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• Last updated: September 5, 2020

Podcast #633: The World and Vision of Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk

When he was nine years old in 1872, Black Elk, a member of the Lakota tribe, had a near-death vision in which he was called to save not only his people but all of humanity. For the rest of his life, Black Elk’s vision haunted and inspired him as he took part in many of the seminal confrontations between the Lakota and the U.S. government, including those at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. 

My guest today is the author of a biography of this native holy man. His name is Joe Jackson and his book is Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. We begin our conversation with a background of the Sioux or Lakota Indians, including how the introduction of the horse turned them into formidable hunters and warriors and how their spirituality influenced their warfare. Joe then introduces us to Black Elk and unfolds the vision that he had as a boy which would lead him to follow in his family’s footsteps by becoming a medicine man and guide him for the rest of his life. We then take detours into the seminal battles between the U.S government and the Lakota that Black Elk witnessed firsthand, as well as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance rituals which helped catalyze them. Joe then explains why Black Elk converted to Catholicism after the Indian Wars and how he fused Lakota spirituality with his newfound faith. We then discuss why Black Elk decided to tell his vision to a white poet named John Neihardt and the cultural influence the resulting book, Black Elk Speaks, had on the West in the 20th century. We end our conversation discussing whether Black Elk ever felt he fulfilled his vision. 

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Show Highlights

  • The background of the Lakota people 
  • The connection between spirituality and warfare 
  • US-Native American relations at the time of Black Elk 
  • Black Elk’s near-death vision at age 9
  • The intense traditions of the sun dance and ghost dance
  • Black Elk’s role in Buffalo Bill’s traveling show 
  • His lifelong quest to understand his vision 
  • Black Elk’s conversion to Catholicism 
  • How Black Elk ended up telling his story to poet John Neihardt
  • The public reception of Black Elk Speaks
  • At the end, what did Black Elk think of his life and legacy 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Black Elk on a cover of book called The Life of an American Visionary.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When he was nine years old in 1872, Black Elk, a member of the Lakota tribe had a near-death vision, in which he was called to save not only his people, but all of humanity. For the rest of his life, Black Elk’s vision haunted and inspired him as he took part in many of the seminal confrontations between the Lakota and the US government, including those at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. My guest today is the author of a biography of this native holy man. His name is Joe Jackson, and his book is Black Elk: The Life Of An American Visionary. We begin our conversation with the background of the Sioux or Lakota Indians, including how the introduction of the horse turned them into formidable hunters and warriors and how their spirituality influenced their warfare.

Joe then introduces the Black Elk and enfolds the vision that he had as a boy, which would lead him to follow in his family’s footsteps by becoming a medicine man and guide him for the rest of his life. We then take detours into the seminal battles, between the US government and the Lakota that Black Elk witnessed first-hand, as well as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance rituals which helped catalyze them. Joe then explains why Black Elk converted to Catholicism after the Indian wars and how he fused Lakota spirituality with his newfound faith. We then discuss why Black Elk decided to tell his vision to a white poet named John Neihardt, and the cultural influence, the resulting book, Black Elk speaks, had on the West in the 20th century. We end the conversation discussing whether Black Elk ever felt he fulfilled his vision. After the show’s over check out our show notes at

Alright. Joe Jackson, welcome to the show.

Joe Jackson: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So you’re the author of Black Elk: The Life Of An American Visionary, and this is a biography of a famous Lakota holy man, prophet, medicine man, Black Elk. I’m curious, what led you down the path to writing this biography?

Joe Jackson: Well, I had written a book prior to this about the air race that made Charles Lindbergh famous, and one of the things that I discovered was that the process by which, this was in the 1920s, the process by which Americans discovered and created and then destroyed secular holy men, the momentary media saints. And that made me start to think, “What does it really mean for a society or a group of people to call somebody holy? What does Holy really mean?” And I first thought of doing a biography of the Catholic writer Thomas Merton, but there had just been a biography written of him about five years ago or something like that, then I started thinking about Black Elk because I remembered two things. One, Black Elk Speaks was one of my favorite books when I was in either high school or college.

And secondly, at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, there was this colloquium of college theologians. And they were asked, “Who do you think was the American’s premiere holy man of the 20th century?” And the majority said, “Black Elk.” And I thought, well, now that’s really interesting because this is from a country that tried to wipe out his kind of religion, too. And then when I was researching the book, I didn’t know this at the time, but then when I first started researching the idea, I found out that there was a move to turn Black Elk into a Catholic saint. And that made it even more interesting because once again, at the time, it was the Catholics who tried to stamp out Black Elk’s type of religion. So there are a lot of different things going on, a lot of different trails I could go down, it seemed like a perfect book to work on.

Brett McKay: So this is a biography of Black Elk, but it’s also a history or biography of the Lakota. So let’s start there. For a big picture overview for the people who aren’t familiar with the Lakota Plains Indians, where were they from originally, because we know them for being on the Plains, like the Dakotas or whatever. Not only they were there originally. How’d they end up there. And we’ll start from there.

