If you’re familiar with historical Native American figures beyond Crazy Horse and Osceola, you’ve likely heard of Black Elk.
He was born to the Oglala Sioux on Wyoming’s Powder River in 1863. As a young man, already a distinguished warrior, he fought in the Battle of Greasy Grass (we call it Little Bighorn), in which Custer’s forces were defeated. After that battle, pressure from the Army increased and many of the Oglala Sioux fled to Canada rather than be forced onto reservations. Black Elk was among them.
After several years in Canada, he returned to the reservation and settled near Wounded Knee Creek, where became known widely as a skilled healer. In 1886, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and toured North America and Europe for three years before coming back to the Dakota Territory to help lead the Ghost Dance movement. Ghost Dancers believed that traditional rituals could end the European dominance of the West and bring back the bison.
The Ghost Dance movement became more and more threatening to the Army, and in 1890 the Wounded Knee massacre ended the hopes of the Sioux. Black Elk continued to live on the reservation, where he maintained his practice of traditional healing and his position as a respected elder. In 1930, he met John Neihardt of Dana College, who recorded his biography and memoirs. “Black Elk Speaks” became the bestselling book ever written by a Native American.
In the final chapter of the book, Black Elk reflects on the moment Chief Red Cloud convinced him and others to surrender in the wake of Wounded Knee: “I did not know then how much was ended….I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
Black Elk’s complex vision of the transformation and healing of the world is memorialized at the Tower of the Four Winds in Blair, Nebraska. The tower is covered with intricate mosaics, and more are inlaid in the walkways that crisscross the park.
Just down the road, Dana College, where John Niehardt was a professor, sits shuttered amid the growing weeds, a victim of declining enrollment and rural location. It’s striking, and unusual, to see an abandoned college campus. The Sioux are gone, Niehardt and Black Elk are gone, Dana College is gone, but the vision remains of a transformed Earth. Blair is on the Lincoln Highway, just a bit north of Omaha (see interactive map below). It’s worth a visit.
When you’re in Blair, stop by a sports bar called Runza and get yourself a runza. This local chain began in Lincoln in 1949. What’s a runza? Well, it’s a lot like a bierock, if you’ve ever had one of those. Here, they’re hot, tasty, and Nebraska perfect.