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Cultural Heritage Center Hosts Discussion of Black Elk Speaks October 10

You’ve climbed the mountain; now read the book!

The Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre is hosting a discussion of Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt’s record of the Lakota warrior and holy man’s eyewitness account of the white man’s colonization of the Great Plains, on Tuesday evening, October 10:

Black Elk Speaks
This is the version I read at SDSU in 1993.

The discussion of Neihardt’s book “Black Elk Speaks” will be led by humanities scholar Jace DeCory, assistant professor emeritus at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. The program will begin at 7 p.m. CDT.

“Taking place the day after Native American Day in South Dakota, this is an opportunity to learn more about Lakota visionary and healer Nicholas Black Elk,” said Michael Lewis, president of the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Amy Kucera is also going to speak about the John G. Neihardt Foundation and State Historic Site in Bancroft, Neb. She is the former director of that site and now works for the South Dakota Historical Society Press at the Cultural Heritage Center.

The foundation and the As the Pages Turn Book Club in Pierre are sponsoring the free program, made possible by a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Everyone is welcome to attend.

“Hehaka Sapa – Black Elk, is one of the most influential and celebrated Oglala Lakota individuals of all time,” DeCory said. “Black Elk’s teachings and experiences should be shared and discussed in order to better understand his spiritual legacy as a holy man. As an early cultural mediator, Black Elk continues to give special insights into Lakota culture and people” [South Dakota State Historical Society, press release, 2017.10.02].

Admission is free, and interested readers can borrow copies of Black Elk Speaks before the program from the Cultural Heritage Center.

I read Black Elk Speaks at SDSU in 1993, in the David Nelson philosophy class where I sat fifteen feet from my future wife but never spoke to her. Eight years later, when we finally did speak, I reread a chapter from Black Elk Speaks aloud as entertainment during our walk in the woods. 16 years after that, our copies of that book share shelf space with our child’s numerous tomes, and the tallest peak in South Dakota, which the three of us have climbed together, has been renamed in Black Elk’s honor.

The part of Black Elk Speaks that sticks in my mind (thanks to Dr. Nelson’s emphasis) is the concept of the “hoop”, what we may interpret as “worldview.” Black Elk saw the white man’s coming as the destruction of his people’s belief system. He saw the Indians hanging around the fort, living off the government’s rations, while other tribes who resisted the colonizers’ restriction and tried to stay free on the plains suffered from the decimation of the buffalo, and he lamented, “How could men get fat by being bad, and starve by being good?” His people’s suffering called into question his worldview, his belief that his people could rid themselves of the white man and restore their greatness if they held to their Lakota ways. That belief—that “hoop”—was further “broken and scattered” by the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Black Elk’s discussion of the breaking of his hoop is about the centrality of philosophy to our lives. All of us require some framework of beliefs to make sense of the world and guide our actions. Great change—invasion, immigration, technological innovation—can present new situations of which our hoop cannot makes sense. If the new world refutes our hoop, our hope breaks, and we will live in despair if we cannot repair our beliefs to make sense of the world and our place in it.

Borrow a copy of Black Elk Speaks from the Cultural Heritage Center. Take that copy out to Black Elk Peak this weekend and read a bit from the mountaintop that figured centrally in Black Elk’s vision and to which he ventured as an old man in 1931 to pray to his gods for his people. Then join Dr. DeCory to discuss Black Elk’s book on Tuesday, October 10, in Pierre.


  1. leslie 2017-10-03 21:02

    Great article cory!

  2. Spike 2017-10-04 00:32

    Thank you for the story Cory. Go up Black Elk Peak during the week in the off tourist season when there are few hikers and a person can truly experience why natives and Black Elk prayed there. And many pray there today. Or go in March to the Welcome Back the Thunder Beings ceremony which where young and old people of all colors, climb the mountain to welcome the spring. It’s difficult to describe the sense of awe and belonging. Maybe that’s the hoop.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-05 05:17

    Spike advises us well to look for off-season hiking opportunities. I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll mention it again: the best hike I had up our highest peak was the day after a big April blizzard. There was one lane cut through eight-foot drifts on the road up from Hill City to Sylvan Lake. The sun was out all day, and I hiked in shirtsleeves over the snow to the top of Black Elk Peak and back. I saw a ranger at Sylvan Lake when I started, but I had the trail and the peak to myself all the way. Spectacular.

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