John G. Neihardt was once Nebraska’s Poet Laureate. He wrote more than two dozen poems, stories and books during his lifetime. Yet, it was one book that likely solidified his status as a great writer and storyteller.
Neihardt was the author of “Black Elk Speaks,” a book of interviews with the Lakota chief. The chief shared his knowledge of oral history and the cultures of Native Americans. I read the book in college, and it always stayed with me. It’s a story of Chief Black Elk, but also of the Lakota people before and after reservation life.
Black Elk discussed significant moments in European American and Native American history – battles won, battles lost and the goal for spiritual life. Black Elk discussed growing up and living among his tribal brethren. Then, he discusses the wars – including the Little Bighorn battle – followed by the killing of Natives who wanted to celebrate the “Ghost Dance.”
“Black Elk Speaks” was a key chapter in Neihardt’s epic poem about life on the prairie. He worked on a five-volume set of “A Cycle of the West.” The other chapters were: “The Song of Hugh Glass,” “The Song of Three friends,” “The Song of Jed Smith,” and “The Song of the Messiah.” By chapter, I mean they were books. The books were “chapters” in his poem.
Neihardt’s memory and works are remembered at the John G. Neihardt Center in Bancroft. He lived in the small northeastern Nebraska town for a number of years.
He worked in a one-room study, that’s included on the center’s grounds. You can look through the thick glass and see a desk, chair and writing utensils, used to remember his craft.
The center itself is housed in a modern facility on the land once owned by him. It acts as both a memorial to the poet and a library to research his works. A bust of Neihardt is located in the library. It was created by his wife.
The memorial room is designed in a circle to represent the “Hoop of the World.” The hoop represents the world – colors and directions.
The South – yellow – represents growth. All things are born here.
The West is represented by blue or black. It gives power to live and destroy.
The East – red – brings empowerment, understanding and peace.
The North is represented by the color white. It represents cleansing and healing.
The colors intersect in two roads in the center of the Hoop. The first road travels East to West on a black path of difficulty. The Red road travels South to North toward spiritual understanding. As the roads meet, the tree of life is planted and grows. From the tree, comes leaves, blossoms and singing birds. The hoop is further shared in an outdoor garden. Flowers highlighting the colors of the directions are appropriately located.
Inside the memorial, Neihardt’s life and career are recalled. He graduated from Wayne Normal College (now known as Wayne State College) at the age of 14.
His travels for a series of outdoor stories for a magazine are highlighted. The publication folded before he was done with his trip, and the stories later became part inspiration for his first epic poem, “The Song of Hugh Glass.”
“Black Elk Speaks” has a display featuring a series of different book covers, as well as photos of Neihardt and the chief.
Neihardt later worked as an editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and as a professor at the University of Missouri’s journalism school. These facets of his life are highlighted, too.
The Neihardt Center is an excellent place to learn some Nebraska history, as well as about a great writer. We suggest taking the 90-minute drive north of Omaha. You won’t be disappointed.
For more information on the Neihardt Center, please visit www.neihardtcenter.org.