John G. Neihardt, Nebraska's Poet Laureate, captured the events and legends of the western frontier. He celebrated the historic exploits of adventurers and mountain men. He recorded the oral tradition of the Omaha longhairs (elders), the greatness of leaders like Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, and shared with the world a vision of the Oglala Lakota, Black Elk. Today Neihardt's writings help us understand the people and cultures of the American west. His works explore the tragedies and triumphs of the frontier experience.
John Greenleaf Neihart was born January 8, 1881 near Sharpsburg, Illinois to Nicholas and Alice Culler Neihart. His father chose his name in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier, a prominent 19th century American poet. John later substituted the old family name of Gneisenau for his middle name and added a "d'' to Neihart, returning it to its original German spelling of Neihardt.
The family lived in Springfield, Illinois, then in a sod house on their Grandpa Culler's farm in Kansas, and in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1891 Alice Neihart moved with her three children, Grace, Lulu, and John, to Wayne, Nebraska.
When Neihardt was eleven years old, he became very ill and experienced a "fever dream" that changed his life. In the dream, he felt himself flying through space so fast that the air below him was like glass, and he felt the presence of a "spirit brother." Neihardt believed that this presence urged him toward his life work as a poet and inspired the best of his writing.
Even before its publication, the manuscript of Neihardt's A Bundle of Myrrh, brought him celebrity in New York literary circles. In 1907, a handwritten copy of the poems drew the attention of Mona Martinsen, a young woman living in Paris. She wrote a letter to the Nebraska poet, and his reply began a correspondence of several months. The relationship blossomed into love, and after receiving Neihardt's proposal in the mail, Mona boarded a train for Omaha to begin a new life.
John and Mona Neihardt made a home for themselves and their family in Bancroft, Nebraska in 1908, where Neihardt continued his writing and Mona her sculpture. Four children were born to the couple: Enid (1911), Sigurd (1912), Hilda (1916), and Alice (1921). When Mona died in 1958, Neihardt felt the loss severely, for, as he said, "she had built herself into the walls of my world."
Nebraska Normal College
Neihardt's hunger for education was unmatched by his family's finances. When he was thirteen, his mother made an arrangement with the president of Nebraska Normal College, in Wayne. The young scholar earned his tuition by ringing the bells that signaled the beginning and ending of classes. The bell tower proved a beneficial place to study; Neihardt completed both the Professional Teachers Course and the Advanced Scientific Course in four years.
As a young man in Wayne, Neihardt acquainted himself with "Professor" Bill Durrin, a talented maker of intricate tombstones. Durrin introduced Neihardt to Eastern and other philosophies, often shouting out his controversial ideas to the ringing of a chisel in his marble shop.
The young poet first arrived in Bancroft in 1900. The town was named for historian George Bancroft, but the Omahas called it Unashta Zhinga or "little stopping place."
While working for J.J. Elkin, a trader on the Omaha reservation, Neihardt studied Omaha history and culture.
Neihardt came to know and respect the traditions of the Omahas through his association with the longhairs, or elders of the tribe. They invited him into their lodges to share in their food and celebrations, and to listen to their stories. Elder Shonhga Ska said of Neihardt: "...this is a good young white man who has come to visit with us. He respects us. He sits and eats with us as a friend, and he makes us glad. He is a good young man."
La Flesche family
Neihardt became friends with several members of the La Flesche family, descendents of Estamahza (Iron Eye), chief of the Omaha tribe. One of Iron Eye's daughters, Susette, worked to promote rights for Indians. She served as interpreter for the Ponca leader Standing Bear, in the trial that first determined that an Indian is a person within the meaning of the law.
Another daughter, Susan La Flesche Picotte, was the first Native American woman medical doctor. She brought scientific health care to her people. She said that Neihardt's stories were the first account by a white man that accurately portrayed Indians and Indian life.
In lyric poetry, the poet uses the musical quality of words to address a single idea, emotion, or subject. Neihardt composed a series of lyrics that passionately sing of life and death, love and loss. His first book of lyric poems, A Bundle of Myrhh , as he said, "brought me my Mona." Man Song and The Stranger at the Gate celebrate their early years together and the birth of their first child, Enid.
The River of an Unwritten Epic
In 1908, Outing Magazine asked Neihardt to make and write about a trip down the Missouri River, from the head of navigation near Great Falls, Montana, to Sioux City, Iowa. N eihardt asked Bill Jacobs of Oakland, Nebraska to photograph this journey. Because of the potential dangers he needed more people to accompany him. Neihardt placed an ad in the Bancroft Blade to solicit volunteers.
Chester Marshall, a sixteen-year-old Bancroft boy, was the only person to answer the ad. Despite Neihardt's concerns about Marshall's age, he allowed him to make the trip, nicknaming him " The Kid."
Two months and two thousand miles later, Neihardt had collected the stories that eventually became The River and I. He gained a first-hand knowledge of the hardships and dangers that met the early explorers as they ascended the mighty Missouri.
Throughout his life, Neihardt wrote both poetry and prose, including regular newspaper articles. After the publication of short stories and two novels, The Dawn-Builder (1910) and Life's Lure (1914), he turned away from fiction until When the Tree Flowered (1951).
After arriving in Bancroft, Nebraska in 1900, Neihardt became a city reporter for The Omaha Daily News, a position, he said, "for which I was conspicuously untalented." From 1901-1903 Neihardt edited the Bancroft Blade. and continued to write columns for the paper until 1920.
Neihardt became literary editor for the Minneapolis Journal in 1912. The family moved with him to Minneapolis that year. They returned to Bancroft in 1913; in late 1920 the family moved to Branson, Missouri. Neihardt edited for the New York Times, and Present-Day American, among others. From 1926-31, the Neihardts lived in the St. Louis area while John edited for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. During this time they also retained their home in Branson.
A CYCLE OF THE WEST
A Cycle of the West
Beginning in 1912 at the age of thirty-one, and continuing over the next twenty nine years, Neihardt composed the five lyric poems that comprise his epic, A Cycle of the West. The songs tell of the period of exploration and settlement of the American West. Neihardt believed that this period was like the epic periods celebrated in the sagas of the Old World, "a time when an old culture was being overcome by that of a powerful people driven by the ancient needs and greeds."
The Mountain Men
In his first three books of the Cycle, Neihardt tells the stories of the Ashley-Henry men, fur trappers and traders who explored the upper Missouri River county. These three tales, The Song of Hugh Glass, The Song of Three Friends, and The Song of Jed Smith, record the adventures of some of the legendary adventurers of the American West.
The Song of Hugh Glass
The Song of Hugh Glass, published in 1915, is the second song of the Cycle. The story tells of Glass, a scout for one of the Ashley-Henry expeditions, who is mauled by a bear while hunting near the Forks of the Grand River. The wounded scout's companions abandon him without food or weapons. Hugh eventually revives but is unable to walk. Spurred on by thoughts of vengeance against his unfaithful companions, he begins a long and torturous crawl to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River.
The Song of Three Friends
The Song of Three Friends, published in 1919, is the second song written by Neihardt for the Cycle, yet it appears first. The three friends, Mike Fink, Will Carpenter, and Frank Talbeau, spend the winter at a Blood village on the Musselshell river. After a quarrel over the affections of an Indian woman, Fink and Carpenter resort to their old sport of "shooting the cup" as a symbol of renewed friendship and trust. The gesture ends in tragedy when Carpenter is accidentally killed.
The Song of Jed Smith
In Neihardt's words, The Song of Jed Smith , published in 1941, "follows the first band of Americans through South Pass...the first white men to cross the great desert from the Sierras to Salt Lake." Led by the visionary Jedediah Smith, many of the explorers died during the search for the southern overland route to the Pacific.
The Twilight of the Sioux
The final two songs in Neihardt's Cycle, The Song of the Indian Wars and The Song of the Messiah, deal with the conflict on the Plains between the native inhabitants and the westward-pushing settlers. In preparation for the writing of these songs, Neihardt drew not only upon printed sources but also consulted with many veterans from both sides.
The Song of the Indian Wars, published in 1925, chronicles the struggle over the bison pastures of the Great Plains. Neihardt's descriptions of several major battles of the conflict, including the Wagon Box, Fetterman, and Little Big Horn, portray the very human participants on both sides of the struggle. The tale ends with the treacherous arrest and death of Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson.
BLACK ELK SPEAKS
Neihardt first met Lakota Holy Man, Black Elk in the summer of 1930. He traveled to Pine Ridge Reservation while working on The Song of the Messiah to find someone who had taken part in the Messiah movement. Through Flying Hawk, an interpreter, Neihardt explained to Black Elk the reason for his visit. After a period of silence, Black Elk said "As I sit here I can feel in this man beside me a strong desire to know all things of the Other World. He has been sent to learn what I know, and I will teach him."
The Great Vision
Neihardt returned in 1931 to listen to Black Elk's stories. Black Elk told of his life: his first fighting at Little Big Horn, his recollections of his cousin, Crazy Horse, his experiences at Wounded Knee and as a part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He also told Neihardt the story of his great vision, when, as a boy of nine, he had been taken by the Six Grandfathers to the highest point in Paha Sapa (the Black Hills). Here he was given powers to take back for the good of his people.
Neihardt and daughters Enid and Hilda were spiritually adopted by Black Elk at a naming ceremony during the 1931 interviews. Neihardt was given the name Peta wigmunke, or Flaming Rainbow, reflecting both the importance of that symbol in Black Elk's vision and Neihardt's call as a poet. At this time Black Elk gave to Neihardt the sacred articles that had been handed down to him by his father.
Prayer on Harney Peak
After the interviews concluded, Black Elk asked to be taken to the place of his vision, wearing red underwear instead of painting his body red, out of respect for the Neihardt daughters. He "sent forth a voice," praying that the tree of life would once again live and the hoop of the people be made whole.
Office of Indian Affairs
After completing his major work, Cycle of the West , Neihardt briefly found himself unemployed. He put his talents to work in a new arena, serving from 1942-1946 as Director of Information for the Office of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of Interior. During that time he edited and occasionally published stories in Indians at Work.
After Neihardt left the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he and Mona purchased a home near Columbia, Missouri. They named it Skyrim Farm. Here, at age sixty-eight, when most people think of retiring, Neihardt entered a new profession. He became poet-in- residence and lecturer in English at the Univerity of Missouri. Neihardt discovered a new passion--teaching in the classroom. The poet, literary critic, and lecturer in him found an opportunity for joint expression.
Completion of the Circle
Neihardt's beloved Mona died in a car accident in 1958. He remained at the university for several more years until failing health and eyesight forced him to give up teaching in 1966. He then moved to the home of friends Julius and Myrtle Young in Lincoln, Nebraska. who cared for him and helped him record the story of his life. John G. Neihardt died November 3, 1973, near Columbia, Missouri, in the home of his daughter, Hilda.