2017 Joe Jackson, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The 60th annual Francis Parkman Prize was awarded to Joe Jackson for his biography, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, which joins the too-short list of Native Americans whose lives have been recorded with serious scholarship and the full orchestra of the biographer’s art. Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota, born in the Powder River country in 1863, whose life as a warrior, religious thinker and holy man centered on a religious vision he had as a child. The pre-reservation part of his life was related by the Nebraska poet John Neihardt whose research for his 1932 book, Black Elk Speaks, has been an important source for historians and ethnographers ever since.

Joe Jackson, now, for the first time in a comprehensive way, tells us the rest of Black Elk’s story. The canvas is broad, including Black Elk’s travels with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Europe, where he was left behind and lived for a year; his role in the Ghost Dance troubles of 1890, and his conversion to Catholicism. Asked why, he once answered simply, “Because my children have to live in this world.” Jackson’s book is a warm account of Black Elk’s life and philosophy enlarged with much new material about his family, the role of the Catholic Church among the Lakota, and more particularly the Jesuit fathers who did not find it easy to reconcile their own faith with Black Elk’s allegiance to the religious culture of his youth. In the end both sides bent and reached a deeper understanding. It is here especially that Jackson makes an important contribution to the understanding of Lakota efforts to defend and preserve their religious identity, which Black Elk did so much to record and explain. 

Jackson, a former investigative reporter, is the Mina Hohenberg Darden Endowed Professor of Creative Writing in the M.F.A. creative writing program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.