Joe Jackson: Well, the first place they were, at least recorded in white histories was in Michigan or around Michigan, around the Great Lakes. And they were forced out by white settler pressure. And they started moving across the plains. Some stayed in Michigan, others moved across the Northern Plains, what’s now like Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. But at that time, when that happened, they were still afoot, they weren’t really horse soldiers, like they became famous for being. And so it was a slow process of moving west. And there were three or four clans, the most famous of the clans were Black Elk’s, which were the Oglala Lakota, and that was also the clan of Crazy Horse, and the other clan which came quite famous was Sitting Bull’s clan, which was the Hunkpapa. And so they moved West until they came to the Dakotas, then they started separating out into… Each clan had its territory. Sitting Bull’s clan was in the northernmost of the United States, in what is now North Dakota, and at least among the Lakota, the southernmost clan were Black Elk’s who are down right around where the Black Hills are, of South Dakota today.

Brett McKay: And then for people, I think it’s important to note. The Lakota are also known as the Sioux. That can be confusing. People are like the Sioux, or Lakota, Those are different tribes? No, it’s the same tribe.

Joe Jackson: Right. Yeah, the Sioux was pretty much… The name Sioux is a bastardization of a French word for them but their name for themselves was always the Lakota.

Brett McKay: Lakota. So you mentioned they’re famous for being plains horse warriors, calvary, plains warriors, but they always didn’t have the horse. When were they introduced to the horse? When did they start incorporating that into their culture?

Joe Jackson: Nobody’s really sure about that, but the horse culture spread up from the south. There were Spanish horses that escaped and bred, and then the Comanches were among the first American tribes to become really proficient horsemen. Over time, it spread north, they think that the Lakota discovered the horse and started riding some time between 1750 and 1820. There were Lakota historians, they would draw pictographs on these deer skins, and the first time that the Lakota were recorded to have cut a horse was, or have stolen a horse was 1801. Somewhere between 1801 and 1820, they became quite proficient.

Brett McKay: And how did it change their culture?

Joe Jackson: Oh, completely. They were afoot, so before then, so they were pretty much at the mercy of the elements, and then all of a sudden they started riding horses, they could run down the buffalo, they had a kind of natural recklessness and bravery to them as they became more proficient hunters, then they became warriors and ’cause they were so good, so daring and so reckless, they became some of the most feared or at least the most successful warriors on the Northern Plains. As they moved west towards the Black Hills and then even further west towards the Rockies, they would come up against other tribes like the Crow, who had been in this really kinda paradise of hunting grounds over in Wyoming for a long time, and they would fight for years over the hunting ground, and the reason they were such a feared martial society was because they were so good on their horses.

Brett McKay: And there was also a very highly spiritual component to their warrior culture as well, correct?

Joe Jackson: Very much so. When you were a young man and you were going to become an adult, you would go through a vision quest; you would fast, you would go out into the hills and you would starve yourself, you would go into a sweat lodge and you would seek a vision and since the highest attainable position or the highest attainable life for a young man was to be a warrior then you were seeking a vision that had something to do with your prowess as a warrior, and many times the visions that you were given from the gods would tell you what you would have to do before battle or what kind of life you would have to lead in order to be a pure warrior, and they basically were a code of conduct, either for your life or for your conduct right before the battle. So it was a very important thing. Religion and spirituality among the Oglala were very tied up in battle and hunting, and hunting was a kind of battle in itself.

Brett McKay: And we’ll talk about how that connection between spirituality and warfare, that’s eventually what led up to Wounded Knee and some of the conflicts between the government and the Lakota. So we talked about what the Lakota, where they’re from, their culture, the development of the warrior culture they had. Let’s talk about what was the state of US government and Lakota relations at the time of Black Elk’s birth and childhood.

Joe Jackson: So Black Elk was born around, I don’t remember exactly, but around 18, I think it was 1863. The Lakota considered the area from the Black Hill… Well, the Northern Plains, what we call the Northern Plains today, but then especially west past the Black Hills up to the Rockies, they considered that a great hunting ground. There was a lot of game up there and it was great camping and it was just an easier life for them. And around this time, gold was discovered in Montana, there were all of these trails West that went through the center of the United States, but then miners started going north and they started invading the Lakota’s hunting ground, and that led to a war. That led to a war that was called Red Cloud’s War where there were a number of American US Army forts along this northern trail, and the Indians attacked these forts incessantly. They basically shut down this trail that the miners were using and the Indians eventually, after massacring a bunch of soldiers in a place outside of Sheridan Wyoming called the Fetterman Massacre, and besieging these forts for a long time, the Sioux won what was called Red Cloud’s War. It was the only war that the Native Americans were acknowledged as winning in the US History.

So he was born during this. His father fought at that massacre that I was talking about and he was badly wounded, he would always be kind of lame. Red Cloud’s War ended around 1865, 1866, 1867, something like that. And from then until around the time of the Custer massacre, there was relative peace. There were skirmishes, but there was relative peace, and there were negotiations for large tracts of land belonging to the Indians and the Indians alone which was, over time, being invaded by white miners again. Black Elk was born in a time of war, but his first 10 years, 10, 11, 12 years, most of that was a time of peace.

