Black Elk makes it known that he intends to tell John Neihardt the story of his life, especially his early vision, which
Black Elk says he failed to fulfill. In ritual fashion, Black Elk and Neihardt smoke the red willow bark in Black Elk's holy
pipe as an offering to the Great Spirit. Black Elk tells a story about a sacred woman who appeared to two men and offered
them a pipe, and then offers an invocation before proceeding with the story of his life and vision.
In this initial chapter, Black Elk endorses John Neihardt as the person through whom he will tell his story, which is part
autobiography, part spiritual revelation, and part tribal history. He emphasizes that his own life story is also the story of
his tribe and that, in fact, it would not be worth telling if it were only his personal story. This statement indicates the
communal nature of Indian experience; Black Elk thinks of himself almost entirely in the context of his tribe or band, and
he embodies the values of his people. In that respect, he is like the heroes of classical literature, Odysseus and Beowulf.
This chapter also establishes the style of the narrative. Black Elk tells his story in the first person; he is the narrator and
refers to himself as "I." The language is simple, partly because the story is told through an interpreter (Black Elk's son
Ben). The tone of the narrative is elegiac, a lament for a time that has gone and for what Black Elk sees as his personal
failure in not enacting the vision he was granted (see Chapter 3 for more on the vision).
Black Elk Speaks
is the transcription of personal conversations between Black Elk and Neihardt. This format was not new;
narrated Indian autobiographies were popular at least as early as 1833 when
Black Hawk: An Autobiography
published. Consistent with the practice of many different American Indian tribes, which had a long tradition of
storytelling, Black Elk intersperses his narrative with anecdotes, folk stories, and sometimes chant and prayer. For some
tribes, written language was not important. Sioux history, for example, including the years of Black Elk's life, was
memorized and passed down orally from father to son for several generations.
From time to time, Neihardt uses a footnote to clarify something that Black Elk says, but unlike Black Elk, Neihardt is not
a character in this story. He seems to be completely absent from Black Elk's story, but scholars have begun to study
Neihardt's manuscript in order to understand how much editing and revising of Black Elk's words Neihardt actually did.
Such analysis is beyond the scope of this book, but readers should understand that Neihardt may not be as unobtrusive in
Black Elk's narrative as he seems.
This chapter also begins to establish Black Elk's character. Appearing modest, even self-critical, Black Elk says that he