'Black Elk Speaks' has become a classic of Native American spirituality, deeply valued from within the Lakota community of which Black Elk was a revered member, noted for his simplicity, holiness and vision; and, especially after its adoption in the 1960s by a broad audience who became interested and felt connected to the indigenous spirituality of North America.
It is a book, however, that is embedded in controversy.
First because it was compiled by a white American, John G. Neihardt, with all the complications that entails: how much is Black Elk? How much is 'lost in translation' (as Black Elk spoke to Neihardt in Lakota, a language that had to be translated into English); and, how much did Neihardt edit and interpret through his own particular filters?
Second because though Black Elk was here presented articulating and defending the vision and pattern of his indigenous tradition, he was, at the time, and had been for sometime, a Roman Catholic convert. He was not only a convert but a notable lay catechist who had brought many of his fellow Sioux to conversion. Indeed he is now formally a candidate for sainthood. This dimension of Black Elk was played down to virtual invisibility by both Neihardt and Jospeh Epes Brown, the distinguished religious scholar, who became another, and later, interlocutor for Black Elk and published an equally, if not more important book of Lakota spirituality, 'The Sacred Pipe' based on his conversations with Black Elk.
Harry Oldmeadow's new book, Black Elk, Lakota Visionary' is dedicated both to affirming the validity, and sacredness, of Black Elk's vision, and life, and to unpacking the issues at stake of establishing that the two texts he offered to the world, through the medium of Neihardt and Epes Brown, were a fair representation of Black Elk's abiding understanding of the tradition revealed to him through his journey to become a 'medicine man' of the Lakota. Oldmeadow is, I think, scrupulously fair to the currents of overlapping argument of which you get a representative picture of argument and counter argument but for Oldmeadow what essentially matters is Black Elk's own valuation of his interlocutors. He felt that they were sent to him, he developed an obvious and deep rapport with both; and, as far as can be seen approved their results; and, in the case of 'The Sacred Pipe' used it as an entry into beginning, in his last days, to rebuild a practising 'faith' community within the framework of his indigenous spirituality. This rapport, Oldmeadow effectively argues, was built on a recognition of a contiguous, if different, faith commitment in both men. Faith openly spoke to faith. This, Oldmeadow admits, undoubtedly does not align with the canons of ethnography (or the implicit reductionism of the social sciences as practiced, then and now); and, though adept at managing these himself, comes from a tradition that would robustly criticise their ability to truly come to the heart of understanding a sacred vision and practice.
For Oldmeadow is a perrenialist - a follower of the school of Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and especially Frithjof Schuon - and, thus also seeks to demonstrate that Black Elk's vision of Lakota spirituality is both an authentic tradition in its own right and embeds, at its heart, the 'sophia perennis' that animates and unifies, as its transcendent subject, every authentic tradition. Nor is this, even from a simple historical perspective, an improbable juxtaposition because Jospeh Epes Brown was himself of the same school and was sent to work with Black Elk by Schuon himself. Schuon had a brief correspondence with Black Elk (who indeed had a vision of being helped by a man from the East before ever being contacted by Schuon) and with whose son, one of the key translators, Schuon developed an abiding friendship. You can already see how this might add mileage to the ongoing controversy - how was Black Elk's vision shaped by that particular lens? Indeed the fascinating correspondence of Epes Brown, included as an Appendix, could be read to show that this was Epes Brown explicit mission so does mission elaborate or distort?
Be this as it may, Oldmeadow has created a well written, broadly balanced account of Black Elk's life, vision and context that would help any reader both want to explore further and to understand the many directions in which a conversation about interpretation might unfold. Though I myself have reservations about the Traditionalists, I do find myself in sympathy with the implicit request to bracket the cultural conflicts and listen carefully to the phenomenology of the conversation and relationship between the actors for in that lies an authentic attempt to deal honestly, undoubtedly not without limitation, with a holy man's abiding vision and understanding. The two men appear a lot closer in sympathy with Black Elk than many of the subsequent commentators who presume to 'defend' him from them!
The book also deals deftly with the question of Black Elk's relationship with Catholicism suggesting, again rightly I think, that this was an authentic case of carrying a dual identity - not a merger or a downgrading of one tradition to another - but acting as a bridge wholly Lakota, wholly Catholic. A difficult path to tread. If he were to be canonised, he would, I think, be the first such person of holiness to be so characterised and that would be a novel dispensation for the Church and the world. There is no exclusive 'exoteric' religion, the only exclusivity is the truth that is the unity of all, to which every authentic tradition points.