Brett McKay: It was also during this time you saw the rise of these great chiefs that we know today, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Joe Jackson: And Crazy Horse would fight other tribes, but he would also… During Red Cloud’s War, we don’t really see Sitting Bull during Red Cloud’s War, that’s kinda too far south for Sitting Bull, but we do start to see Crazy Horse come into ascendance during Red Cloud’s War. Because of his success as a warrior and also as a tactician, he was always very good at tactics, he rose in prominence as one of Red Cloud’s major lieutenants during that war.

Brett McKay: And speaking of that connection between spirituality and war, Crazy Horse had visions, I guess they had thunder visions. He had the gods speak to him that he was going to lead his people against the whites.

Joe Jackson: As long as he adhered to certain standards as delineated in his visions, then he would never be touched by a bullet and he would lead his people in war. And he was this holy man of war, this kind of holy mad man, he just charged straight into the line of bullets or he charged at opposing tribe and he would wreak havoc and come out the other end unscathed. He had many, many followers. There were lots of young men, young warriors who really respected Crazy Horse. Black Elk was the younger cousin of Crazy Horse, Crazy Horse was actually the second cousin to Black Elk, so as Black Elk was growing up, Crazy Horse was right there. He was like his mentor in a way, and Crazy Horse started to pay a little bit more to attention to Black Elk after Black Elk seemed to be touched by the gods in some way that not everybody really understood at first.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that and clearly Black Elk’s immediate family because it seems like because of his family lineage, he was destined to become a great medicine man.

Joe Jackson: Yeah, the family business was being a medicine man, being a holy man. And there were two types of holy men; there were the ones who had visions and were in touch with the gods, and there were the ones who healed, and it was almost like in a way it was like medical school, you could go on and you could try to be both. And in time, that’s what our Black Elk was, he was both a spiritual leader, a holy man who was in touch with the gods but he also was a healer.

Brett McKay: At a very early age, he started hearing voices and that eventually turned into a near-death vision that he had when he was just nine years old, and this is the moment, this is the seminal thing for Black Elk that would guide him for the rest of his life and would influence his decisions he made, so walk us through that vision. How did it start? And then what did he see in it?

Joe Jackson: Okay, so he, like you said, he would be just a little kid and he’d be out on the plains playing and all of a sudden, somebody would speak to him and he’d look around and nobody was there. He even, though culturally, the Lakota supported visitation from the gods a lot more than white culture does, if you heard voices, you weren’t necessarily immediately sent off to the psychiatrist. At the same time, it would appear that the Lakota were fairly cautious about it, a lot of people could fake that, they didn’t want to have fake holy men around. So Black Elk, when he was younger, he kind of hid this from his family, he didn’t want his family to think he was crazy, and then when he was nine, his family was traveling west to go to an annual confluence of all the tribes over in the Black Hills, and he fell into a coma.

He got really sick and he fell into a coma. First, his legs gave up, and then he had an extremely high fever, and you can’t really tell, historically, what people fall ill of but it did kinda seem like he had childhood meningitis or something like that, he came really close to death. And for nine days he was in a coma, and during those nine days when he was in a coma, he had this vision in which he was lifted up into the clouds where the spirits were, the grandfathers. They’re basically, just like the Catholic Church has a trinity, there were six grandfathers and he was given a vision that if he went on this quest and overcame the dangers, then he would be given powers and tools that would save his people from the coming white encroachment, and by this time, we’re talking like the early 1870s.

By this time, it was pretty evident to all of the Lakota that they were gonna be overrun by white culture, that they were gonna lose their land and it was a coming apocalypse, and so everybody was pretty much worried. So he went off on this quest as very much a kind of Joseph Campbell type of hero quest, and he comes back with these powers and the grandfathers bring him to the cloud lodges. He has this giant vision of millions of horses dancing in front of him. He has these visions of what he must do to save his people from the whites. But a complicating matter is also that his powers are not just for the Lakota, it’s for all people, and in time he would come to think, well that means everybody, even the enemy, but he didn’t really understand that when he was nine. He comes out of his coma, and from the time that he is nine years old until he is in his 20s in 1819, when Wounded Knee takes place, he feels that it is his responsibility to save his people.

Brett McKay: After he had his vision, did he tell anybody about it or did he keep it to himself?

Joe Jackson: He kept it to himself until after the the Custer massacre in 1876. Around 1877, 1878, 1879, he began to have these dreams again, he began to hear these voices again and they were more threatening now. It’s like, “Now is the time, you have to do what you have to do.” And he always felt that if he did not do what the gods told him to do, that he’d be wiped out, that he would be annihilated, but he didn’t know what to do. And he just grew more and more panicked until finally he had a huge panic attack and his parents took him to some medicine men, some holy men within the tribe. It was like a psychiatric session, I mean, he was in a group psychiatric session, he told them about his dreams, he told them about his vision, and they listened and they were quite impressed because in a way, his vision had, in a very sophisticated way for one so young, his vision encompassed a lot of Lakota cosmology. And they basically said that you’ve got to somehow perform your vision to the tribe, you’ve got to prove yourself as a holy man. That was when he publicly added himself as somebody who had these visions.

Brett McKay: And that’s when he basically replicated the horse dance that he saw in his vision.

