John Neihardt (January 8, 1881 – November 24, 1973), named as Nebraska Poet Laureate in Perpetuity in 1921, is a true Midwesterner. He was born in Illinois, lived in a Kansan sod house and in Kansas City, then moved to Nebraska. He was 16 when he graduated from Wayne Normal College (Wayne, Nebraska) but had been writing poetry since he was 12.
Neihardt is perhaps best known for Black Elk Speaks, a controversial classic based on his interviews with the Oglala Lakota medicine man. At the time, Neihardt, already an acclaimed poet, was researching the Native American Ghost Dance Movement. Black Elk was a survivor of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and, when he was only 13, he’d been part of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Black Elk Speaks was first published in 1932. After famed psychologist Carl Jung read the book, he encouraged its translation into German. Since then, it’s been translated into nine additional languages.
The controversy concerns the accuracy of Neihardt’s account. Modern scholars believe he may not have understood the Lakota culture, or that he purposely misrepresented some aspects to make the story more marketable to his intended white audience.
Neihardt moved to Bancroft, Nebraska in 1900 where he became the owner-editor of the Bancroft Blade. His interest in the Sioux led him to travel through the plains and inspired his epic poem, A Cycle of the West.
This collection of five “Songs” were written and published over a thirty-year period:
- The Song of Three Friends (1919)
- The Song of Hugh Glass (1915)
- The Song of Jed Smith (1941)
- The Song of the Indian Wars (1925)
- The Song of the Messiah (1935)
This one-room outbuilding was used by Neihardt as his study when he lived in Bancroft. It’s part of the John G. Neihardt State Historical Site which also includes a memorial room, library, and a Sacred Hoop Prayer Garden.
Neihardt’s poetic talents led to romance.
Mona Martinsen, an American who studied music in Germany and sculpture in Paris, read Neihardt’s A Bundle of Myrrh. She wrote to him; he wrote to her. Six months later, she took a train to Omaha and the couple married the next day.
Mona died fifteen years before her husband, but after his death, “the couple’s ashes were scattered over the Missouri River on the date of their wedding anniversary” (“Mona Neihardt,” Nebraska State Historical Society).