“If you look with your heart, you will see the thirsty little tree before you. In your hands is the power to help it grow”
Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story, by S.D. Nelson, is a powerful account of one man’s experience growing up during a period of dramatic change for the Lakota and for the world. In part, the book’s power comes from its focus on one man and one moment. The book is somewhere between a memoir and a history, closer to a memoir, but not enough for many teachers to include as a biography for typical school assignments. It is amazing to think the speed of change that took place during this period, not just for the Lakota, but for the whole world. However, this isn’t the story of a people, a country, or even a narrative of repeated injustice, though many of these things are touched on in this book. The beauty of this book is that it focuses on the spiritual experience of one man, how it began, how it changed, and how it informed his life as his world underwent dramatic changes. There may be things that Black Elk, as narrator, does not include or generalizes, but this story is written as his story as he (or S.D. Nelson extrapolating from his words) would like to tell the world. Black Elk’s message to his people, his world, and to us, is that we hold life and destruction in our hands, that we can nurture the tree of life in all of our hands or let it be destroyed.
Imbued in this text is the deep religious beliefs and deep sorrow felt by Black Elk, which wraps from his youth to his death. One of the more interesting aspects to me, as a reader largely ignorant of Lakota culture, was Black Elk’s reluctance to share his vision and spiritual messages. Reading as an outsider, one tends to see a culture as all of a peice, that if a group believes in visions and spirits that people would not hesitate to share them. It is good for me and other readers to be reminded that no culture is so one dimensional. But at the same time this book is only one voice, and shouldn’t be seen as representative of the entire Lakota experience. I think if this book had included a bit more biographical information it would have been better presented as the story of Black Elk, as the focus is primarily on him.
Beyond the text, the book is beautifully illustrated, and combines pictures from the period that sometimes cast a stark light on events. At times these photos made the tone of the book a bit jarring, as there is a distance to the text as if the author is looking back on events having lived with the sorrow. Overall, the paintings and other illustrations, and the overall presentation of the book are extremely well done, as is the text, however readers should not go into this text expecting a history of the Lakota people. Rather, this book should be read for what it is, the story of one man and his vision. (I do wish that the book dealt more with the impact of this vision on the Lakota people as a whole, rather then just a few glimpses) Reccomended grades 4-6, though it could go for a younger crowd if one skipped the captions about frozen bodies and some of the pictures of dead bodies.
This is my first attempt at a Non-Fiction Monday post, this week the posts are hosted at PictureBookDay