In the 19th Century the Lakota began referring to white men as Wasichu. It referred originally to what seemed to be the endless number of buffalo on the plains. Unlike the buffalo that they slaughtered to near extinction these wasichu just kept coming. When a nine-year-old Lakota boy experienced a vision of the unstoppable Wasichu and the demise of his own people, he knew he was chosen to save his people. Writer Joe Jackson documents so fluently in his 2016 release Black Elk, the man whose life would be at the center of Lakota history, defined by his vision.
An Oglala holy man and healer, Black Elk fought at the battles at the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, witnessed the assassination of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, at Ft. Robinson, escaped to Canada with Sitting Bull and performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where he caught the attention of Queen Victoria. He shared his visions in a 1932 testimonial to John Neihardt called ‘Black Elk Speaks.’ Praised as one of the top ten spiritual books of the 20th Century, in the early 1960’s it became an international sensation inspiring new age activists as well as support for the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.).
From his birth in 1863 in the Powder River Valley to his death on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1950 Black Elk embodied the struggle of the Lakota (mirrored by all the plains tribes), suffering the injustices of the wasichu as all Indigenous people have. Although he became a noted catechist for the Catholic Church, he continued to heal his people as an Oglala holy man. It seems that his visions led him to the compromises his people would need to make to survive. Black Elk did much to maintain his people’s identity, culture and customs but could not help but be sad for their losses. When Neihardt asked him why he had joined ‘the white church’ he replied, “Because my children have to live in this world.”
After sharing his thoughts with Neihardt, he climbed Harney Peak (the highest point in the Black Hills renamed ‘Black Elk Peak’ in 2016, ) where he lamented, “When I look back now out from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying around and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
In Black Elk Joe Jackson has accomplished the most comprehensive history of the Lakota I’ve ever read. Jackson starts in where John Neihardt left off. Through Neihardt, Black Elk professed his beliefs and his wisdom. Jackson leads us into the details of the man’s life, from his fearless ride into the guns at Wounded Knee to his romance in Paris after leaving Buffalo Bill and where he stood while watching his friend Crazy Horse die of his stab wounds. By chronicling one of the men at its center and filling in the immense details of his people, their defeat, their subjugation and their ongoing perseverance Jackson brought the Lakota’s Oglala Holy Man back to life.