Cover image for Black Elk lives : conversations with the Black Elk family
Black Elk lives : conversations with the Black Elk family
Black Elk DeSersa, Esther.
Publication Information:
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xvii, 168 pages, 6 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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E99.O3 B535 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The story and teachings of Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950), first recorded by John G. Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks , have played a critical role in shaping the way in which Native Americans and others view the past, present, and future of Nativenbsp;America. These conversations with the descendents of Black Elk offer an intimate look at life on the Pine Ridge Reservation and fresh perspectives on the religious, economic, and political opportunities and challenges facing the Lakota people today. In addition to revealing more about Black Elk the healer, the family also provides glimpses of Black Elk as a family man, teacher, and influential ancestor.

Author Notes

Esther Black Elk DeSersa and Olivia Black Elk Pourier are the granddaughters of Nicholas Black Elk
Aaron DeSersa Jr. and Clifton DeSersa are the great-grandsons of Black Elk. Hilda Neihardt is the daughter of John G. Neihardt and chairman of the board of the John G. Neihardt Foundation
Lori Utecht is a former executive director of the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site
Charles Trimble is current executive director of the site and president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This book serves two purposes, both reflected in the ambiguous title. It is an eloquent description of the lives of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Lakota holy man responsible for Black Elk Speaks, a classic of anthropology and religious studies. We learn how these descendants live and how their famous ancestor still shapes their worldviews. The title also reminds us that their famous forebear still lives, in the legacy of his book and through his descendants. Compelling interviews of the Black Elk family, edited by Hilda Neihardt, daughter of Black Elk's editor, make up the book's contents and demonstrate Black Elk's continuing relevance. The tension between Christianity and the Lakota religion remains intense for some in the family, while others seek to reconcile the two traditions. Black Elk struggled 70 years ago with the same questions his descendants ponder, trying to inhabit the white man's world and religion without abandoning Lakota tradition. Although not the peer of its famous predecessor, this fascinating and powerful document offers myriad insights into Lakota religion and life. --John Green

Library Journal Review

This book picks up at the conclusion of John G. Niehardt's Black Elk Speaks (1988), which was based on the life of Black Elk (1899-1973), a holy man of the Lakota Sioux. Niehardt's work has become something of a classic in introductory anthropology classes, but it has also served as a cornerstone in illustrating how Native Americans view themselves, their society, and their culture. Black Elk Lives uses abundant reminiscences to present the lives, history, and beliefs of the holy man's family. The text is presented in interview fashion, which does not detract from the narrative but instead provides a personal touch, revealing what life was like on Pine Ridge Reservation during Black Elk's lifetime. Through much of the text, the authorsDgranddaughters and great-grandsons of Black ElkDweave together the past, present, and future of the Lakota people and demonstrate that Black Elk's vision is still very much with them. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.DJohn E. Dockall, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The most valuable part of this book is the genealogy for the original Nicholas Black Elk, with whom many Lakota persons claim kinship. Two men and two women of this extended tiyospaye present their recollections about this famous Lakota holy man. The text, primarily one of oral accounts and free association, is minimally elicited, tape recorded, and edited by Neihardt (daughter of John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, 1932; 21st-century ed., 2000) and Utecht. Statements and saliencies of the remembrances of the Black Elk family regarding childhood, pageant participation, and job patterns are idiosyncratic and not well developed. The results are mini-life stories that are partitive and scattered, necessitating the subtitle "Conversations with the Black Elk Family." One is able to glean generational differences and attitudes toward Native beliefs, Catholicism, the reinvigorated Sun Dance, and other cultural changes. The chapter "Women and Men/Men and Women" offers interesting data, but important issues of child socialization and identity formation are not strongly presented. A cohesive analysis of these narratives might have made this book more useful in teaching. Although these personal accounts are interesting, only in the final chapter, "Grandfather Black Elk," are there glimpses of Black Elk as family man, healer, and religious practitioner. General and academic collections. B. Medicine independent scholar



Chapter One     The Legacy     by Benjamin Black Elk     Chosen by his father to interpret what he told Neihardt in the 1931 interviews (which later were incorporated into the book Black Elk Speaks), Ben Black Elk became something of a disciple of his father. Ben traveled widely in this country and in Europe, telling about the Lakota holy man and about his people and their religion. Ben was the father and grandfather of the contributors to this book, and his life and experiences are of considerable importance in the Black Elk story. His children and grandchildren have much to tell about Ben; but we begin with a talk which he, with help from his son Henry, gave in 1969 at Pine Ridge Boarding School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, at the request of Warfield Moose Sr., a teacher at that institution. Esther has a recording of that talk, and Olivia provided a transcription, which has been edited for clarity and readability. Well, I am Black Elk, Ben, the son of the famous Indian you read so much about in Black Elk Speaks , and I've come a long way. I have learned quite a bit by experience, and I shall start my life history way back from what I learned about our Indians, the Sioux, especially the Oglala Sioux.     I was born in the year 1899, May the seventeenth, so in a few days--Saturday--I'll be seventy years old. My mind goes back, way back, to when my grandmother and grandfather really fought Custer, and there were really Indians at that time. Eighteen ninety-nine is just a few years after the establishment of this reservation, Pine Ridge, and I can still remember that at that time some of those Indians had two wives. My grandfather, Black Elk, my father's father, was wounded at Fetterman's Fight. We called that The Year of the Hundred Soldiers Slain.     So my grandmother became a widow, and she had a first cousin, who married the famous Indian that we read so much about--Good Thunder--who was an instigator of the ghost dance.     I lost my mother when I was about a year old, so I had to live here and there with my grandmother on my mother's side, then also with the grandmother on my father's side. I always remember when my grandfather, Good Thunder, died; he had a heart attack. I must have been about five years old, and at that time the Indians mourned, they really mourned, for their loved ones. So when the loved one died, they really went--well, we'll say, probably not haywire--but they grieved. They cut themselves on the leg. So my two grandmothers--Good Thunder had two wives, one was my own grandmother and the other was our first cousin--built up a big tipi and laid him in there, and my grandmothers went around and cried, wailing for their husband that had passed away. I must have been about four or five years old, but I remember that.     Later, I was raised by my grandmothers, either my father's mother or my mother's mother, and soon I went to school. And at that time I had full braids; I had long hair down to below my belt. So when I went to school, I had an aunt that raised me at that time and at the give-away. They helped the needy at that time. Anybody today who possesses a lot of money and a mansion, he's probably somebody, but to us Indians, it's not good. It doesn't do any good, because he hasn't helped other Indians. At that time, when I was a boy, the Indians really helped each other. So when I went to school the first time, they cut my four braids off, and it cost my aunt four horses: for each braid they cut, she gave a horse to an Indian.     At the age of thirteen I went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania; there I lived among the white people for almost five years. I worked for the people, stayed out on the farm, and I became interested in my people. I took up Indian culture, so when I came home, I got married and settled down in this place, this very place I'm talking from. From right here you can see the white buttes out there, the beautiful scenery, and I feel like this is Crazy Horse land, because Crazy Horse is buried someplace around here. Every morning I go out and I see those white bluffs, and they are nature's monuments to Crazy Horse. I learned from my elders, such as my father, who was the best teacher I ever had. He was a medicine man, and I mention also Frank Good Lance--all those old people.     I learned about the pipe and the ways of our culture; it is good. But I feel today that that has gone. We have come a long way, lived through the centuries up until now, these modern times--the atomic age--guided by the Great Spirit. But today is so different that we like to go back and dream about our own people.     My father was quite a man. John Neihardt came to write the story of Crazy Horse, but when he had stayed a month, he found out that my father was quite a character, so he wrote the book Black Elk Speaks . Later another man came and wrote The Sacred Pipe .     I have led two lives--one as a Christian and one as a believer of the Indian religion. So when I lecture on Indian religion, I feel that I am trying to tear down Christianity, but that isn't so. Today it has all merged together, and I feel that I live the one life now, which is our modern religion. Let's talk about, maybe, five hundred years ago, when this whole country was a paradise. We Indians didn't know what a dollar was, what whiskey was, what coffee was, but we got along. We ate the things that Mother Nature provided for us, especially the buffalo. We got our home, whatever we wore, our moccasins--all were made from the buffalo. And those were the good old days. Seems like the Indian at that time lived a religious life, and they prayed constantly all the time.     At this time, I'd like to talk about the word wašíchu . In Indian, that word was used a long time ago. When they are moving out, the scout is sent, and then the scout returns. So he points, takes his big finger and touches the ground and he swears by Mother Earth that what he says he saw is no lie, but the straight truth. Then he says, "I went to the first ridge, I saw buffalo ... Next ridge, I saw another herd; the third ridge, many buffalo; but the fourth ridge I went to, the buffalo were wašíchu ." It means so many buffalo at one time that they cannot get rid of them. So wašíchu means so many that you could never get rid of them. Today it stands proved that you can never get rid of the white man: they come, they flow down this country just like water. They are a part of us now. Today we have around about forty-five thousand Sioux in South Dakota, and about 85 percent are mixed-blood, and there are only about 15 percent full-blood.     On this reservation, we have lots to see. Pine Ridge has more potential for tourism than any other reservation, I think, because we have Red Cloud and we have Crazy Horse buried here. Today what the tourist wants to see, number one, is Indians. Number two is cowboys. You might think that Mount Rushmore comes first, but it comes third. I've been up there about twenty-two years. So if you tourists are eager to see our country over here, our Sioux Reservation, you can come down through Scenic Highway 40, and then you can take another highway that turns toward the south, through the Badlands. And when you get through, why, it's beautiful scenery, and you'll find out that the Badlands, so-called by the Indians, used to be no good, nothing grew on it, only rattlesnakes. There is no place in the world like these Badlands, and it's really become valuable to our state and also to our tribe here.     Then you can come down through Rocky Ford, and there is a fork in the road, but you take the right one that tells you it's nineteen miles to Manderson, then you come to our park over here. We have a park called Crazy Horse Park, a new one. And you can stop there; we have a camping ground there, and you can camp there for two or three days and even ride around and talk to us, find out how we live and learn firsthand about our Indians. Then you can come--and, by the way, my father's buried there at the cemetery. Then you can go to Wounded Knee; that's where we had our last skirmish with the army. Then you can probably go to Pine Ridge--for the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux here, our tribal government. You can go through our schools; you are welcome to do so.     Now, as I say, Red Cloud had in mind that we had to give up, and he wanted us to be educated, and he established that school. So there is a song to him. When you translate it, it means a lot to me. And all those that know the song, they realize that what he said is true, especially today, when our culture is so taken away from us by the white man, and they're trying to get their culture down our throats. The words of the song go like this: "Red Cloud, he told me to be the white man; difficulties I have, but he told me to be the white man; difficulties I have; they are talking about me."     See what we mean, difficulty, we just want to go on, but we can't. We've got to get education, our only salvation; we have to educate our children. Right now, in Washington DC and all over the country, they're confused about our culture. We try to have a comeback for our culture, so that the Indian can identify himself as an Indian in order to get along in this world, to be proud to be an Indian. We have known a lot of Indians that are not proud, that even are ashamed that they're Indians. And I can say that Indian culture is so great, that there is no other, I think, to compete with us.     What I mean is, at one time, we knew what respect was. At one time, if your tongue was forked, why you could not be an Indian, a good Indian. But our whites, white people who taught us the culture of the white man, made us all forked-tongue. So that's what we're trying to do, to get back on the basis where we realize we are Indians. I started to school when I was seven years old. I couldn't speak a word of English. I had long hair down to my waist and tied in four braids. When I made progress in school, a braid was cut off to mark my progress. Each time my braid was cut off, my aunt would give away a horse to some needy person. They would do this because it was an honor to be in school. Now this shows a big difference in Indian culture. The white man's culture, you see--when the white man's boy makes progress in school, the boy gets a gift, but the Indian way is to mark the progress by making a gift to some needy person. From the time an Indian child is able to understand, he hears about the good of being generous.     In my day, the Indian boy started life differently than today. In those days, sons belonged to Dad; he had to train them. At six months the dad starts holding the baby in the water and lets him get used to the water. Then by the time he is two years old, that little fellow can swim. I learned to ride a horse when I was four years old; later I played games that were taught to make a boy a warrior. One game was called "willows in mud." We took off our shirts; we would take willows and mud and throw them at each other and switch each other, but just on the body. If you hit somebody in the face, you lost a point. This trained us in the joints, because it really stings. And another game was to take the core from a sunflower stock. We would put it on our arms and light it, and you were not supposed to flinch. The other boys wanted to see you flinch. Sometimes I wonder if this isn't why so many of our people can endure so much poverty and suffering without crying or begging or making demonstrations. When I was born, the massacre at Wounded Knee had happened just nine years before. My father was wounded in that battle. It was the last battle between the Indians and the army.     The massacre at Wounded Knee was the result of an Indian prayer. You have heard of the ghost dance; it was a prayer that was danced. The Indians were desperate; all they had, the great buffalo herds, were all gone. Then someone came along and told the Indians: "I am the Messiah; I am Christ." He said the white man had sinned against him, and if we will do the ghost dance, the white man will disappear and the buffalo and the old ways would come back. We were to throw all our weapons away. We just had to dance and sing this ghost dance song. They thought it would come, but it never came. Instead, we had the massacre at Wounded Knee, and they killed the men, women, and children. The sadness--the sadness of this is still in our hearts.     In his book Black Elk Speaks my father said: "When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young.... A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."     In the old days, the Indian taught that we must love each other. Our belief is that this love was established here on earth by the Great Spirit. This brought us unity; unity brought us brotherhood. We didn't know what a dollar was, but we knew that there was a God, and we kept this sacred. My father said: "This is sacred. Keep it such." We became Christians. We wanted to keep some of our old ceremonies. When we pray, we don't read from a book. It comes from our hearts. But the government outlawed some of our worship, like the sun dance, so we had to do our ceremonies secretly--where we would not be caught. That made us feel bad. It was like the early Christians who had to worship secretly.     So I used to lead two lives: one, Indian religion, and one as a Christian. To us, the Indian pipe is sacred; it has meaning for us. It used to be that when I would speak about the pipe, when I used the pipe, it seemed to me that it clashed with Christianity. But now, I know they come together in our church. Behind the altar, we have the tipi design. In our Christian ceremonials, we use the pipe. We see there is no clash. After these years it comes together. Now, I live only one way. I can be free in what I tell and what I do. That is the way of it, and this is the way it should be in education for all Indian children. I told them in Washington, if they would do like they do here at Red Cloud Indian School, there would not be so many dropouts and so many failures. In the courses that have been created here, the boys and girls learn through the true history of the people.     They teach about the great Indian leaders as well as the great Americans like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; this gives the true history of the country. They can see themselves as part of the history. I told them that our children here are taught the difference between the white man's ways and the Indian ways--how the Indian ways fit into the white man's world. So when Senator Kennedy came to Pine Ridge, he took time out to come to Red Cloud School and see for himself what he had heard from me and others at the Wounded Knee hearings meeting, where those who testified said the same thing.     In the olden days the Indian was taught to be a man, to have self-respect, to use his initiative. Now, for many years, people have been teaching the Indians that the white way is superior, that the Indian ways are no good. There are many good things in the white man's culture we should use, but the best part of our Indian culture should be retained, taught in our schools as they grow up. Be proud to be an Indian. This is how I feel about teaching our children here at Red Cloud School. We Indians, in a different way, can make the beautiful dream come true. Besides, the people's broken hoop--that could be pulled together.     All right, at this time, I'd like to sing an honor song to our tribal president Enos Poor Bear. You know, he's taken the place of Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Spotted Tail and other chiefs, and he's trying to lead the people out of what is causing our turmoil. So here we go with our honor song for Enos Poor Bear. [Sings] Henry Black Elk: Well folks, so much for Red Cloud. Now we'll take you back to Wounded Knee, where the tragedy happened years ago and we'll tell you how it happened and my father will tell you about it. This is taken from Black Elk Speaks . So here we go with how it happened: It was now near the end of the Moon of Popping Trees, and I was twenty-seven years old (December, 1890). We heard that Big Foot was coming down from the Badlands with nearly four hundred people. Some of these were from Sitting Bull's band. They had run away when Sitting Bull was killed and joined Big Foot on Good River. There were only about a hundred warriors in this band, and all the others were women and children and some old men. They were all starving and freezing, and Big Foot was so sick that they had to bring him along on a pony drag. They had all run away to hide in the Badlands, and they were coming in now because they were starving and freezing. When they crossed Smoky Earth River, they followed up Medicine Root Creek to its head. Soldiers were over there looking for them. The soldiers had everything and were not freezing and starving. Near Porcupine Butte the soldiers came up to the Big Foots, and they surrendered and went along with the soldiers to Wounded Knee Creek where the Brenan store is now. It was in the evening when we heard that the Big Foots were camped over there with the soldiers, about fifteen miles by the old road from where we were. It was the next morning (December 29, 1890) that something terrible happened.... [253-54] In a little while we had come to the top of the ridge where, looking to the east, you can see for the first time the monument and the burying ground on the little hill where the church is. That is where the terrible thing started. Just south of the burying ground on the little hill a deep dry gulch runs about east and west, very crooked, and it rises westward to nearly the top of the ridge where we were. It had no name, but the Wasichus [ wašícus ] sometimes call it Battle Creek now. We stopped on the ridge not far from the head of the dry gulch. Wagon guns were still going off over there on the little hill, and they were going off again where they hit along the gulch. There