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  • Interpreting the Legacy: John Neihardt and Black Elk Speaks
  • Frances W. Kaye (bio)
Brian Holloway . Interpreting the Legacy: John Neihardt and Black Elk Speaks. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2003. xvi + 220 pp.

Interpreting the Legacy is an attractive book with many useful facsimile pages of the transcripts and manuscripts relating to Black Elk Speaks. Holloway undertakes an exploration of Neihardt's role in the book as a literary text and particularly of the ways in which Neihardt transformed the transcript materials into the published book. Yet Holloway's work is not as helpful to Black Elk readers as one might wish.

Holloway is most useful in his literary analysis of the text as a collaboration between Nicholas Black Elk and John Neihardt. A major problem with his analysis is that he leaves out consideration of the third collaborator, Black Elk's son, Ben, who provided translations of what his father said in Lakota. Although it is hard to identify Ben's contribution, since no record of the original Lakota exists, from a literary and linguistic standpoint, Ben's work was extraordinary. He had been educated in English at Carlisle, which had simultaneously attempted to wipe out his use of Lakota. Before the interviews, he apparently knew very little of his father's early career as a visionary and healer. Yet Ben apparently provided an instantaneous translation with few requests to his father to clarify or restate his words. Thus the stenographic accounts and typescripts of them, prepared by Neihardt's [End Page 98] daughter Enid, recorded Ben's English word choices and sentence structure, not Nicholas Black Elk's. Holloway hardly takes Ben into account, beyond quoting Neihardt as saying that his own task "requir[ed] much patient effort and careful questioning of the interpreter" (64).

Holloway's attempt to defend Neihardt from readers who question the extent to which Neihardt may have corrupted or compromised Black Elk's story is also unsatisfying. After a careful look at what Raymond DeMaillie, Julian Rice, Michael Steltenkamp, and Clyde Holler see as Black Elk's status as a religious interpreter or innovator, Holloway asks critics to perceive Neihardt, also, as someone whose "spiritualities [. . .] surmount and embrace different traditions" (15). Fair enough. Certainly Neihardt was in his own right a mystic who had been fascinated by his study of eastern as well as Native American religious traditions and was much less a conventional Christian than Black Elk himself, who had, after all, served as a Catholic catechist. The myths that mattered most to Neihardt, however, were the Mediterranean ones, including the fortunate fall and the Greek myths centered around the Iliad. Holloway correctly points out that in both Black Elk Speaks and the Cycle of the West Neihardt rhetorically and directly portrays whitestream society as morally inferior to Lakota society. This is a familiar, even indispensable convention of the "Noble Savage" myth, central, for instance, to Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. More important, in terms of Neihardt, is the role of this rubric in the Iliad. Hector and the Trojans are far more decent human beings than Achilles and the Greeks. As David Young has pointed out, Neihardt's death of Crazy Horse is based on Homer's death of Hector. For both poets, the conquest of the morally superior but technologically inferior people is a tragedy but a fortunate tragedy, necessary for the creation of a new and better empire.

Holloway is also disconcertingly vague in terms of whom and what he is defending Neihardt from. For instance, pointing out that Black Elk controlled many aspects of the interviews with Neihardt and continued to correspond with the Neihardt family, Holloway concludes "This is not the picture of a helpless old man being 'colonized' by an invading unsympathetic outsider" (76). No, it is not. Nor [End Page 99] has anyone said it is. Julian Rice, as Holloway notes, has been extremely critical of Neihardt for imposing a Christian view of the fortunate fall on the defeat of the Lakotas, but his criticism is far more nuanced. Michael Steltenkamp, on the other hand, accuses Neihardt of discounting Black Elk's Catholicism. Who is Holloway talking about here and in his other jabs at...


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pp. 98-101
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