As I began my fourth decade of teaching college, I took a look back at the texts that have accompanied me in the classroom semester after semester and identified definite patterns of influence and inspiration. Certainly the Bible is on the list, along with other volumes from the global sacred library and a durable set of modern essays, including Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Autobiographical texts especially stand out. First-person narratives such as Augustine’s Confessions and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness have become more than reliable syllabus workhorses.
In such texts you encounter remarkable persons speaking —struggling— in intimate tones about the most urgent matters of their lives and times. Over the years, I invite class after class to submit to the disciplines of close reading and self-critical reflection, hoping that at least a few students will recognize the condition of their own lives in the mirror of these texts and fully enroll in the extracurricular adventure of the spiritual life. Through multiple readings and repeated use, this increasingly personal canon has profoundly informed the way I perceive my own life as an unfolding story of blessed surprise and continual conversion.
The first great book to give shape to my pedagogical repertoire was Black Elk Speaks, the “as-told-to” account of a Lakota holy man’s experiences leading up to the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. The book is based on interviews conducted by the poet John G. Neihardt in 1931. As a graduate assistant at a large Midwestern state university in the mid-1980s, I co-taught an introductory course on Native American religions with my faculty mentor. We used the 1972 edition of the book, the version that cemented the text’s status as a youth culture classic and, in the words of the provocative Vine Deloria, author of God is Red, as a “North American bible of all tribes.” Devouring the book just weeks before I guided a lecture hall of undergraduates through its mysteries, I was struck by what millions of other readers—from William Least Heat-Moon to Carl Jung—had already discovered: the quiet dignity of its uncommon perspective, the moving drama of its countercultural storyline, and the haunting beauty of the speaker’s sometimes other-worldly voice.
At the time, the question of the book’s integrity and point of view was stirring controversy among a small circle of experts and an expanding fellowship of enthusiasts. In the course of conversations with colleagues in the graduate student lounge and the usual circuit of after-hours watering holes, I became aware of a larger context challenging my originally naïve approach to the text. Did Neihardt distort the words of Black Elk, privileging an overly romantic understanding of Lakota theology? Why was Black Elk’s twentieth-century experience ignored? Was this a textbook example of white appropriation of Native national treasure?
Nagging questions about Neihardt’s role in the composition of the book took on new meaning during the pan-Indian cultural renaissance that led to the Wounded Knee standoff of 1973. A New Age movement arose that simultaneously honored and exploited indigenous traditions. Meanwhile, two extraordinary personalities in my university town, Native American studies pioneer Raymond DeMallie and “perennialist” thinker Frithjof Schuon, took up the quest to identify the “real” Black Elk. Sorting out myth and history—mainstream literary ambition and guarded Native testimony—influenced me to read in a self-conscious, aggressive way, keenly attuned to context and the complexities of text construction.
This year I put Black Elk Speaks on my syllabus once again. It’s been a long time since the book was available in mass market paperback. The 2014 edition published by the leading university press in Native American studies is twice as long as the 1972 edition. The introduction by Philip Deloria, son of Vine, and critical apparatus featuring notes, rare photographs, a Lakota glossary, and essays by DeMallie and other authorities, demonstrate dramatically how much the cottage industry of Black Elk research has changed since I first stood behind a university lectern. The recent release of Joe Jackson’s deeply engaging Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (2016) covering all aspects of Black Elk’s varied life—from Oglala shaman and Little Bighorn warrior to Catholic convert and international Wild West entertainer, including even his role in London’s sensational Jack the Ripper criminal investigation—made this particular round of Black Elk classroom conversations especially memorable.
More than anything, teaching Black Elk Speaks at the same time as the historic water protector movement fighting pipeline development at the Standing Rock Nation gave the book new resonance. Thanks to my current university’s location atop a scenic prairie bluff, the view from my lectern now reveals the wide-angle vistas of the Missouri River valley, well known to Black Elk and his cousin Crazy Horse. Between classes this year, skipping the usual faculty lounge discussions, I drove through military checkpoints to see firsthand the massive scars in the earth charting the path for the nation’s newest fossil-fuel pipeline project. Visits to Oceti Sakowin, dubbed the “protest camp” by hostile local media, allowed me to meet the architects of a new Native-led renaissance movement, many of whom faced pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannon, concussion grenades, and legal harassment. Praying under cloudless skies and circling National Guard drones and helicopters with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Wiccans, and indigenous peoples from many nations placed me in the middle of the largest outdoor interfaith gathering in American history.
The famous conclusion of Black Elk Speaks portrays the aging healer in the Black Hills, offering one last prayer for the life of his people—accompanied, as Neihardt claimed, by drizzle and distant thunder signifying an unfinished story. This past weekend, semester grades submitted, I drove once more to Standing Rock. The surveillance vehicles have disappeared, and, thanks to forced evacuation, the site where Oceti Sakowin flourished as a multicultural city on the Plains is virtually unrecognizable. Ever the unapologetic autobiography aficionado, I reread the final scene from my vintage desk copy and heard Black Elk’s cry in a whole new way: “O make my people live!” No raindrops stained the yellowing pages, but the mirror of the text reflected the familiar face of a student well acquainted with the surprise of new conversion. With over 700 water protectors still facing trial, my classroom for the foreseeable future will be courtrooms of central North Dakota and the cells of the already incarcerated. Black Elk and his descendants are speaking, and it’s time for me to listen.