Joe Jackson: He replicated the horse dance and it was a huge success, and because it was so successful, he was honored, and because it was so successful, he had a lot more confidence in his own abilities. That was when he started performing other visions that he might have had, minor visions that he might have had, it was also when he start to teach himself how to be a healer as well.

Brett McKay: Well, in this replication, when he did his horse dance, this was after Bighorn, correct? Little Bighorn?

Joe Jackson: This was after Bighorn. I think, it was around 1878 or 1879 when he replicated the horse vision.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s backtrack a little bit and go back to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, because Black Elk was there, and as I said earlier, as we talked about earlier, there’s this connection between spirituality and warrior culture in the Lakota, and I think a lot of… Most Americans know about the Battle of Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand, but what role… What they don’t know is what led up to that? And what led up to… Like, part of the contributing factor to that was Lakota’s spirituality, particularly around the Sun Dance ritual. Can you walk us through the lead up to the Battle of Little Bighorn, particularly in regards to the Sun Dance?

Joe Jackson: Well, what happened was that after Red Cloud won his war, the American government said, there’s this huge swath of the northern plains that belongs to you all, the Lakota. We’re not going to invade this. But in 1875, George Custer led a scientific and military expedition into the Black Hills, which was a very holy place for the Lakota. I mean, they considered that… That’s where they got their lunch bowls, where they hunted. That’s where the spirits were thought to reside. And so Custer came with a huge, huge force of men and a huge force of, like, a wagon train and scientists and everything, and they discovered gold, not a lot of gold, but they discovered gold. Immediately white gold miners flooded into the area, and then Deadwood is now kind of like… What was the main gold town you can still see today, the US government had reneged on its treaty, which the Indians considered sacred. And they were really upset about this. And that proved to them the very thing that they had been worrying about all these years, which was that, that the whites were gonna overrun their culture and they were gonna wipe them out.

And so in 1876, there was a huge conclave and Sun Dance that was… It was called to the west, towards where the Little Big Horn was. This was the moment when Sitting Bull becomes really important in American history, because Sitting Bull’s clan was the Hunkpapa, and the Hunkpapa had this huge Sun Dance, and a Sun Dance was basically a way of torturing yourself into having visions. And Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw two giant waves of approaching forces, two big clouds meeting head on. There was a battle, and then American soldiers in uniforms start falling to the ground head first, which meant that they were killed. And so Sitting Bull basically prophesied a huge battle between the US Army and the Indians. And there were thousands of Indians who had come together for this conclave. And they kept moving west towards the Rockies, and they eventually camped over at the Little Big Horn. At the same time, the United States government had said, all have to live on reservations, and if you’re not on a reservation, we’re gonna hunt you down, and so there was a three-pronged hunt to find this huge number of Indians, and George Custer and his small band of men found them first and they were wiped out. And that was like… I don’t know, June 26, 1876 or something like that.

Brett McKay: And can you walk us through the Sun Dance? ‘Cause it’s a really intense ritual, it starts off, they look at… They stare at the sun, they literally look at the sun with their own… With their blind eyes, basically, and then what goes on after that?

Joe Jackson: There are basically four stages of the Sun Dance, which is basically four days of the Sun Dance, at least as it was… At least as it was practiced in this best known Sun Dance of Sitting Bull’s before the Little Big Horn. You fasted, you were in a sweat lodge. There was sage that was burning around you, and then on each of the successive days, you went through these ordeals, which finally culminated on the fourth day with the most famous ordeal, which was the one where a medicine man would slice the muscles in your pectorals. And one on each side. And he would insert a rod through the slice, the rod would be attached by leather thongs to the top of this tree for that day, and you were also given this long rod or stick that you held on to. And for that day, you tried to pull yourself loose from the pole.

Many times, you would see sun dancers who had multiple scars over their lives where they had pulled themselves loose. And while you were doing this, while you were dancing, while you were trying to pull yourself loose, you would supposedly stare into the sun. Now, later, some informants would say that you didn’t necessarily stare straight into the sun, ’cause you would have gone blind, but you would stare into a spot below the sun, but it was close enough to the rays of the sun that you were pretty much blinded for the day. And between the pain and the fasting and staring at the sun, getting loose from the pole or not, there was a lot of pain and suffering there and pretty dramatic visions would come out of that.

And the other thing it also did is there were a lot of people who were invited to these sun dances, who weren’t part of the Lakota. They were amazed by the extent of suffering that these guys went through. And so in a way, it was also kind of a public demonstration of how tough the Lakota were, what badasses they were. And it was supposedly a pretty amazing spectacle. And while you were doing that, there were a lot of people, that mean that the tribes would sit around and watch. So it was a very public ritual of suffering.

Brett McKay: I think one of the aftermaths of the Battle of Little Big Horn, this is when the government started thinking this idea of we gotta start killing the Indian inside of the Indian. And one of the ways that did that is, since they saw that the connection between the Sun Dance and the Battle of Little Big Horn, the US government started basically trying to prevent sun dances from happening after that point.

