John Neihardt, the ghostwriter of one of the most popular and enduring chronicles of traditional Native American culture, Black Elk Speaks, dies on this day in 1973 at the age of 92.
Raised on the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, one of John Neihardt’s first jobs after graduating from college was as an assistant agent on the Omaha Indian reservation in Nebraska. During his six years on the reservation, Neihardt studied the history and customs of the Omaha and decided to chronicle the story of western expansion. His first important works were epic poems celebrating the heroic achievements of western fur traders and explorers. The poems have largely been forgotten, though at the time they won Neihardt a measure of success.
Neihardt did not write his most famous work until he was in his 50s. In the early 1930s, he met an Oglala Sioux holy man named Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) and began to write his autobiography for publication. Black Elk, who was in his 60s, had witnessed many of the major historical events of his people during the latter 19th century. As a young teenager, he had fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and lived to witness the final brutal suppression of the Sioux at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Since experiencing a powerful mystic vision at the age of nine, Black Elk had also been a Sioux holy man. He believed his people’s many trials were a result of their increasing materialism and failure to remain in close communion with the natural world.
The collaboration between Neihardt and Black Elk produced a moving book that offered a rare window into the history and beliefs of a disappearing culture. A perennial favorite among high school and college students learning Native American history, Black Elk Speaks also became popular among Indians interested in reconnecting with their cultural roots. Furthermore, it is credited with creating a “renaissance of Lakota spirituality.”