Joe Jackson might not seem your typical Western historian. His father was a rocket scientist during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, and Jackson majored in English and psychology in college, then worked briefly as a suicide councilor before moving into journalism. He spent a dozen years as an investigative and police beat reporter for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, where he teaches creative writing at Old Dominion University. Some of his work strays far from the West, but Jackson previously had success with a Western book. Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive’s Search for Justice in the Vanishing West was a 2002 Edgar Award finalist from Mystery Writers of America in the best fact crime book category, and Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary won a 2017 Spur Award from Western Writers of America in the best Western biography category. Jackson is working on a book about the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.
What drew you to Black Elk?
When I start looking around for the next book, there’s usually unfinished business or an unfinished subject from the previous one. My previous book was about the 1927 air race that made Charles Lindbergh famous.…Even back then Americans quickly turned people into secular heroes and saints. They raise them up, and then they destroy them. I started thinking: What does it take for a society to think of someone as truly holy?… And then I started seeing books about native Americans.
I think the one that brought me to this was the Red Cloud book [The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin], and I remembered [John G. Neihardt’s 1932 book] Black Elk Speaks was one of my favorite books when I first came across it in either high school or college. I’d done a little bit of research, and I remembered American theologians were calling Black Elk the only truly bona fide American holy man of the 20th century.
He seems to be revered by native American traditionalists, while Catholics, who tried to stamp out his religion, were playing around with the idea of making him a saint. That’s when I decided to kind of go whole hog with the book.
‘[Black Elk] seems to be revered by native American traditionalists, while Catholics, who tried to stamp out his religion, were playing around with the idea of making him a saint. That’s when I decided to kind of go whole hog with the book’
What intrigues you about the West?
I’ve always been interested in the West. My dad was interested in it. It’s our mythology. I’d only really done one other Western book, but I loved doing it. Leavenworth Train, my second book, was about a guy who was involved in one of the last train robberies in the West. Frank Grigware was convicted of train robbery [in 1909] and sent to Leavenworth. Within a year he escaped from a work train and left for Canada.
He became a real test of justice differences between the Canadian and American systems, the Canadians saying he had rehabilitated himself, and the Americans saying once you’ve gone bad, you can’t go back.
Your research took you west?
I was wandering around the West, following his footsteps, and I thought: This is great. I love doing this. Whenever I do one of these books, I always try to follow in the footsteps of my characters if I can.
How did you follow Frank Grigware?
It wasn’t a complete step by step. He went to Spokane [Wash.]. He mined for silver in Coeur d’Alene [Idaho]. He went to Denver, where he joined this gang. I didn’t go to Denver, as I didn’t know where he had stayed, but I did get a map of some of the old silver mines in Coeur d’Alene, and I hiked back there. I didn’t go into any of the mines—I’d get killed.
I went to Leavenworth and got most of my good information from the National Archives [branch] in Kansas City [Mo.]. In Jasper [Alberta], in the Canadian Rockies, I went to the house he had built and met a woman who had known him when he was older and she quite young. I also went to the theater where he watched [the 1932 movie] I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, which was exactly what he was. He got really pale, and his wife said, “You look sick.” The guy at the theater was a local historian whose father had been the owner of the theater back when Frank went there. He produced a map of the area of where Frank had gone trapping for martens. That’s where a friend of his who was a Mountie wrote him up for the Canadian equivalent of a misdemeanor. The FBI and the Canadian government had just signed a fingerprint agreement, and his fingerprints were sent to J. Edgar Hoover, and that’s when Hoover wanted him back.
It was a lot of fun. I went all over the place. There are places in the East like that, but what’s really unique about the West is that you can go to some places that while they’re not exactly the same as they were back in the early 1900s or late 1800s, there’s enough there that you can really kind of imagine it.
How far did you follow Black Elk?
I spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., because of the archives. Then, in the summer of either 2012 or 2013 I took this long cross-country trip. I started with Marquette University, in Milwaukee, because they have all of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions records. After that I went down to the State Historical Society of Missouri, because they have all the Neihardt stuff and all the Black Elk reproductions. I went to the Neihardt collection and state historic site in Nebraska.
Then I just headed west. I went to Camp Robinson, where Crazy Horse died, and I went to the Black Hills for a little while, talked to the guy whose great uncle had owned the Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns, where Black Elk had his 1940s show. I spent over a week and a half in the archives talking to people at Pine Ridge. I met with Black Elk’s great-granddaughter, Betty, and rode around with her for a couple of days. Went to Wounded Knee, kind of followed his footsteps, tried to figure out what his footsteps were as best as I could. … I went to the Little Bighorn and took off west to the Kootenai Valley of Montana. On the way back I did go to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, because they have all the [Mari Sandoz] archives. I thought I would pick up a lot about Crazy Horse or a little bit of color for the Sioux.
I was on the road for about two months. My car was like a traveling library.
Did you follow Black Elk in Europe?
I didn’t get that much out of Paris. I got a lot of stuff on Black Elk’s European sojourn in the McCracken archives at [the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo.].
‘Most of what I’ve written is nonfiction, but I like to structure it like a novel in that it is character-based. It’s people who’ve written lots of letters or journals or memoirs or something like that where I can quote them and know their minds’
How do you choose your characters?
Most of what I’ve written is nonfiction, but I like to structure it like a novel in that it is character-based. It’s people who’ve written lots of letters or journals or memoirs or something like that where I can quote them and know their minds. For my part, I can’t make things I up, so I have to look for a lot of help. For Black Elk I had oral histories, and he wrote quite a bit, much of it in Lakota, when he was a Catholic lay preacher. There was a lot about him. That’s what I look for. I look for people who have left a psychological trail.
Speaking of Black Elk, did Neihardt use poetic license? How much of that was Black Elk?
The guy who transcribed all those notebooks, the ethnologist out of Indiana, he wrote a long introduction, and he said he thought Neihardt was pretty true to Black Elk’s vision and Black Elk’s story, except for the fact he left out some of the more violent passages about killing all the whites. [Neihardt] was trying to make Black Elk into kind of a holy figure, or a failed holy figure, and that kind of violence didn’t fit in. That was the main change.
Black Elk’s vision is like Revelation in the Bible. It’s long, it’s apocalyptic, it shows the chosen people being rejuvenated by the destruction of their enemies, and it’s really hard to figure out. I think Neihardt simplified it to a certain extent as best as he could. He made it more cinematic. At one point he was talking to his publisher, William Morrow, hoping they could make a movie out of it. Morrow was all behind it, but then he died of a heart attack.
Perhaps [Neihardt] simplified the vision for American audiences—and even that was a little too weird for audiences, because Black Elk’s vision didn’t do all that well when first published. But I don’t think Neihardt made up anything, and I don’t think he changed anything that much. It was Neihardt’s book, but I think it was more Black Elk’s book. Neihardt had this image of the vanishing Indian and the vanishing West, and that’s what his poetry cycles were all about. That’s why he ended it at Wounded Knee when Black Elk was only 27. I mean it only gives a truncated picture of Black Elk’s life.
It may not give the totality of Black Elk’s life, and it may not give an accurate picture of where he went afterward, but there’s nothing that tells me the family thought Neihardt was dishonest or that he changed Black Elk’s vision.
I think Neihardt ended it too soon, but then, he was a writer, and he wanted to do a set period of time. Black Elk said that’s OK, as long as you put my vision front and center. WW