Joe Jackson: Right. They outlawed a lot of dances like that. Later on, we’ll see another dance called the Ghost Dance, which was nowhere near as violently, as inclined as the Sun Dance was, but it was a dance. It was an Indian dance, and the American government and the American settlers feared it, especially since the Lakota were the ones who were doing it. Basically, what happened was that the US Army hunted them down and forced all the Indians pretty much into… Slowly into the reservations. And so from 1876 until the early 1880s, you’ve got the remainders of the Indian tribes going into reservations. And once the tribes were in the reservations and they could easily control and outlaw these rituals.

And the other thing that happened was that each of the… At least in the early days, each of these reservations were, even though the government controlled it, they were really kind of run by different religious sects. And so one reservation somewhere might be run by the Episcopalians, somewhere else, it might be by the Presbyterians, where Black Elk lived, it was the largest, it still is the largest reservation in the United States. And that was run by the Catholics. And the Catholics kind of impressed the Lakota, because they seemed to have a certain magic to themselves, the robes and the big crosses and all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, at that time, they really tried to stamp out the Indian beliefs. And so we’re the 1880s is when they were really trying to stamp out the Indian beliefs.

Brett McKay: So Little Big Horn happens, Black Elk’s family, they end up on the reservation. They went to Canada for a little bit, but end up back on the reservation. During this time, Black Elk was recognized basically publicly by his people as a holy man, but then he goes on… This is kind of an interesting detour in his life, he connects with Wild Bill Cody and joins him on his wild west circus show that went to go see the Queen of England.

Joe Jackson: Yeah, yeah, I know. And that was kind of a road trip for all these young guys. By now, Black Elk would have been in his early 20s. Around 1886 or so, Cody had already been in theater, he had Wild West plays on the Chicago stage, and he kind of dreamed up the idea of these traveling Wild West shows, they were like circuses on horseback. In the first couple of years, they didn’t really do that well, but then he began to understand that what people were really interested in were the Indians. And the first Indians that he hired when he went down to Louisiana were the Pawnee, but over time, he put out this casting call to the different reservations, saying, “If you ride with me on these Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, you’ll go around the United States, you’ll get paid. If you’re married, your wife will get paid about half of what you get paid or maybe a quarter.” It’s a road trip and you’re making money at the time when there weren’t a whole lot of jobs to be held on the reservations. So around 1886 or 1887, Buffalo Bill pretty much comes to Pine Ridge where the Oglala were and says, “We’re hiring actors, Indian actors for the Wild West Show.”

And Black Elk wasn’t sure he wanted to join up because he was a healer in the reservation, during what was called the reservation period. Children are dying, and it was a tough time, but Black Elk was starting to think, Well, the Indian ways aren’t saving my people. Maybe I should see why the whites are so powerful. He went east with his friends on the Buffalo Bill tour. And he went to Madison Square Gardens and he really enjoyed it. And while he was in Madison Square Gardens, Buffalo Bill sowing a deal with Great Britain. Queen Victoria was having her 50th anniversary, and so it was the golden jubilee, I think I remember it being. And so they went from Madison Square Gardens over to England, and he rode as one of the Indians in London. And then he was a very good dancer because as a holy man, as a medicine man, you have to be able to dance, and so he was one of several Lakota performers who danced before the Queen and that was kind of a charming moment in Black Elk Speaks because he says something like, she was short and pudgy, but she was very nice, and she grabbed my hand and she said nice things to him, and so it’s kind of a really nice section in Black Elk Speaks.

Brett McKay: When he makes it back to America, things are starting to change again on the reservation amongst the Lakota, and there was this movement. You referred to it earlier, this Ghost Dance Movement. What was the impetus behind the Ghost Dance Movement? What was its purpose, etcetera?

Joe Jackson: Well, the Ghost Dance Movement was… There had actually been… There were actually two ways of the Ghost Dance Movement. In the Rockies down around Nevada, around, I don’t know about 1888 or something like that. There was a first wave, and it was basically that If you religiously danced this dance, the dancers will be chosen and they will be delivered away from this veil of tears, kind of like the rapture in protestant theology. And then it kind of died for a little while. And then around 1890, the Ghost Dance began to spread east along the Northern Plains, and a lot of tribes started dancing, and basically it was a long dance, and it was an endurance dance, and as you danced, you didn’t have anything to drink or eat and you were fasting and as you were dancing, if you fainted from exhaustion then you were dragged out of the line, and you would have a vision and it became kind of a public spectacle, a public religious spiritual spectacle. There was this kind of group cohesiveness. There was this idea that some time in spring 1891, if the Ghost Dancers adhered religiously to the strictures of the Ghost Dance that all the enemies would be killed and only the Indians would survive, and those family members, those Indians who had been killed by the whites in the past, would come back.

And so it’s very much like white millennial movements. Such and such a day, the end of the world is going to come and the only ones who are going to survive are the chosen. It’s almost exactly the same, and in many ways, it was a millennial movement, and in many ways they had a lot of hallmarks of the kinda Christianity that Indians all over the Plains had been learning during the reservation period, which once again, like I said, was the 1880s. In most places nothing really happened. The agents is in charge of the reservations, they said, Let them dance, it’s not a violent movement. But people were scared of the Sioux because of what happened at the Little Big Horn, and so when the Ghost Dance reached the Sioux, the US Army moved in.