was much shooting down yonder and there were many cries, and we could see cavalrymen scattered over the hills ahead of us. Cavalrymen were riding along the gulch and shooting into it, where the women and children were running away and trying to hide in the gullies and the stunted pines. A little way ahead of us, just below the head of the dry gulch, there were some women and children who had huddled under a clay bank, and some cavalrymen were pointing guns at them.... [257] By now many other Lakotas, who had heard the shooting, were coming up from Pine Ridge, and we all charged on the soldiers. They ran eastward toward where the trouble began. We followed down along the dry gulch, and what we saw was terrible. Dead and wounded women and children and little babies were scattered all along there where they had been trying to run away. The soldiers had followed them along the gulch, as they ran, and murdered them in there. Sometimes they were in heaps because they had huddled together, and some were scattered all along. Sometimes bunches of them had been killed and torn to pieces where the wagon guns hit them. I saw a baby trying to suck its mother, but she was bloody and dead. There were two little boys at one place in the gulch. They had guns and they had been killing soldiers all by themselves. We could see the soldiers they had killed. The boys were all alone there, and they were not hurt. These were very brave little boys. When we drove the soldiers back, they dug themselves in, and we were not enough people to drive them out from there. In the evening they marched off up Wounded Knee Creek, and then we saw all that they had done there. Men and women and children were heaped and scattered all over the flat at the bottom of the little hill where the soldiers had their wagon-guns, and westward up the dry gulch all the way to the high ridge, the dead women and children and babies were scattered. When I saw this I wished that I had died too, but I was not sorry for the women and children. It was better for them to be happy in the other world, and I wanted to be there too. But before I went there I wanted to have revenge. I thought there might be a day, and we should have revenge. After the soldiers marched away, I heard from my friend Dog Chief how the trouble started, and he was right there by Yellow Bird when it happened. This is the way it was: In the morning the soldiers began to take all the guns away from the Big Foots, who were camped in the flat below the little hill where the monument and burying ground are now. The people had stacked most of their guns, and even their knives, by the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick. Soldiers were on the little hill and all around, and there were soldiers across the dry gulch to the south and over east along Wounded Knee Creek too. The people were nearly surrounded, and the wagon-guns were pointing at them. Some had not yet given up their guns, and so the soldiers were searching all the tepees, throwing things around and poking into everything. There was a man called Yellow Bird, and he and another man were standing in front of the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick. They had white sheets around and over them, with eyeholes to look through, and they had guns under these. An officer came to search them. He took the other man's gun, and then started to take Yellow Bird's. But Yellow Bird would not let go. He wrestled with the officer, and while they were wrestling, the gun went off and killed the officer. Wasichus [ wašícus ]and some others have said he meant to do this, but Dog Chief was standing right there, and he told me it was not so. As soon as the gun went off, Dog Chief told me, an officer shot and killed Big Foot, who was lying sick inside the tepee. Then suddenly nobody knew what was happening, except that the soldiers were all shooting and the wagon-guns were going off right in among the people. Many were shot down right there. The women and children ran into the gulch and up west, dropping all the time, for the soldiers shot them as they ran. There were only about a hundred warriors and there were nearly five hundred soldiers. The warriors rushed to where they had piled their guns and knives. They fought soldiers with only their hands until they got their guns. Dog Chief saw Yellow Bird run into a tepee with his gun, and from there he killed soldiers until the tepee caught fire. Then he died full of bullets. It was a good winter day when all this happened. The sun was shining. But after the soldiers marched away from their dirty work, a heavy snow began to fall. The wind came up in the night. There was a big blizzard, and it grew very cold. The snow drifted deep in the crooked gulch, and it was one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away.... [259-62] And so it was all over. (Continues...) Excerpted from Black Elk Lives by Esther Black Elk DeSersa, Olivia Black Elk Pourier, Aaron DeSersa Jr., and Clifton DeSersa. Copyright (c) 2000 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. vi
Editors' Prefacep. vii
Introductionp. xiii
Part 1 The Black Elk Family
The Legacy, by Benjamin Black Elkp. 3
Father and Grandfather: Benjamin Black Elkp. 23
Growing Upp. 27
School Daysp. 37
Mourning and Teachingp. 40
A Life for the Community: Esther Black Elk DeSersap. 42
Reclaiming the Legacy: Olivia Black Elk Pourierp. 49
The Honor of a Pipe: Aaron DeSersa Jr.p. 58
On the Front Lines: Clifton DeSersap. 62
Part 2 Lakota Past, Present, and Future
Workingp. 73
The Use and Misuse of Lakota Religionp. 81
Many Pathsp. 104
Lakota Legends and Storiesp. 112
Women and Men/Men and Womenp. 117
Part 3 Grandfather Black Elk
We Rememberp. 131
Grandfather's Healingp. 140
Caring for Grandfatherp. 145
Afterwordp. 148
Appendix The Black Elk Family Treep. 149
Notesp. 153
Indexp. 161