His meeting with the Sioux holy man Black Elk, John G. Neihardt once said, was the most memorable experience of his life. In 1930, while working on the concluding poem of his Cycle Of The West, Neihardt had gone to the Pine Ridge Reservation hoping to find “some old medicine man who had been active in the Messiah Movement and who might be induced to talk with me about the deeper spiritual significance of the matter.” In Neihardt, Black Elk recognized the one who had been sent to learn what “was given to me for men”. The next summer, in a long series of talks, Black Elk imparted his own life story and the story of the Oglala Sioux during the tragic decades of the Little Big Horn, the ghost-dance rising, and the Wounded Knee massacre.
John Neihardt taught English at the University of Missouri from 1949 to the early 1960s. One of his courses titled Epic America was immensely popular and always had a waiting list for admittance to the course. In the early 60s, the course was video-taped so it could be offered after his retirement from the university. This lecture is a re-edited version of a lecture in the Epic America course.
Black Elk Speaks:
My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.
. . . But now that I can see it all from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.
But if the vision was true and mighty, as I know, it is true and mighty yet; for such things are of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost.