Control of a Beloved Book

August 4, 2010

Some in academic publishing think the latest twist in the story of Black Elk Speaks amounts to poetic justice. Others see a sign of just how vulnerable their industry is these days. In either case, this is the story of a book that is much loved and whose fate has been much debated.

Black Elk Speaks is the autobiography of a Lakota healer who describes pivotal events in Native American history. In 1930, he met and came to trust John Neihardt, a poet and writer who later became poet laureate of Nebraska and wrote the book based on his in-depth discussions with Black Elk. When Neihardt died in 1973, a trust of his heirs gained control of the book. Over the years, the University of Nebraska Press sold about 1 million copies of the book -- which not only became a pivotal part of the university's list, but reflected the institution's commitment to study of the Native Americans of the Great Plains.

But in 2008, Gary H. Dunham moved from being director of the Nebraska Press to a parallel position at the State University of New York, and the Neihardt trust did a deal with the SUNY Press to move the book there as well. While best-selling commercial authors move from press to press, the shift raised eyebrows and drew criticism, with some saying at the time that university press directors who move jobs (not at all uncommon) generally wouldn't bring along work with a strong regional tie to the institution they were leaving. After all, Black Elk was a Lakota, not an Iroquois. But Neihardt's heirs decided the book would follow Dunham and signed a contract to move it to SUNY through 2013.

And that's why eyebrows were raised again this week when SUNY announced new leaders for its press. No mention was made of Dunham, but a SUNY spokesman confirmed that the position of executive director, which he held, had been eliminated. So now the book that followed Dunham to New York will be there, without Dunham, who could not be reached for comment.

Willis Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press, and a former Nebraska director who brought Black Elk Speaks there, said that the saga of the book is a reminder of a unique role of university presses. "University presses right now are the only defense for regional publishing in this country," he said. "The importance of university presses as regional presses will only get greater if there is more consolidation of the commercial end of publishing and retail." And in that environment, the relationship of books to regions and their presses deserves respect, he said.

"The importance of Black Elk Speaks to Nebraska went well beyond its income. It was a centerpiece for Native American studies," he said. "By taking Black Elk Speaks away from Nebraska, Mr. Dunham tore a heart out of Nebraska's Native American studies list."

At Nebraska, officials are working to bolster that still strong list -- and its Neihardt ties. A book that Neihardt viewed as a companion to Black Elk Speaks, When the Tree Flowered, about a Sioux tribe member, is being reissued with what the press hopes will be a better name for sales, Eagle Voice Remembers.

Donna Shear, director of the press (who arrived after Dunham and Black Elk left the state), said that there are no negotiations to bring the book back to Nebraska, at least for now. SUNY Press "has a contract and has been meeting its obligations," she said. At the same time, Shear said that she did view the fate of the book as an unusual one. "It's very unusual within the academic press world to see an author or an author's heirs move with an editor or a director," she said. "Most of the time," she said, "books are in the right place."

When the contract expires at SUNY, would Nebraska like the book back? "I want to make it clear that we would not do anything that's inappropriate," she said. "But we've made no secret that we would love to have it returned. We think this is the right place for it. It's the story of this region."

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