Title: Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story
Author: S D Nelson
May Contain Spoilers
Told from the Native American point of view, Black Elk’s Vision provides a unique perspective on American history.
From recounting the visions Black Elk had as a young boy, to his involvement in the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, as well as his journeys to New York City and Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, this biographical account of Black Elk—an Oglala-Lakota medicine man (1863–1950)—follows him from childhood through adulthood.
S. D. Nelson tells the story of Black Elk through the medicine man’s voice, bringing to life what it was like to be Native American in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The Native people found their land overrun by the Wha-shi-choos, or White Man, the buffalo slaughtered for sport and to purposely eliminate their main food source, and their people gathered onto reservations. Through it all, Black Elk clung to his childhood visions that planted the seeds to help his people—and all people—understand their place in the circle of life.
The book includes archival images, a timeline, a bibliography, an index, and Nelson’s signature art.
I read two books recently about young children victimized by war, and they both broke my heart. In Black Elk’s Vision, a picture book based on Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt, warfare destroys not only Black Elk’s home, but also his people’s entire way of life. From the cover to the last page, this colorful book is striking and thought provoking. It doesn’t pull any punches, either. From Little Big Horn to the massacre at Wounded Knee, Black Elk’s story is compelling and unforgettable. From the vast plains, hunting buffalo, to the hardship of a walled reservation, his words remain steady and engrossing. I am not sure that I would be as forgiving as Black Elk, Great Vision or not. Manifest Destiny is such an ugly chapter in the history of this country, and I find it painful to read many accounts of settlers as they steamrolled over everything in their path to conquering the West.
There are several parts of this book that I found disturbing, and I am sure that I will find them hard to forget. Before the white settlers flooded like a tsunami over the Great Plains, there were an estimated 30 million bison. Thirty million. By 1889, there were about a thousand. The numbers are mind-numbing. Worse, diseases brought by Europeans wiped out hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. And that was before the settlers began to intentionally drive them off of their ancestral homelands. Thinking about the massive loss of life is nauseating. Thinking about a twelve year old boy forced to defend his life, as well as the lives of his family, is also upsetting. Thinking about having everything you owned, every belief and physical possession, even your way of life, torn away also merits deep contemplation. I would not have survived nearly as well, or lived nearly as gracefully, as Black Elk.
I found Black Elk’s Vision a compelling read. Interspersing colorful acrylics with vintage photos of the events described in Black Elk’s narrative, I found this book hard to put down. I also found myself going back to key passages, illustrations, and photos to ensure that I absorbed everything. From the photograph of Black Elk on the cover to the portrait of his family near the end, this is a haunting book. Black Elk believed that all of us have a part in the circle of life. We can all hold weapons of destruction or the sacred water of life. Each of us carries the power to nurture or destroy. Black Elk choose the cup of life, and he wished that all of us would choose it as well.
Review obtained from my local library