“My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow’so many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit…
Now that I can see it all from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.
But if the vision was true and mighty, as I know, it is true and mighty yet; for such things are of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost.”
From Black Elk Speaks
In 1876 a young man named Black Elk witnessed the battle for Little Big Horn in which Custer bit the dust and the Seventh Cavalry was wiped out. Later, he experienced the aftermath of the unprovoked massacre of innocent Indian women, children and men at Wounded Knee in 1890–they had been dancing a “ghost dance,” trying to fulfill a vision of Indian renaissance in which all whites would disappear. Black Elk was an Oglala Sioux holy man who decided to tell an Anglo poet his people’s modern history as a living testament to his Lakota society. John G. Neihardt went to the barren hills of South Dakota in 1930 to gather information for The Song of the Messiah, the final narrative poem of his Cycle of the West. “I had gone for the purpose of finding some old medicine man who had been active in the Messiah Movement and who might somehow be induced to talk to me about the deeper spiritual significance of the matter,” the poet writes in his preface to the book that eventually emerged from his experiences in South Dakota, Black Elk Speaks.
Neihardt reports that, on the day of their first meeting, Black Elk–who was not only active in the Messianic or “ghost dance” movement, but also a second cousin of the warrior Crazy Horse–said to him, “What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you.”
When he returned the following summer, Neihardt’s talks with Black Elk were interpreted by the old man’s son and then taken down in stenography by Neihardt’s daughter, Enid. Her notes and transcripts are preserved at the University of Missouri, Columbia. It is the secondhand nature of the book that has produced some controversy. “Present debates center on the question of Neihardt’s literary intrusions into Black Elk’s system of beliefs, and some scholars have said the book reflects more of Neihardt than it does of Black Elk,” explains Vine Deloria Jr. in the introduction to the current University of Nebraska Press edition of the book. Despite these concerns, Black Elk Speaks has become a classic among oral histories–a paean to a suppressed culture and an alternative history of the end of a very long war.
This fall, Black Elk’s story of the “true and beautiful” had another incarnation with the premiere of a stage version of Black Elk Speaks at the Denver Center Theatre Company. The entire run of the play sold out with the strongest ticket response the Denver company has ever had, and enthusiastic multi-ethnic audiences consistently gave the production emotional ovations. Given the guilt-producing subject of the play–the ruthless subjugation of native peoples from Columbus to Wounded Knee–this reaction might seem odd. But the piece is far from polemical–it’s witty, entertaining and profoundly moving theatre. And it offers a stem, strong, unsentimental vision of hope.
The play departs from the book’s timeline, giving an overview of the conquest of Native peoples from 1492 to the 20th century, but remains true to the spirit of the original. Playwright Christopher Sergel began working on a theatrical version of Black Elk Speaks in 1974. But it was only last year that he approached Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre, with his draft of the play and the original text. The two started to collaborate on the piece, but Sergel died before the first act was completed. Marley and Sergel’s widow, Gayle Sergel, worked together to finish the play with the help of Aleut actress and choreographer Jane Lind, and Haudenosaunee composer Dennis Yerry.
The play–the end result of 12 drafts labored over between May and September of this year–combines elements of Sioux storytelling with American theatre performance traditions.
It is not Native American art, but neither is it merely a European derivative. One important element is the Oglala “winter telling” style of storytelling. The people sit in a circle and someone starts to tell a familiar story. Anyone can dive in when the narrative arrives at his or her favorite part. Dialogue, when called for, and crowd reactions are also supplied by the participants.
Taking a cue from this tradition, Marley arranged his 20-member cast–made up entirely of Native American actors–around a circle or “hoop” at the beginning of the play. The actors came and went, taking on various roles, participating in a series of vignettes and returning at the end of Act 2 to the circle.
Black Elk tells his story to his grandson, a teenager raised in government schools who has been taught to scorn his heritage. As the old man unfolds the story of the native nations, he directs the action. He chooses a young man to play Columbus, warning him to try and figure out how Columbus thought and felt. The same young man then plays a Navajo leader named Manuelito. The scene is intended to convey the Lakota idea of a Navajo warrior, not a Navajo ideal.
The distinction is critical and telling. It speaks not only to ethnic diversity–tribal particularities–but also to the universality of fundamental Indian beliefs. The Sioux warrior is meant to identify with the Navajo warrior. Pan-Indianism, however politically incorrect, is about solidarity when it counts–in the defense of native cultures and in the legislation protecting Indian rights. Black Elk points out more than once that when the Indians united against their enemies, they were victorious in battle. He is addressing contemporary Indians–when they unite today, they win in the courtrooms and in the legislatures.
The Native American cast represents many cultures, and when disputes arose in rehearsal over ethnographic details, Marley always resolved them by choosing the Oglala tradition. Black Elk’s granddaughters and great-grandsons traveled to Denver to help with language, and when Indian language is used in the play it is most often Lakota.
