When John Neihardt was six years old, he stood with his father on the banks of the Missouri River and watched the roiling waters of the river at flood. It must have been an extraordinary experience for the little boy. He later wrote of the experience, “I had caught my first glimpse into the infinite.”
It was perhaps that vision that led John Neihardt to a lifelong career of mingling poetry, history, and direct observation into an extensive collection of some thirty books of poems, stories, and essays, works that attempted to chronicle the American experience on the western frontier. From a young age – though considerably older than six, I presume – he sought out and interviewed the oldest people he could find. For almost thirty years he recorded the lives of the people, indigenous and intruder, who lived in the age of western expansion. St. Louis was often the setting that Neihardt employed as the definitive place of the American experience.
“A tumult runs along the waterside
Where, scenting an event, St. Louis throngs.”
Neihardt was the literary editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch for several years beginning in 1926. During his tenure he wrote thoughtful essays and reviews of the work of such figures as Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce. It was also during this period that, on a leave of absence, he journeyed to the site of the battle of Wounded Knee and found an old holy man among the Oglala Sioux named Black Elk. The old man not only agreed to tell John his story but announced that he had been expecting him.
“My friend,” Black Elk said, as recorded by Neihardt, “I am going to tell you the story of my life.” Thus began a story that has waxed and waned in popularity and in respect for eighty years. Published in 1932, Black Elk Speaks was an immediate success. Losing its cachet over the years, it was rediscovered in the 1960s. From time to time both the book and its author have endured some often harsh criticism, but it has also been admired as an outsider’s respectful examination of Native American spirituality. The story still has a certain following. There’s even a Kindle edition.
When John Neihardt died in 1973, a group of Sioux performed a death ceremony rarely accorded a white man. That tells us something about Black Elk Speaks and about this poet of the American experience. Neihardt’s other works are mostly forgotten, but what Black Elk spoke to him has endured.
The words of our elders are essential to our understanding of the present. We must listen well.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society