Brett McKay: And then part of the Ghost Dance was this idea of a ghost shirt, right, that you could wear this shirt that would protect you from bullet and blade.

Joe Jackson: Yeah, and it’s really interesting because it was supposed to be an impervious shirt, it was a holy shirt, and if you wore this shirt then you were protected and according to Black Elk, he spent a lot of time making these shirts. He would kind of like say a prayer over them and paint symbols on them and that kind of stuff. It’s interesting that reservation right to the east of Pine Ridge called the Rosebud Reservation, and there is a Lakota Museum in the Catholic church there, and there is a Ghost Dance shirt that’s still been preserved. And it’s a long kind of loose shirt with many times it’ll have a like a painting of an eagle or a Thunderbird or something like that on it, they’re always… They’re faded by now, but they’re kind of elaborate and always, have a lot of ribbons and they’re kind of beautiful.

Brett McKay: And you said even though Black Elk took part in the Ghost Dance Movement, making the ghost shirts and doing some of the dances, like from what he describes in the Black Elk Speaks, he was kind of ambivalent about the Ghost Dance though.

Joe Jackson: Right. Yeah, he wasn’t really sure about it because there had been different movements, and remember, even by then, he’s still in his early 20s, even by then he still believes that somehow he’s going to find the key to his vision, he’s gonna understand. He never really completely understood his vision, and so he kept going over it and going over it and trying to figure out how can I make this right, how… What is the secret? What do I have to do to make my vision come true and to save my people? And he wasn’t really sure that the Ghost Dance was in line with his vision, but then he, at the invitation, of one of his friends or one of his family members, he went down to a Ghost Dance probably about 10 or 12 miles south of where he lived, and it was in this area called Wounded Knee, and he watched this Ghost Dance and there were a lot of similarities between his vision and the Ghost Dance as it was being danced. And so he thought, “Well, maybe it’s the same thing.” And that’s when he joined.

Brett McKay: And you mentioned that when they first started doing the Ghost Dance, the agents were like, “Yeah, just let them do it.” But then this, like the Sun Dance, this led up to another conflict between the Lakota and the US Army.

Joe Jackson: Yeah, it was really more of a massacre unlike the Little Big Horn. There were a number of Ghost Dancers including up on Sitting Bull’s northern Reservation and the US Army and the government were very afraid of them, and they started moving the army. And Sitting Bull had a number of Ghost Dancers up where he was, and there was a confrontation and he was killed, and his people started moving South, and they collected some other Sioux as they started moving south, and the US army knew about this and they were… It was hard to find people on the Plains and so the army was mobilized around Pine Ridge to try to catch these refugee Ghost Dancers and to stop the Ghost dancing. By the time that this band came into Pine Ridge, they were led by this old chief by the name of Big Foot, and they were… It was during the winter. It was in December 1890, they were starving, they were frost bitten, they were in really bad shape, and they turned themselves in to this column of US troops and they were brought to this camp down at Wounded Knee, the same place where Black Elk had encountered his first Ghost Dance. And they were given food and they were given shelter, and then the next day, the soldiers lined up around them and demanded their rifles, and the young men didn’t want to give away the rifles and shooting started.

In the very beginning of the battle, the Indians and the soldiers pretty much gave as well as they took, the casualties were just about even, but the army also had what was called a Hotchkiss gun, which was a kind of small mountain cannon. It had two or three of those that it had brought along. It was up on this hill to the north of where the fight was taking place and they started shooting down into them, and the Indians started running after the first wave of battle, and the Indians started running south and the Hotchkiss gun started firing and that’s when it became a massacre, and that’s when women and children began to be killed. And in the latter stages of that, that’s not very far from where Black Elk, by now he was back from London, and they heard the shooting, and that’s where Black Elk grabs a horse and he starts to ride towards the sound of the shooting, and he collects a lot of young men behind him, and they try to save some of the refugees, some of the women and some of the children. And that’s the part of the Battle of Wounded Knee that you see in Black Elk Speaks. He arrives at the end with other Lakota men to try to save the people being killed.

Brett McKay: And I’m sure his vision was going on in his mind.

Joe Jackson: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. “How do I… Why can’t I… How has this happened? Why have I failed? Why did I allow this to happen? It must be because I never understood my vision well enough.” And you have this famous passage where he sees all these women and children, dead or dying in heaps over to the side, and it was like… It was the end of a dream, it was a beautiful dream, but it was all lying in blood in the snow and the dust. And that’s pretty much where Black Elk Speaks, the book ends. That’s not where Black Elk’s story ends. Wounded Knee is pretty much thought of as the very last battle between the US Army and the Native Americans in US History. There was actually one or two little skirmishes after that, but that was the last big campaign.

Brett McKay: Well, and after this, What happens to Black Elk? What does he do?

Joe Jackson: Well, he goes into this kind of existential limbo. We don’t hear anything of him in 1891. 1892, you start to hear of him again. Lots of people, especially kids are dying from white diseases. There’s a epidemic of whooping cough which is just killing, and measles, but especially whooping cough which is killing off young Lakota. And so for the 1890s, he is trying to save his people with his healing. And he also gets married around… To his first wife and has three children around 1893. From 1893 until about 1903 or 1904 he tries to save his people as a healer, but his wife dies and two of his children die. And his mother dies and his dad dies. And all these people that he knows are dying and they’re dying from diseases. And he’s getting more and more depressed. He’s thinking more and more, I failed my people, our old beliefs, They don’t have the power of the white beliefs. What can I do?

