Fate of NU Press classic in limbo

2010-07-08T07:00:00Z Fate of NU Press classic in limboBy KEVIN ABOUREZK / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

When she was a child, Charlotte Black Elk's grandfather would tell her stories about her great-grandfather Nicholas Black Elk.

Her great-grandfather -- the subject of the 1932 book "Black Elk Speaks," written by Nebraska poet laureate in perpetuity John G. Neihardt -- died before she was born.

Her grandfather Ben Black Elk would hold his arms wide and say her great-grandfather's life story was this big. The book, he said, contracting his arms so just a small space remained between his hands, told this much of that story.

"Everywhere I've traveled in the world people are familiar with it," she said Tuesday of "Black Elk Speaks." "He touched a lot of people and through the book continues to touch a lot of people."

There are few places where "Black Elk Speaks" has had a more profound impact than in Nebraska, where the University of Nebraska Press published more than 900,000 copies of the book before the author's family decided to sell the book's publishing rights to a New York publisher in 2008.

The biography of the Lakota holy man remains the NU Press' bestselling book of all time.

A former NU Press director, Gary Dunham, had lured the Neihardt family, which owns the book's publication rights, east after he left Nebraska in December 2007 to become director of the State University of New York Press.

Now Dunham has left SUNY Press, according to a SUNY spokesman, who offered no further details on Dunham's departure. SUNY Press' contract to publish "Black Elk Speaks" won't elapse until 2013, however.

Dunham couldn't be reached for comment, and Neihardt's granddaughter and head of the Neihardt Trust, Coralie Hughes, declined to comment on the fate of the book, calling it "a private contractual matter."

"I look forward to some exciting upcoming projects with (NU Press) on Neihardt writings," Hughes said in an e-mail. "Perhaps that is a more appropriate discussion."

NU Press Director Donna Shear said the book's loss hurt the publisher, though she declined to comment on whether NU Press would now seek to lure the Neihardt family back to Nebraska.

"It was a cornerstone of the Native American books, and we have obviously regretted the loss, as have many of our readers," she said.

NU Press has retained the publication rights to a number of Neihardt books and poems, including a poem Shear called his "magnum opus."

"It literally is the sweeping saga of the American West," she said of "A Cycle of the West," a poem that NU Press publishes in book form.

The Nebraska publisher also plans to reissue a book it considers a companion piece to "Black Elk Speaks" with an introduction by Hughes and a new title. The book "When the Tree Flowered" will be retitled "Eagle Voice Remembers," Shear said.

But none of the Neihardt publications the NU Press has retained have gained the widespread appeal of "Black Elk Speaks," she said.

"They're important for other reasons and, certainly, with our strong presence in Native American and western American literature, they're important to us," she said.

For her part, Charlotte Black Elk said she doesn't care who publishes her great-grandfather's biography, though she is concerned about how new publishers might handle the book.

"I'm just concerned that there might be some creative editing in the process," she said.

The book was among the first to describe Native religion and spirituality and has served to educate non-Natives and Natives alike, she said.

As a resident of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Charlotte Black Elk would like to one day see the Neihardt family give the book's publishing rights to her family and, in the meantime, begin funding scholarships for Native students on the reservation that her great-grandfather called home.

"It's a good book," she said. "It needs to benefit people here, not just our family."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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