe old culture, and the record keeping and linear progressions of the new.5 He chose Neihardt as his scribe just as an oral-formulaic master may have chosen a literate collaborator at some point in the development of the Homeric epic. Neihardt's task was to set down the relationship between the old and the new in Lakota culture. He could communicate Black Elk's vision to others because he was himself a writer for whom the juxtaposition of allegory and historical example which teaches, of religious forces and historic actions, was a possible mode. For him, as for Black Elk, ritual or mystical events do in fact make history outside the events.