Black Elk Speaks
AuthorJohn G. Neihardt
Publication date
1932 (original cover)
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint

Black Elk Speaks is a 1932 book by John G. Neihardt, an American poet and writer, who relates the story of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. Black Elk spoke in Lakota and Black Elk's son, Ben Black Elk, who was present during the talks, translated his father's words into English.[1] Neihardt made notes during these talks which he later used as the basis for his book.[2]

The prominent psychologist Carl Jung read the book in the 1930s and urged its translation into German; in 1955, it was published as Ich rufe mein Volk (I Call My People).[3]

Reprinted in the US in 1961, with a 1988 edition named Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow) and a State University of New York Press 2008 Premier Edition annotated by Lakota scholar Raymond DeMallie, the book has found an international audience. However, the book has come under fire for what critics describe as inaccurate representations of Lakota culture and beliefs.


In the summer of 1930, as part of his research into the Native American perspective on the Ghost Dance movement, the poet and writer John G. Neihardt, already the Nebraska poet laureate, received the necessary permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to go to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Accompanied by his two daughters, he went to meet an Oglala holy man named Black Elk. His intention was to talk to someone who had participated in the Ghost Dance. For the most part, the reservations were not then open to visitors.[4] At age 13, Black Elk had also been part of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and he survived the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

Neihardt recounts that Black Elk invited him back for interviews. Flying Hawk served as their translator.[4] Neihardt writes that Black Elk told him of his visions, including one in which he saw himself as a "sixth grandfather" - the spiritual representative of the earth and of mankind. Neihardt also states that Black Elk shared some of the Oglala rituals which he had performed as a healer, and that two men developed a close friendship. Neihardt's daughter, Hilda Neihardt, says Black Elk adopted her, her sister, and their father as relatives, giving each of them Lakota names.[4]


Though Black Elk was Oglala Lakota, the book was written by Neihardt, a non-Native. While the book is lauded by non-Native audiences, and has been inspirational to many New Age groups, some Lakota people and Native American scholars do not consider the book to be representative of Lakota beliefs.[5][6] They have questioned the accuracy of the account, which has elements of a collaborative autobiography, spiritual text, and other genres. The Indiana University professor Raymond DeMallie, who has studied the Lakota by cultural and linguistic resources, published "The Sixth Grandfather" in 1985 including the original transcripts of the conversations with Black Elk, plus his own introduction, analysis and notes. He has questioned whether Neihardt's account is accurate and fully represents the views or words of Black Elk.[5]

The primary criticism made by DeMallie and similar scholars is that Neihardt, as the author and editor, may have exaggerated or altered some parts of the story to make it more accessible and marketable to the intended white audience of the 1930s, or because he did not fully understand the Lakota context.[6] Late twentieth-century editions of the book by Nebraska University Press have addressed this issue by entitling the book as Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt (aka "Flaming Rainbow").[4]

Ben Black Elk

After serving as translator for his father in 1931, and increasingly after his father's death in 1950, Ben Black Elk visited local schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation to tell the traditional stories of the Lakota history and culture.[citation needed]

Publication data


The book was adapted into a play by Christopher Sergel, John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks, in the 1970s where it was staged by the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., and then taken on a national tour in 1978, and later restaged in 1992 with a revised version.[8]

Shortly after Sergel's death, his revised version of the play “Black Elk Speaks” opened in Jan. 1995. A Denver Center Theatre Company production, its actors included Ned Romero and Peter Kelly Gaudreault. [9]

One of the stage presentations was the first 'paying gig' for Wes Studi, with the lead played by none other than David Carradine.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Kaye, Frances W. (April 21, 2005). "Interpreting the Legacy: John Neihardt and Black Elk Speaks (review)". Studies in American Indian Literatures. 17 (1): 98–101. doi:10.1353/ail.2005.0029. ISSN 1548-9590. S2CID 162008558. Archived from the original on June 3, 2018. Retrieved June 19, 2020 – via Project MUSE.
  2. ^ Holler, Clyde (June 1, 2000). The Black Elk Reader. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 978-0-8156-2836-1. Archived from the original on June 19, 2020. Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  3. ^ Neihardt, John G (1955). Ich rufe mein Volk: Leben, Traum und Untergang der Ogalalla-Sioux von Schwarzer Hirsch [Übers. von Siegfried Lang] (1st German ed.). Olten: Walter Verlag. ISBN 3889775411.
  4. ^ a b c d Holler, Clyde (2000). "Black Elk and John G. Neihardt: Hilda Neihardt and R. Todd Wise". The Black Elk Reader. Syracuse University Press. pp. 87–103. ISBN 0815628366. Archived from the original on June 19, 2020. Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  5. ^ a b Neihardt, John Gneisenau (1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 1–26. ISBN 978-0-8032-6564-6. Archived from the original on June 19, 2020. Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  6. ^ a b Silvio, Carl (2003). "Sites about Black Elk Speaks". The Internet Public Library. Archived from the original on October 7, 2007. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  7. ^ "Black Elk Speaks". SUNY Press. 2009. Archived from the original on February 15, 2009. Retrieved June 30, 2020.
  8. ^ Neihardt, John G.; Sergel, Christopher (1996). Black Elk Speaks (Play). Dramatic Pub. ISBN 0-87129-615-2. Archived from the original on June 30, 2020. Retrieved June 30, 2020.
  9. ^ Breslauer, Jan (8 Jan 1995). "The Legacy of 'Black Elk' : Native American actors hope that the historical epic play will make audiences question ethnic stereotypes and help raise their artistic visibility". L.A. Times. Retrieved 2 September 2023.
  10. ^ Orange, Tommy (22 Jul 2021). "The Untold Stories of Wes Studi". GQ. Condé Nast. Retrieved 2 September 2023.

Further reading