'Black Elk Speaks' Goes Home

5 years after SUNY Press raised eyebrows with the way it obtained book rights that had been held by U. of Nebraska Press, the work is returning to the Plains.

October 2, 2013

Five years ago, the University of Nebraska Press and many academic publishers were stunned when the State University of New York Press obtained the rights to a book that had been central to Nebraska's prominence in Native American studies and that had sold more than 1 million copies from 1961 until 2008. And many observers were also angry, because the contract with SUNY Press came as Gary H. Dunham left the Nebraska press directorship for that of SUNY.

The book was Black Elk Speaks, 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 who 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, and it is that trust that had for years worked with the Nebraska press -- until Dunham moved to New York.

While the University of Nebraska Press may seem a more logical home than SUNY's for a book about American Indians on the Great Plains (given its strong list in Native American studies, not just geography), Dunham defended the move at the time, saying that the trust wanted a change and that he was happy to work with its officials. Many university press officials were shocked and angry, and several said that they would never -- as a director moving to a new press -- seek to take a prized publication with them in this way. A further twist, in 2010, SUNY eliminated Dunham's position at the press, so while the book remained under contract there, the person who had brought it was no longer there.

So on Tuesday, Nebraska press officials were elated to announce that Black Elk Speaks -- used both by scholars and in classrooms -- was coming back. Both SUNY and Nebraska tried for the contract, but the Neihardt Trust this time opted to go back to Nebraska. Nebraska also announced plans to publish annotated editions of other Neihardt works, including Cycle of the West and Eagle Voice Remembers.

Donna Shear, director of the Nebraska press, had nothing by praise for SUNY in an interview Tuesday. She said that press officials there had been "gracious and cooperative" about a transition for the book. Still, she said that she had never "heard of anything in the university press community" like the way Black Elk Speaks migrated.

"I don't know that one book makes a lesson," she said. "But when you have something as prominent and important to you, you can't afford to take it for granted."

The current co-directors at SUNY Press, James Peltz and Donna Dixon, responded to questions about the shift via e-mail. They said they were "disappointed" not to hold on to the book, but said they understood. "In so many ways, Nebraska is the natural home for this book," they said.

The book sold well at SUNY, they said, "better than the average scholarly book, to be sure."

Asked if they saw lessons from Black Elk's five-year sojourn in New York State, they said, "you can go home again."


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