For many years I taught eleventh graders the novel Black Elk Speaks by John G. Niehardt. If you are unfamiliar with the novel, it is an evocative and beautiful telling of the life of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Sioux. The book recounts his experiences as a Lakota medicine man as well as his experiences as a Lakota Sioux during the wars between the US government and the Indian Nations, specifically the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre.
One of the things I particularly love about the novel is how Niehardt weaves together the historical facts with Black Elk’s religious experiences. I do not believe you can remove one’s worldly experiences from their spiritual experiences because the two are too interwoven, so I appreciate how Niehardt shows us the full life experiences of Black Elk.
After the first time I taught the book, two things became clear to me. 1) My students had very little understanding of the American Indian people either presently or historically and 2) there was scholarly contention surrounding the book. Both realizations, I am sad to admit, caught me off guard. In a classic case of my own filters getting in my way, I had neglected to account for the human tendency to overlook or ignore things that are disagreeable or not of one’s own perspective.
It doesn’t matter how disagreeable one views them, the historical facts are that when this continent was found by explorers, it was already peopled. And the moral and philosophical ideologies of the two groups were in opposition of each other. Simplistically stated, the two cultures placed value on people and things in often diametrically opposing ways. Which, of course, led to the systematic decimating of the American Indian population. John G. Niehardt ends Black Elk Speaks with a particularly difficult scene: the gulches filled with the “butchered” bodies of the women and children running for safety from the US soldiers during Wounded Knee. Regardless of if you think it was the right thing for the US government to do, that is what it did. It killed any and all American Indians who stood in the way of the westward expansion of the European settlers and ideologies.
The novel was originally titled “Black Elk Speaks as told to John G. Niehardt” and later titled “Black Elk Speaks as told through John G. Niehardt.” Some criticize the novel as having too many layers of translation between the Lakotan words of Black Elk and the English words written on the page by Niehardt. I am of the opinion that it doesn’t matter. Without Niehardt, the words would not have been shared. What matters more is that the story is shared and that people discuss it. How can we hope to learn from the events, either beautiful and peace-filled or horrific and brutal if we cannot experience them?
I share these points about Black Elk Speaks not simply because I think it is a great book that more people should read. I share these points because it reminds me of another book that combines historical facts with allegory, parables, poetry, and imagery. This other book has also gone through many translations and editions, each translator and editor making changes to it as he (or possibly she) saw fit. And again, I see the value of the book more in the sharing of its ideas and the conversations that stem from it. That book? The Bible.
The Bible was written in bits and pieces, first the Hebrew Testament and then the New Testament. The Hebrew Testament is nearly 3500 (or more) years old in parts, the New Testament nearly 2000 years old. Some of the authors are known and some are not. Moreover, as people have come and gone from political power, the Bible has been edited to suit their needs (for example the King James edition).
Again, I come back to the notion that perhaps it doesn’t matter how many translations of the text there have been. What matters is that those long ago stories were collected and that modern people discuss them.
Which leads me to an important distinction between these two books. When Black Elk Speaks is read and discussed, today’s reader is likely to read of Black Elk’s life and the world during his time and know that things have changed since then. In addition, if that reader has been taught to be a critical thinker, that reader would read of Black Elk’s way of life and neither assume it to be wrong nor an indication of how today’s reader should live his/her life. Rather, today’s critical thinker and reader would glean from Black Elk Speaks what was beautiful about his life and life experiences and what ways humanity could benefit from those experiences today. An example of this is the differing view of women’s roles in the Lakota life. It may be easy in 2012 to read that when the Plains Indians traveled, the women were in the back with the elderly, sick and the children and assume that the Plains Indians denigrated women. However, that was not the case. In a culture where the bringers of life were to be protected, the women followed the men so that the men could better protect them. Likewise, the women protected the children and those who needed care. It was a system in accord to their theology, ideology, and philosophy.
When we read Black Elk Speaks today, we must take into account the context of the people, the time, and what they valued. If we do not, we miss the beauty of their life experiences and lose the ability to see how today’s humanity could benefit from incorporating elements of those experiences.
And yet, how many readers of the Bible take into account the context of the people, time, and values of the writers of the Bible?
Moreover, why am I thinking about the role of biblical study?
I’m thinking about the need for biblical study because women have sex.
We all know that the sexual lives of women is a hot topic due to health care, access to health care, and the role of reproductive care in women’s lives. You can Google Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke if you need a refresher course.
But where does all this misogyny come from? I would say it comes from interpretations of the Bible.
The Bible was written in a time and place where women and their role in society was very different that in today’s suburban Portland, Oregon. And if you read the Bible today thinking that women in the Bible lived their lives like the little girls, young women, and women in your life, then you are forgetting one very important thing.
Women were property 3500 years ago.
So if you are wondering why on earth a radio celebrity who has been married four times and had a very public chemical dependency can for the most part without fear of reprisal, slander a young woman who said that women need access to birth control, remember this: today’s population is a product of the mindset that women are property.
If you don’t believe this to be true, look up the role of human trafficking. Today, just like yesterday and tomorrow, there will be girls and women sold to be sex slaves, wives, laborers.
Which means, that for most of the world, women are property still.
It is actually a very small part of the world’s population that believes women have a voice that deserves to be heard, that they have a mind as capable as a man’s, that they deserve financial compensation for their work.
But in that very small part of the world which likes to think of itself as being more enlightened, there lingers a thought that a woman is defined by the single role of reproduction in her life.
There have been many translations of religious texts in addition to the Bible. I am waiting for the translation that says all are equal. All are valued. All are loved.
That translation? It has the potential to save humanity from its self.
That translation would be one worth hearing.