The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The illuminating life of a native-American spiritual leader

David Treuer is Ojibwe from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and the author of the novel “Prudence.”

Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux (Lakota) spiritual leader, was born in 1863 in the Powder River country and died in 1950 at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It seems every stage of his life was inextricably linked with the larger events that have come to stand in for the whole of the Indian experience in North America: the nomadic days of hunting bison on the plains; fighting with Crazy Horse (his cousin) and Sitting Bull at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; the destruction of the bison herds and the beginning of reservation life. He was an actor in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows in the United States and Europe; was present at the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890; was a conflicted convert to Catholicism in the early 20th century and the father of children who were sent to Carlisle Indian Boarding School. Late in his life he cooperated with John Neihardt, who shepherded the 1932 book “Black Elk Speaks,” which explored his spiritual vision and the struggles of his people and became an attractive alternative to Western thought and practice.

Joe Jackson has expertly taken Black Elk’s life — as narrated by himself in the transcripts of his interviews with Neihardt — and woven that together with other records and histories of him and his times. The result is that Jackson has firmly situated Black Elk in the context of Indian struggles on the plains from 1850 through 1950. He uses Black Elk to bring home the radical changes that confronted most Indians during this time and, in doing so, creates a deeply felt and personal story of loss and change on the plains.

Jackson’s account of Black Elk’s early years is the best. And the long set piece concerning the Battle of the Little Bighorn is among the very best I’ve ever read: He takes us close enough to get the feel of the battle and yet not so close that we lose sight of the whole thing. He blends the personal (using soldiers’ diaries, Black Elk’s account and the transcripts of the inquests afterward) with the martial (troop movements, battlefield records) to create a vivid and moving account of the battle that destroyed Gen. George Custer and the 7th Cavalry on the field and brought the full weight of the U.S. government to bear on the Sioux Nation. In the aftermath, he writes in direct, lucid prose, “Black Elk picked his way farther up the gulch. . . . The boys surrounded those retaining the slightest spark of life, shot them full of arrows, pushed those already in their bodies farther in. . . . He noticed a dying soldier with an engraved gold watch hanging from his belt: he took the watch and shot the dying man. He ascended the hill to where greater numbers of soldiers lay in clumps and guessed this is where the fight had ended. One of the boys ran up and asked him to scalp a soldier; Black Elk handed over the scalp and the boy ran off to show his mother.”

There are moments, some of them minor, when Jackson more or less colors in the story, providing details where none exist in the record: how the sunset looked, the colors of the horses people were riding. At other times, the imputational element is very jarring — when Jackson bestows undocumented emotions and thoughts on people. Speaking of Black Elk’s first wife, Katie, Jackson writes that she “would have wanted Black Elk to convert.” No record of what Katie wanted (or didn’t want) exists. Jackson does this often in the latter half of the book. This is less history than it is storytelling.

At times, Jackson also trades nuance for certainty. The book “Black Elk Speaks” (which is the main reason Black Elk is such an interesting representative of his times) was filtered through questions asked by Neihardt. Black Elk’s son Ben translated the questions and then translated his father’s answers into English. Neihardt’s daughter Hilda transcribed the conversations, and the whole was interpreted poetically by Neihardt. As such, it was certainly influenced by four different perspectives (not to mention that of the publisher). Jackson waves these multiple filters away in order to assert certainty about certain elements that may not have existed. This, I suppose, is what the market demands (who wants dithering, after all?), but it does affect the meaning.

Jackson’s book is replete with troubling language. Throughout, he refers to Indian men as “braves” and Indian women as “squaws,” and often calls young children “papooses.” I am always surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t be) that non-native writers need to be reminded in the 21st century that such terms are offensive and derogatory. These were words that, historically, at least, deprived Indians of their full humanity and are out of place (if not completely inappropriate) in a book that seems to want to do the opposite: restore to individuals their long-denied humanity. As an Indian, I find myself questioning the entire book because of the use of these words. How could this book speak to me, how could it be for me, if my people are described with such disregard?

Neihardt was a brilliant, sympathetic, sensitive man who seems to have had Black Elk’s interests at heart. There is no reason to doubt the same of Jackson. But both men could be seen as unthinking in some ways: They both make Black Elk’s life mean what they want it to mean; they overlook nuance and subtlety of character in the rush to tell their stories. But nuance and uncertainty have much to reveal: When humans contradict themselves, when their motives and meanings are unclear, that’s where our true humanity resides.

Black Elk

The Life of an American Visionary

By Joe Jackson

Farrar, Straus Giroux. 599 pp. $30