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  • Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary by Joe Jackson
  • Lori Burlingame
Joe Jackson, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016. 599 pp. Cloth, $30.

Jackson's biography is an epic, comprehensively researched historical and sociopolitical account of the life of Black Elk (1863–1950), revered and iconic Oglala Lakota visionary and healer. Born on the cusp of the most turbulent period of change in Native North American history, Black Elk bore witness to his people's unimaginable losses and to their incredible story of strength and "survivance." Black Elk's 1872 vision of the sacred hoop and the restoration of balance haunted him; he strove to understand it and felt a sacred responsibility to honor and preserve it, which is why he shared his story with poet John Neihardt.

Jackson's narrative begins with the first encounter between Black Elk and Neihardt and then moves chronologically through the events of Black Elk's life as they converge with pivotal moments in Native history. Black Elk killed a soldier at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were defeated. He bore witness to escalating tensions between the Lakotas and Whites, the theft of his people's sacred lands, the killing of his second cousin Crazy Horse in 1877, and the near extinction of the buffalo. Because of his powerful vision, Black Elk became a healer and performed traditional ceremonies. He and his people suffered the hardships of reservation life at Pine Ridge, where increasingly the US government and the Catholic Church worked to outlaw Lakota traditions and ceremonies, like the Sun Dance.

From 1886 to 1888 Black Elk performed with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in England. Jackson explores Black Elk's missing of the ship home, his injury while working in Joe Shelley's Western Wilds of America Show, and his relationship with a Parisian woman. He returned home in 1889, just prior to the Sioux Ghost Dance. [End Page 459] Jackson narrates in inspiring detail Black Elk's courage in charging at soldiers while under intense fire, thus enabling some fellow Lakotas who were captive to escape during the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. In 1904 Black Elk was baptized in the Catholic Church, after having previously clashed with Jesuit priests over his work as a traditional Lakota healer. Jackson delineates Black Elk's conflicted relationship with Christianity; he worked as a catechist for over twenty years but as early as 1923 began to practice traditional ways again and from 1936 to 1945 managed the Duhamel Indian Pageant at the Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns. Black Elk's son, Ben, was a student at the Carlisle Boarding School, and both Ben and Neihardt passed away in 1973, the year of the Siege of Wounded Knee. Jackson documents the close relationship between the Black Elk and Neihardt families, as well as Black Elk's connection with Joseph Epes Brown, recorder and editor of The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953). Particularly poignant is Jackson's account of Black Elk's 1931 climbing of Harney Peak, the last mountain in his vision; while he was praying for his people there, it began to rain—perhaps a sign to Black Elk, a thunder dreamer, that his prayers had been heard.

Jackson's biography is colorful and thoroughly engaging; readers will have a hard time putting it down. Every topic raised, from Black Elk's heyoka ceremony to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, is exhaustively addressed, and while some topics examined, like the Whitechapel murders, might be viewed as tangents, they are all connected to a deeper understanding of the historical circumstances that shaped Black Elk's life. Featuring a user-friendly organizational structure, Jackson's text includes a listing and description of key historical figures and maps of places discussed, photographs, English names of Lakota months, and a timeline of events.

A premise of Jackson's biography is that Neihardt endeavored to the extent possible to be true to Black Elk's voice, even as he employed poetic license in writing Black Elk...


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pp. 459-462
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