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Black Elk prays to the six grandfathers, reenacting a scene from his Great Vision. He wears red long underwear to represent the red body paint he wore in his vision. Black and white photograph by John Neihardt. John G. Neihardt Papers, c. 1858-1974. Reprinted with permission from Hilda Neihardt with the assistance of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Columbia, University of Missouri/State Historical Society of Missouri. E t h ic s o f P o ly p h o n y : T h e E x a m p le o f B l a c k E l k S p e a k s A n d r e a s K r ie f a l l P o lyph on y as an E th ics o f M u lticu ltu ralism In 1930, a self-styled singer of the grand drama of western expan­ sion, a poet spurred both by an archivist’s passion for gathering oral authentication of his epic verse and a traditionalist’s flight from mod­ ern alienation, visited the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation looking for a “genuine” Indian perspective. In connection with his research for a narrative poem on the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre, someone had given him the name of an obscure ex-shaman said to have figured prominently in those fateful episodes of Sioux history. In seeking to contact this shadowy figure, the white author was unaware that his potential source on mysteries of Indian religion could not read or write and spoke little English, had converted to Catholicism, had renounced his weapons and shamanistic practice, and had been active as a lay catechist for Jesuit missionaries on the reservation for over twenty-five years. Given only this generalized background to the meeting between John Neihardt and Black Elk, it would be hard to imagine a set of cir­ cumstances and persons less likely to promote the emergence and transmission of a Lakota perspective on history. What chance was there for an Indian voice to be heard through the ramified over­ determinations of a Manifest Destiny metanarrative, another use of Wounded Knee as Lakota apocalypse, a white poet’s persecuted sense of mission, and an aging, illiterate convert’s relation to the “satanic” religion of his deeply troubled, pre-Catholic youth? Recent scholar­ ship in the analysis of cultural domination would lead us to expect yet another example of the lethal misrecognitions and expropriations so prominent in the grim record of white-Indian relations. But here lies the surprise that this essay will explore and the claim it will attempt to justify: far from confirming our growing skepticism about the possibilities for positive intercultural commu­ nication, these unlikely characters and their highly improbable col­ laboration actually produced an exemplary polyphonic text, Black Elk Speaks. This book’s combination of visionary power and un­ flinching witness to social and psychological trauma makes it 1 8 0 WAL 3 3 ( 2 ) S u m m e r 1 9 9 8 invaluable as an enduring monument of Indian history and spiritu­ ality as well as a promising example to critics seeking to celebrate cultural diversity without minimizing the complex consequences of violence. Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt’s heavily edited, written rendering of Black Elk’s orally recounted life story, points us toward what I will call an “ethics of polyphony,” an ethics defined with the help of Bakhtinian concepts but moving beyond his specific formu­ lations and applications. By linking Black Elk and Neihardt’s polyvocal testimony with the rich Bakhtinian metaphor of polyphony, I attempt to articulate the need for, and one possible version of, an ethics of multiculturalism . The postmodern age confronts critics of western writing with proliferating differences and the concomitant potential for prolifer­ ating conflict. But the example of Black Elk Speaks suggests that we can learn to bring these pluralized perspectives into unfinalized eth­ ical dialogue, into polyphony, rather than viewing them as brutish Foucaultian givens of our condition tangled in an endless game of domination and subversion. As a critical practice, an ethics of poly­ phony provides us with a moral vocabulary of responsibility and (potential) reconciliation in...


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