And then in 1904, he has a confrontation with a Catholic priest, and many times, what would happen during this period, this was a period of religious transition for the Lakota. Individual Lakota would think, “Do I want to be Catholic? Do I wanna stay the same as I… Keep the old ways?” And a family member would die. And the family would call in both the Catholic priest and the native priests, as I guess a way of hedging their bets. And Black Elk kinda came face-to-face with one of these priests. And it wasn’t the first time he came face-to-face with one of these priests, and he was known by these priests, and he was known as a powerful and respected medicine man. And if they could convert him to Catholicism, that would be a coup for them.

And black Elk was depressed because his children had died, and his wife had died, and he had a really bad ulcer, and he was really sick. And some time in 1904, he just gives up and he waits outside after the priest has finished giving last rights. And the priest comes up to him and says, “You look pretty bad, let me take you to the monastery.” And got him fixed up. He has an operation for an ulcer and he becomes a converted Catholic. He’s a strong, strong, strong Catholic from 1904 to 1916. He goes around the United States, converting other Indians in other tribes and up into Canada. And supposedly he converted 400 Native Americans in both Canada and the United States to Catholicism, more than any other Native American. And that’s why the Catholic Church is looking into turning him into a saint right now. But that all ended in 1916. He stopped traveling in 1916, somewhere between 1916 and 1930. He didn’t stop being a Catholic, but he started practicing the old ways again, so it was kind of like a combination of both. He was a combination Catholic and an old holy man.

Brett McKay: And it seems like what he was trying to do was trying to figure out his vision, that was the thing that was… He converted to Catholicism because he thought maybe there’s something there that I can take to help me unlock the key to understanding my vision I had.

Joe Jackson: Right. It was always about the vision, he always believed that the vision held the key to saving his people. And actually, as he… And got older, to saving humanity. You’re exactly right. He became more ecumenical because he always began to think that other religions might hold secrets that I don’t see just from a Lakota point of view.

Brett McKay: And then this is how we know about Black Elk’s vision because, this guy, he’s a poet, American poet named John Neihardt shows up at Black Elk’s house and says, “Hey, I wanna talk to you about the old ways.” And then Black Elk for some reason, ’cause he hasn’t really talked about his vision all that much, particularly to white people, says, “You’re the guy I’m gonna tell my vision to. You’re the guy.”

Joe Jackson: Yeah, I know, that’s one of the big mysteries. Well, Neihardt was already kind of known. Okay, so Neihardt meets Black Elk in 1930, and he was already kind of famous as a plains poet, he wrote these long, long, long epics about the ending of the West and starting with the fur trappers and going all the way to the ghost dancers. And he had just written an epic about The Little Big Horn and about Crazy Horse. And like I said, because Black Elk was a holy man, he wasn’t as well known as the chiefs, but rumors had started to get out about this second cousin of Crazy Horse and who had been around during the Little Big Horn and been around during Wounded Knee. Neihardt was coming with his own son away from a poetry reading at some college, he makes a detour to Pine Ridge and he goes to the agent, the government agent says, “Is there anybody here who was one of the old holy men who had been around during the Ghost Dance and the agent talks with some of the old Indian men there and they said, “Well, there’s this guy by the name of Black Elk who was something of a holy man.” And kind of directed him where to go.

And so Neihardt, and just out of the blue, shows up in the middle of nowhere at Black Elk’s home. And usually Black Elk kind of, like you said, kind of politely turned people away, but there was something about Neihardt that Black Elk liked. And Neihardt had been, when he was younger, he’d been raised close to the Omaha reservation in around Nebraska. And he traveled throughout the west, and he kinda knew the native Americans and he didn’t rush the Native Americans in conversation. He wasn’t impatient like Indians kinda knew whites to be, and he was also not dismissive of the idea of Indian religion, or having visions, or being in touch with the spirits, and some of that must have come off because Black Elk, they sat together for an afternoon for about five hours and Black Elk finally said the equivalent of, “I’ve got this vision, all my friends around me are dying.” Black Elk was about 60 by then. “And I’m afraid that if I die, I’m gonna lose the vision. And I want to put my vision out to the world.”

And he felt comfortable with Neihardt, and so he basically, Black Elk basically said to Neihardt, “Come back in a year and I’ll have a teaching space ready.” Which is kind of like a sacred hoop in a teepee and everything. “And I’ll tell you my vision.” And so Black Elk and Neihardt first met in 1930, and then Neihardt comes back with his two daughters, one of whom knows short hand in 1931. And they’ve got… They’re still in archives, like a month’s worth of storytelling by Black Elk. And then Black Elk Speaks appeared as a book by William Morrow in 1932.

Brett McKay: And how was it received initially in the United States?

