Essay on Black Elk Speaks

In the article, Black Elk Speaks with Forked Tongue, Couser is giving his opinion on how he thinks that Neihardt was in actuality suppressing the Lakota way of life and Black Elk’s story. His opinion is backed by some good points from the text and as well as other scholars who have the same opinion as himself. Couser does believe that Black Elk Speaks is a well written book and he even respects and commends Neihardt in his attempt to honor Black Elk, “before detailing the short comings of Black Elk Speaks I would like to acknowledge the considerable efforts Neihardt made to honor Black Elk’s narrative” (Couser).

Couser then dives into the idea that this book as an autobiography should be a thing of the past. I think Couser then gets carried away with an opinion about how Black Elk was being censored and the truths were kept secret. Couser’s argument is good but his tactic and tangent near the end could have been left out; it does not hurt the argument but it also is too absurd to help the argument as well. Couser states that one of the problems with Neihardt is just the sheer fact of the language barrier; he uses DeMallie as an example of a person who thought the same thing.

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While there is good translation at times there are horrific and even completely made up parts in the book; this goes back to Couser’s argument that the book is not qualified to be called a Native American Biography. Neihardt had Black Elk’s son translate while Neighardt’s daughter would take notes; this action alone makes it inevitable that there will be some miscommunication and misinterpretation. It was then Neihardt who, in order to fill in the loss in translation, put in his own creativity and somehow turn a story into a piece of literary work.

Due to the language barrier it was inevitable from the very beginning that Neihardt would have to change things around for literary purposes. Couser seems to only point out the bad parts of the book and never goes into depth about any of the good things, for instance: had Neihardt gone verbatim what Black Elk said he would have gotten factual information wrong, “After we had danced, she spoke to us. She said something like this: ‘I am sixty-seven years old. (Neihardt 177); this is just one example where Neihardt saw a mistake and corrected it just as any good editor would do. A literal translation of every word Black Elk spoke is not plausible due to a difference in culture as well as language. As a writer it was Neihardt’s job to put it in a form that is readable. It was his job to try to convey the emotions Black Elk was portraying in the telling of the story. Seeing what Neihardt put in and left out did not make much of a difference and it seemed to be well done for as big of a barrier he faced.

Couser also argues that Neihardt’s free translation, not just language barrier but also that Neihardt could fill in things with his own creativeness, debunks the argument that Black Elk Speaks is a true Native American Autobiography. He believes that Neihardt’s attempts to change and convey emotion are merely Neihardt using his own opinion and creativeness. The text in the book is not verbatim and therefore Neihardt did his own thing. Couser later argues that Neihardt creating much of the story is still a kind of suppression and is conveying a dominant power.

Neihardt used creativity just as any other writer would have done. “There were many lies, but we could not eat them. The forked tongue made promises” (Neihardt 172); that sentence is Neihardt’s and it may not be what Black Elk said but it could have been something that Neihardt could see Black Elk saying. Just because something is creative does not mean that it is an absurd thought. He used creativity to convey what he was seeing from Black Elk himself. Had Neihardt only gone by words I think more would have been lost in translation; not only is there language that has to be translated but also an emotional language.

Neihardt took it upon himself to convey the emotion and had someone else transcribe the notes. Even though the translation was not word for word I think he portrayed the emotion quite well in the text. Couser then starts his tangent about how in this “autobiography” the white man is still suppressing the Native American Indian. He discusses little things like how Neihardt should not have addressed Black Elk as Black Elk. He also accuses Neihardt of trying to make the book too Indian like. He criticizes Neihardt’s writing of Black Elk.

Couser then argues that the reason that Neihardt did not mention as many rituals or customs in the text is due to a dominant culture trying to eradicate and hide another culture, the Native American Indian culture. All in the same argument Couser suggest that the book is a sign of cultural imperialism; he says that the books was meant to escape cultural imperialism but in the end the book seems to be all about cultural imperialism I believe that Neihardt wrote the book and went off, as closely as possible, Black Elk.

Neihardt approached Black Elk, not vice versa; had Black Elk approached Neihardt the book would probably be totally different then what it is today. Neihardt had every right to do what he did in the book due to his poetic license. It should be a given that Neihardt was going to do some of his own things; however, that does not mean that the book is a cultural imperialist book or a historical fiction. For some reason Neihardt changed his intentions for the interview; they were going to go towards his poetry but for some purpose he turned to a novel.

I believe Neihardt was doing the story telling in a way that had never been done before, in a literary way. Black Elk told the story in an oral and story form and Neihardt then transformed the story into a literary work. Couser did have a strong argument and I do agree with what he said about how the book should not be taken as a Lakota bible or a Native American Biography; I do not agree with his argument that the book is a form of suppression upon the Native Americans. The flaws in the book are minute enough that it can still give a considerable amount of history and background on the Lakota people.

However, it should not be taken as a bible for the Lakota people, after all not everything of what was said about the tribe and rituals is in the book and one must do more research than just read and study Black Elk Speaks. All Neihardt was expected to do was his best and I think he did accomplish his goal of creating a fairly accurate portrayal of the Lakota people and the Indian life of Black Elk.

Works Cited

* Neihardt, John. Black Elk Speaks. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1932. 1-316. Print.

* Couser, Thomas. 'Black Elk Speaks with Forked Tongue. ' Studies in Autobiography. (1988): n. page. Print.



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