On Reading Black Elk Speaks and Seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

For those who don’t know, Black Elk Speaks was written in 1932 by the poet John Neihardt, based on his translated conversations with Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. Black Elk, who died in 1950, was a witness not only to the Battle at Wounded Knee but also to the end of the tragic transition, begun decades before, of his people from their traditional life to the circumscribed life of the reservation and cultural genocide.

I read this book after seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, a magnificent exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The show was an impressive and beautiful presentation, conceived as an attempt to illuminate and give us entrance to a culture that thrived on the Great Plains. The exhibition was filled with carefully documented articles of decorated clothing as well as other personal and ritual objects that brought to life a way of being, a spiritual connection to the land, and a code of values.

Going through room after room, I knew this was a different way of seeing the world. Where in my culture does art deliver this level of meaning? How is our art integrated into the needs of people for recording history as well as for expressing a vision that impacts both the individual and the community? Do we surround ourselves with beautiful things that were made by us or for us as an expression of personality or relationship? And then do we take care of these things for a lifetime or even over many generations?

For Black Elk and his people, art was not something separate visited in a museum. It was intrinsic. Songs were ways of knowledge. Images offered a connection between the inner world of spirit and the exigencies of physical reality. As with most indigenous cultures, it is nearly impossible for us to enter into the state of mind in which these objects were created and used. That’s our loss. We have no way of melding reality, dreams, hopes, and history, and then somehow realizing our limited selves in terms of all these.

We might appreciate and appropriate the aesthetic qualities of so many things displayed here. A marvelous wooden horse is the signature piece. Wonderful imagery is painted on deerskin and buffalo robes that have survived, ostensibly, because someone valued them. But we do not enter so deeply into our lives that we might “see” what it would mean to be completely integrated into both an environment and a community as individuals.

Okay, I’m sure that we wouldn’t want to go back to that time with its challenges and privations. After all, we’re part of the culture that overcame the Plains people. We have everything that is meant to protect us from knowing some of the things they knew and from the many discomforts they must have suffered living closer to the land and the weather, but at what loss? I myself would not successfully return to that time nor would I wish to live in such a prescribed way as a member of a particular tribe. I am happy to benefit from a multicultural perspective and set of possibilities.

But there was something enlightened about this approach to the world that commands my respect. We don’t fast for days, sing for the spirits to come, or cry for a vision. But the consequence is that maybe as artists and as individuals, we don’t dig deep enough. We think life should be easy. We’re moving very quickly through both time and space. We don’t believe that we have the hours required to carve a beautiful object out of stone or wood without power tools. The sheer speed at which we live our lives can seem good, but it simply may not allow for the meditative, slow work that might lead us in a truly promising direction.

Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening March 2, 2015.

Read Sebastian Smee’s insightful review of the show, Plains Indians Saga Finds Artistic Expression at the Met, published March 28, 2015, in the The Boston Globe.