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<i>Ben Black Elk Speaks</i> Preserves Lakota Oral History for Future Generations - 2003-07-13


Lakota holy man Black Elk grew up at the end of the 19th century. His participation in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 made him a vital link to the days when Native Americans still roamed freely across the Great Plains. But it was his vision for the future of his people, which he experienced at the age of nine, which raised him above other spiritual leaders and made him a legend among the Lakota. His wisdom and memories were recorded by poet and scholar John Niehardt 70 years ago and have since become required reading for anyone interested in Native American culture. Now, the wisdom and memories of Black Elk's son, Ben, have been recorded for a new generation.

"Well, I am Black Elk. Ben. The son of the famous Indian that you read so much about in Black Elk Speaks. And, I've come a long ways. And I've known the world by experience," says the recording.

During the spring of 1931, Ben Black Elk translated his father's words for writer John Neihardt. In the years that followed, and particularly after his father's death in 1950, Ben Black Elk became one of the last links to the "old ways" of his people. He often visited local schools to retell traditional stories of Lakota history and culture to students. Some of those sessions were recorded by Lakota educator Warfield Moose, Sr., who entrusted the tapes to his son in 1996.

"Probably about two weeks before his death he told me about them. And then he told me to do something with them, so, it was part of the journey, the vision for him," said Mr. Moose Jr. "As [Ben] Black Elk's journey, he was working with kids and children, my father was part of it. You know, he wanted the kids to learn the Lakota way of life and my part of it was I wanted to also be part of helping the children to learn the Lakota way of life."

Following his father's wishes, Warfield Moose, Jr. spent the next six years listening to the tapes and researching the best way to pass on the words of Ben Black Elk. He felt a book would not be as effective as transferring some of the recordings to CD.

"I wanted to do what I can to bring the culture closer through these CDs because kids today, they want to hear things on audio or something on CD where they can comprehend, because there's no time to sit and read," he said.

The collection of Lakota oral history has a wide appeal. Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Sydney Claymore says she felt compelled to attend the CD's premiere at a South Dakota bookstore because of the impact Ben Black Elk and his father have had on Natives and non-Natives alike.

"I love the fact that he's real open about what he's passing along, to Natives and non-Natives, as far as his knowledge and his teachings. You know, the songs even," she explained. "We need to learn that. We all have children that we need to pass these on. And to have them for ourselves, for everyone, I guess."

That made sense to Abena Songbird, a member of the Abenaki bands of the northeastern United States.

"To keep these teachings alive that Ben had and shared with his family and to put them on CD, I thought was a really wonderful way of using something that's contemporary to share something that's very ancient," she said. "To me, one of the most important things is to share the language. The language is everything for Native people."

"I've learned from my elders, such as my father, the best teacher I ever had. I've learned about the pipe and the ways of our culture. It is good. They were the ones who handed down the culture at that time to us, so we lived it," says Ben Black Elk on the recording.

Esther Black Elk Desersa thinks her father's CD will benefit Lakota children the same way listening to her grandfather speak influenced her.

"I was there when they were doing the book [in 1931]. I would feed them, and then I'd sit there and would listen to them, and I'd go and get them coffee just to be there to listen to them," she recalls. "Then my dad would say, 'go play.' And I'd go and turn around and come back with some more coffee, you know. I'd give 'em coffee, just to listen to them cause the words sounded beautiful. Sometimes they sound like rhythm, you know, musical, you know."

Mrs. Desersa adds that the biggest lesson her grandfather taught her is still relevant today.

"I sat and listened, cause my grandfather always said 'when you sit and listen, you learn more.' That's gonna teach some of the children, to listen to the elders, he's an elder," she said. "You can tell them he's an elder. They learn from the CD."

"My mind goes back, way back, to where my grandmother and my grandfather that really fought Custer, and they were really Indians at that time, that settle on this reservation. It was just a few years after the establishment of this reservation," says Ben Back Elm on the recording.