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John Gneisenau Neihardt (January 8, 1881 – November 24, 1973) was an American author of poetry and prose, an amateur historian and ethnographer, and a philosopher of the Great Plains. Born at the end of the American settlement of the Plains, he became interested in the experiences of those who had been a part of the European-American migration, as well as American Indians whom they had displaced. He traveled down the Missouri River by open boat, visited with old trappers, became familiar with leaders in a number of Indian communities, and did extensive research throughout the Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Neihardt wrote to preserve and express elements of the pioneer past in books that range across a broad variety of genres, from travelogues to epic poetry. In 1921 the Nebraska Legislature elected Neihardt as the state's poet laureate, a title he held for fifty-two years until his death.
His most well-known work is Black Elk Speaks (1932), an extended narration of the visions of the Lakota medicine man Black Elk. It was translated into German as Ich Rufe mein Volk (I Call My People) (1953). In the United States, the book was reprinted in 1961, at the beginning of an increase in interest in Native American culture. Its continuing popularity has supported four other editions. In 2008 it was published as a premier edition with annotations.
Neihardt was born in Sharpsburg, Illinois; his family moved to Wayne, Nebraska when he was 10. A graduate of Nebraska Normal College in Wayne at the age of 16, he taught in rural schools near Hoskins. Neihardt had been writing poetry since the age of 12; he published his first book, The Divine Enchantment, at the age of 19. The book is based on Hindu mysticism, a forerunner of many of his perspectives and much of his later work.
In 1901, Neihardt moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, on the edge of the Omaha Reservation. He worked with a local trader among the Indians, beginning a lifelong fascination with their culture. He also co-owned and edited the local newspaper, the Bancroft Blade. Sixty years later, townspeople remembered him as an unusual character, given to long, rambling walks and flights of imagination. After a trip to the Black Hills, Neihardt published A Bundle of Myrrh, romantic poetry in free verse, which was well received by critics.
Marriage and family
Neihardt's romantic poetry was read in Paris by Mona Martinsen, a young sculpture student of Auguste Rodin. She was so moved by the poetry that she began corresponding with Neihardt. One year later, she moved to Nebraska and they married.
Travelling the Missouri River
Neihardt traveled by open-boat down the Missouri River from Fort Benton, Montana, to Sioux City, Iowa—a journey of 2,000 miles. He published a travelogue as The River and I. The trip was the beginning of extensive travel and research for his large poetry project: a cycle of five epic poems to represent the time span from the arrival of the fur traders on the Plains to the end of the Ghost Dance movement at the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. He completed and published the poems at various times over the next twenty-nine years. They were compiled and published as A Cycle of the West. In researching the Cycle, Neihardt interviewed many cavalrymen and Lakota who had participated in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn; and his depiction of the battle is detailed.
In 1920, Neihardt and Mona moved their family to Branson, Missouri. In the summer of 1930, as part of his research into the American Indian perspective on the Ghost Dance movement, Neihardt contacted an Oglala holy man named Black Elk. At age 13, he had survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn and later as a young warrior escaped the Wounded Knee Massacre. As Neihardt recounts, Black Elk shared his life's narrative, including his sacred visions and some of the Oglala rituals he had performed. The two men developed a close friendship.
Neihardt developed the book Black Elk Speaks from their conversations, which continued in the spring of 1931, and published it in 1932. It is now Neihardt's most well-known work. Black Elk gave Neihardt the Sioux name meaning "Flaming Rainbow," after a prominent image in one of his visions. It was translated into German in 1953. In the United States, the book was reprinted in 1961 and four additional editions. In 2008 it was published in a premier edition complete with annotations. The book was reprinted in the United States in 1961, and has received four more editions. The continuing popularity of the book since the mid-20th century shows the growth of interest in the social and ethical study of Native American tribes. In 2008 the State University of New York Press published a premier edition of the book, with annotations. Modern editions of Black Elk Speaks carry "Flaming Rainbow" as the author's name.
Over the years, Neihardt served as a professor of poetry at the University of Nebraska, and a literary editor in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a poet-in-residence and lecturer at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri from 1948 on.
His wife Mona died in 1958 from injuries in an automobile accident, which Neihardt survived. In 1970 he appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, which spurred renewed interest in Black Elk Speaks, which had been reprinted in 1961.
Neihardt died in 1973 in Columbia, Missouri at the home of one of his daughters, Mrs. Hilda Petri. His remains were cremated in St. Louis, Missouri.
Legacy and honors
- Neihardt was inducted posthumously into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1974.
- His house has been preserved as the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site, also known as the Neihardt Center. Located in Bancroft, Nebraska, the house museum site includes the Sioux Prayer Garden, and Neihardt's study. It includes a library.
- Neihardt Hall, a residence hall and one of the oldest buildings on campus at the University of Nebraska, was named for him. It houses the university's honors program. John G. Neihardt Scholars are recipients of the premier scholarship at Wayne State College.
- An elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska is named after Neihardt.
- Neihardt's personal library is housed at the University of Missouri Libraries Division of Special Collections, Archives, and Rare Books. His papers are a part of the State Historical Society of Missouri. Both repositories are housed in Ellis Library at the University of Missouri.
- The Divine Enchantment, 1900. ISBN 0-87968-168-3
- A Bundle of Myrrh, 1907. ISBN 1-58201-780-8
- Man-Song, 1909. ISBN 1-58201-785-9
- The River and I, 1910. ISBN 0-8032-8372-5
- Life's Lure, 1914. ISBN 0-8032-3333-7
- The Song of Hugh Glass, (Cycle) 1915
- The Quest, 1916.
- The Song of Three Friends, (Cycle) 1919
- The Splendid Wayfaring, 1920. ISBN 0-8032-5723-6
- The Song of the Indian Wars, (Cycle) 1925
- Indian Tales and Others, 1926. ISBN 0-8032-3318-3
- Black Elk Speaks, 1932, William Morrow & Company
- The Song of the Messiah, (Cycle) 1935
- The Song of Jed Smith, (Cycle) 1941
- A Cycle of the West, 1949. ISBN 0-8032-3323-X
- When the Tree Flowered, 1952. ISBN 0-8032-8363-6
- All is But a Beginning, 1972. ISBN 0-15-104604-2
- Patterns and Coincidences, 1978 (posthumous). ISBN 0-8262-0233-0
- George Linden, "John Neihardt and 'Black Elk Speaks'", in The Black Elk Reader, ed. Clyde Holler, Syracuse University Press, 2000, accessed 20 June 2011
- John G. Neihardt Elementary School. Retrieved 2010-10-31.
- John G. Neihardt State Historical Site
- Works by or about John Neihardt in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Works by John Neihardt at Project Gutenberg
- John G. Neihardt Collection at the University of Missouri Division of Special Collections and Rare Books
- Neihardt, John G. (1881–1973), Papers, 1908–1974 (C3778) at the State Historical Society of Missouri
- Clyde Holler, editor. Black Elk Reader, Syracuse University Press (2000).
- Hilda Neihardt, Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow: Personal Memories of the Lakota Holy Man and John Neihardt (1999)
- Neihardt; R. Todd Wise, "Black Elk and John Neihardt", in Black Elk Reader, edited by Clyde Holler, Syracuse University Press (2000).
- Hilda Neihardt, The Broidered Garment: The Love Story of Mona Martinsen and John G. Neihardt (2006)