Joe Jackson: Well, it was a little bit too strange for the public, the critics kinda liked it, they thought that it was an authentic peek into the mind of a Native American holy man. But it didn’t do well, it went into remainders within about six months or so, even less than that. And it just kind of disappeared from view, but there were people who liked it and who thought it was really something special. And then near the end of the ’30s, Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, the one who was very interested in the universal unconscious and the power of dreams, he came to give a lecture on religion and psychology at Yale University, and somebody came and gave him a copy of Black Elk Speaks. And he got all excited and he went back to Germany, he went back to Switzerland thinking, “I’m gonna get this published in German for the Europeans,” because Europeans ever since Buffalo Bill had been there, they’d been absolutely in love with Native American culture. But then World War II came about. And so, that kind of ended that, but then after the war, Jung tried again and he got Black Elk Speaks published in German in 1955. And then, as often happens, the European intellectual says something American is good, then the Americans kind of sit up and take notice of what’s in their backyard. It was re-published in English in 1961, the first edition.

Brett McKay: And then that’s the hippie movement picked up on it, and that’s sort of where that…

Joe Jackson: Yeah, that was the hippie movement. It was around for a while and it was gaining momentum, but then I think it was in like 1968, that Dee Brown’s, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee comes out, and then all of a sudden, between Black Elk Speaks and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, all of a sudden Black Elk enters new age religion. He becomes a cultural commodity, he enters white American, popular culture. I don’t know if you ever saw the Dustin Hoffman movie, Little Big Man, but the old chief who is Dustin Hoffman’s mentor was modeled after Black Elk. And Black Elk Speaks, since then, it’s been translated into… I’d have to look it up, it’s been translated into lots of languages.

Brett McKay: And so after Black Elk Speaks got put out there, what did Black Elk think about his vision as he came to the end of his life, did he still feel like a failed prophet? ‘Cause it seemed like all throughout his life, he felt like he never had it quite figured out, he didn’t do what he was supposed to do, or did he feel like he saved his people somehow in the end?

Joe Jackson: Well, I think he was of two minds, I think he always felt that he’d never saved his people, but after Black Elk Speaks came out, remember he was 60 and he thought he was gonna die, but he held on until 1950. So he was much older by then. By that point, he had also become a preservationist. He wanted to preserve the old ways, the old religion and the old dances, and the old iconography. And a lot of that was dying out. And at least among the Lakota, he was one of the main ones to preserve all that, and there was also… Even back in the 1920s and 1930s, 1940s, there were still… Even though they couldn’t do so publicly, there were young men that wanted to learn the old ways, that wanted to be holy men. Black Elk started to train them. And in fact, one of the medicine men who was present at Wounded Knee Two, in 1973, when the government shot it out with the American Indian Movement, he had been trained under Black Elk. Black Elk was very important for the continuity and the preservation of these old ways, and I think he understood that, and I think that when he died, he felt a certain peace about that. He seemed at peace when he died.

Brett McKay: What was your big takeaway after writing this book?

Joe Jackson: My big takeaway, like, what does it mean to be a holy man? [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Yeah, I don’t know, maybe like why… I’m sure it changed you, changed the way you look at things or something.

Joe Jackson: Yeah. Well, it certainly did. You certainly have an appreciation of other religious expressions, and you certainly have an appreciation of what people go through on their own sort of spiritual quests, and I think that I was able to understand that a lot more. In fact, I have a friend who… I’ve had a friend, he’s been a friend since junior high, and he has had like approaching blindness and stuff like that, and he’s become increasingly missile and I never really understood what he was trying to do as he was faced with all these challenges and after I read the book, I think I understood a lot more what he was doing and going through. There’s a lot more understanding for me there. As far as what it takes to be holy, there’s a couple of things that seem to be holy and famous, like Black Elk or Jesus or Buddha, or Muhammad, you’ve got to have a society which is changing in a really threatening way for people. They want something new and the main personal trait just seems to be endurance. Endurance, that as you go through so many bad things, it becomes a kind of wisdom, but I guess it’s a kind of wisdom that based on patience and your own suffering or your own contact with other people’s suffering, and trying to help them. That’s the main takeaway, I guess I’ve got from that. I guess that’s the main pattern that I saw.

Brett McKay: Joe this has been a fantastic conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Joe Jackson: Well, there are two books to learn more about Black Elk. Okay, so they can read my book, that’s the biography, but they really should read the Neihardt Black Elk collaboration, Black Elk Speaks. They really should do that. It’s a beautiful book, it’s really sad, and then if they really wanna get into it, there is a transcription of Black Elk’s interview with Neihardt that took place over a month, and it’s called The Sixth Grandfather. And it’s kinda difficult because it’s an oral history and it’s got all the catches, it’s got all of the back tracks, at times can be confusing, and so it’s difficult reading. I wouldn’t read it until after I read Black Elk Speaks and then maybe my book, but one thing that’s really nice about that is that you see, since it’s an oral history from Black Elk’s words, you kind of get a picture straight into Black Elk’s mind. So I would do that if you’re really interested in him, and then if you wanna read my other books, I’ve got a website,, but this is the only book that I’ve done on Black Elk.

Brett McKay: Well, Joe Jackson, thanks for sharing. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Joe Jackson: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Joe Jackson, he’s the author of the book Black Elk: An American Visionary. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, you can find links to our resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

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