Manifest Degradation

Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story
By S. D. Nelson
(Abrams, New York, 2010, $19.95)

“It seemed strange that people who put us on reservations also admired us,” observes Black Elk in Black Elk’s Vision. With that terse remark, Black Elk and biographer S.D. Nelson sum up the United States’ ambivalence towards Native Americans. White Americans wear turquoise and silver jewelry, study Native American spirituality, and tour “authentic” villages. Native American names grace our rivers, towns, and cities. Gift shops purvey figurines, plates, and wall hangings depicting handsome Indian warriors and beautiful maidens. Yet, living Native Americans remain largely invisible in American life: many are confined to reservations, while others have been assimilated into mainstream culture.

In Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story, author and illustrator S.D. Nelson follows Black Elk, a member of the Lakota tribe, from his childhood on the Great Plains in the 1860s to his death on a South Dakota reservation in 1950. In between, Black Elk fights in the Battle of Little Bighorn and performs in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He also has mystical experiences in which the powers of nature urge him to “care for the tree of life” and share these revelations with his people. Although Black Elk sees the American government systematically destroy his way of life, his visions give him purpose and the strength to live without bitterness.

S.D. Nelson takes a number of creative risks, making Black Elk’s Vision an unconventional and beautiful biography. The first person narrative invites readers to empathize with Black Elk and his family, while notes and a timeline put the visionary’s life in historical context. Through the juxtaposition of period photographs and Nelson’s expressive illustrations, the book honors both the richness of Black Elk’s visions and exposes the degradation he and other Native Americans suffered.

Although most American students learn about Native American history and culture, few encounter Native American voices in the curriculum. With Black Elk’s Vision, S.D. Nelson introduces young readers to the human casualties of Manifest Destiny. He also shares Black Elk’s teachings of peace and harmony with readers of all ages and backgrounds through his richly illustrated book.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

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