Stephen C. Dubray, the Oglala Keeper of Songs who performs in this production, composed some of the piece’s distinctly Sioux songs and chose others from the tribe’s existing repertoire. Rattles, drums and other small objects were contributed by various tribes and are almost ever-present. When battles are fought or people slaughtered, the drums provide chilling sound effects for the stylized movement. Marley has spared no effort to touch as many Indian nations as possible. When an Aleut drum wails mysteriously, it embraces Alaskan natives into this history.
Research for the play has been extensive and the drama is rich in irrefutable factual and ethnographic detail. At the Western History Museum in Denver, Marley found a wealth of detail. The Museum’s collection contains U.S. Army records from the period, including those of Colonel John Chivington–a psychopath who ordered the massacre of a peaceful encampment of Indians at Sand Creek. His men dismembered the bodies of the women and children and displayed the pieces in Denver. Disgusted, his own officers saw to it that he was driven out of the army, though many citizens tried to make him a hero.
Although we don’t hear specifically about the display of small limbs of the victims in the play, when an Indian woman (Jane Lind) recounts the terror and horror of the massacre at Sand Creek and at Washita River, there is holocaust behind her words. “As soon as the firing began, the warriors put the families together trying to protect them. But there were so few young men, and soon they had been killed. The women were desperate,” Lind’s character Yellow Woman says. “A few of them ran out to let the soldiers see they were women…and they begged for mercy. Their bodies were mutilated in such a way… I cannot say the words.”
Assembling such a large cast proved difficult. The Indian tradition does not include performing for an audience. “When Indian people dance and sing,” Marley said in a recent interview, “it is an event that will have religious significance (or daily life significance), but it is participatory.” He needed trained actors who could handle, sustain and make interesting the tremendous amount of language in the play. He also had to cast musicians and dancers. He auditioned players in five cities, traveling with Gayle Sergel, Lind and Dennis Yerry. In the end, it cost more to cast Black Elk Speaks than any entire season at the DCTC in the past 10 years.
The role of Black Elk went to Ned Romero, a character actor who started out in opera, moved to musical theatre, and then went on to play a variety of Indian film and television roles (Northern Exposure is a recent credit). At 66, he is the same age Black Elk was when he “spoke” the book.
When Romero first saw the script, he turned it down. “I’m semi-retired,” he says, “I couldn’t believe the amount of work this would entail.” But he has found it one of the most inspiring roles of his entire career.
“I’m very humbled by this role,” he says. “I’m not sure how to articulate it. From a purely technical standpoint, it was very difficult. Just repeating some of the words Black Elk spoke….” Romero points out that the play reflects the complexity of human nature and history. In fact, the play is not entirely balanced; it generally fails to recognize Indian atrocities and simplifies the causes of Westward expansion–which were not only about greed or Manifest Destiny, as the play implies.
“There are good people and bad people in every society and in every walk of life,” responds Romero. “The Indians did some bad things also. If we were all perfect, we would be in paradise.”
“I like the idea that this was essentially a play about healing wounds rather than about picking sores,” Marley elaborates. “There’s a wonderful irony about Indians playing white people after a lifetime of watching films in which whites played Indians.
“I think every artistic project has to validate itself artistically,” the director adds. “There’s so much pressure now on people who are doing theatre to lower artistic aspirations and standards in order to be inclusive.”
Both Romero and Marley believe that the chief concern of the play is modern man’s disconnection from things that are important. Marley uses the metaphor of the broken hoop as the metaphor for the broken community. It’s not only Indian hoops that are broken.
“Right now we live in a society in which our family hoops are broken,” says Marley. “We can’t go out at night because we are afraid–because our community hoops are broken. Our national hoops are broken. And everyone who came to this country came because their hoops were broken. And so the power of the piece may have to do with that.”
Stephen Dubray, who is an Oglala, thought of refusing to participate, but Black Elk’s family asked him to help tell “Grandpa’s story.” “So I asked my father and some elders if it would be all right to use some of the songs,” he says. “I made sure that I did not do anything that would make them feel bad, or make me feel bad.”
Kiowa/Navajo activist, columnist, actor and television personality John Belindo found his participation in Black Elk Speaks a singular experience. “This has taken all of us by surprise,” he says. “During the whole of the 500-years war,” he continues, “during the saga of Indian liberation that continues today, American history has had a pro-European bias. The frontiersmen and soldiers are seen as heroes, the settlers as peaceful, and Indians as the villains. But the play offers us a sense of wonder about our culture and a sense of outrage over their destruction.
“The book is a testament to survival and to the continuation of Native American people,” adds Belindo, who plays several white generals as well as Indians in the play. “If you look at the sum total of all its parts, Black Elk says that despite the ravages of war, the spirit and the traditions live on. And that is something no force can destroy or obliterate from the face of the earth.”