Sanctity in America: Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk

The cause for the canonization of Nicholas Black Elk has officially been open. He is given the title Servant of God.

Black Elk was born in December, 1863 into a Oglala Lakota Sioux family at a location on the Little Powder River in Wyoming.

At the age of nine, Black Elk fell desperately ill. During this time, he experienced a great vision where he was visited by Thunderbeings and taken to meet the Grandfathers, spiritual representatives of the six directions: north, south, east, west, above, and below. In later years, Black Elk described his vision:

“And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”

His family included a long line of Lakota medicine men and healers, including his own father, and Black Elk continued this heritage, being recognized as a medicine man among the Lakota from the age of nineteen. As a young man in the 1870s, Black Elk, along with his father, participated in the Sioux resistance, led by Crazy Horse (Black Elk’s second cousin) and Sitting Bull, to the government’s demands that they sell their sacred Black Hill’s land. During this resistance, Black Elk was witness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Forced by hunger and cold to surrender, Crazy Horse was killed by federal troops. Sitting Bull led many of their followers to Canada, Black Elk among them. Black Elk returned to the United States and, in 1881, moved onto the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

In 1887, Black Elk joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and toured the United States and England. This tour included a performance before “Grandmother England,” Queen Victoria. Black Elk and three other Lakota became separated from the other entertainers in Buffalo Bill’s entourage and missed their return ship to America. Finding themselves stranded in England, they joined another wild west show and spent the next year touring Germany, France, and Italy, studying the white man’s ways’ and learning rudimentary English. Black Elk reconnected with Buffalo Bill in Paris in 1889 and returned to the United States.

In 1890, the Ghost Dance movement reached the Pine Ridge Reservation and Black Elk became a participant. The Ghost Dance movement was a movement of resistance against the white man’s rule. Believers were convinced that the practice of the Ghost Dance would result in the departure of the white man, the return of the buffalo, and the re-establishment of Native life and culture. Concerned about the movement, the U. S. government sought to arrest its leaders, including Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt to arrest him. In 1890, U. S. troops massacred 200 Sioux men, women, children, and elders at Wounded Knee Creek. Black Elk participated in the rescue of some of the survivors and was wounded in an attempt to retaliate. He was persuaded to surrender by Red Cloud, a Sioux chief, and returned to Pine Ridge.

Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She converted to Catholicism, and all three of their children were baptized Catholic. Katie died in 1903, and the next year, Black Elk himself became Catholic, being baptized “Nicholas.” After his conversion, he was known by his people as Nicholas Black Elk. Black Elk married Anna Brings White in 1905. Anna was also Catholic and had two children of her own. Black Elk and Anna had three children together, whom they baptized Catholic. Anna and Black Elk remained together until her death in 1941. Black Elk would marry again in his later years, to Ellen, with whom he remained until his death in 1950.

In the 1930s, Black Elk began working with the Duhamel Sioux Pageant. Unlike Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which glorified the Native American warrior, Black Elk’s shows taught Native culture and traditional Native spirituality and rituals, including the Sun Dance, an important religious ritual among several Native tribes, the revival of which Black Elk played a significant role.

Also in the early 1930s, Black Elk began sharing his youthful experiences of visions and role as a healer, along with Sioux sacred rituals, with poet and amateur anthropologist John Neihardt. Neihardt would publish his records of Black Elk’s youth and the spirituality of the Oglala Sioux in the book Black Elk Speaks, which continues to be a respected source for Native American life.

Shortly after his conversion to Catholicism, Black Elk became a catechist. He was profoundly respected and influential among the Lakota at Pine Ridge, sharing the Gospel by way of his Two Roads catechism, and bringing 400 people to faith in Christ over his forty years as a catechist. Black Elk is credited with finding a way to merge his Lakota tradition with his Catholic faith. He prayed often, continuing to use his prayer pipe, while also being devoted to the rosary. It was common to find him with his prayer pipe in one hand and his rosary in the other.

According to the website, “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains,” the publication of Black Elk Speaks strained Black Elk’s relationship with the Jesuits at Pine Ridge. Subsequent books based on interviews with Black Elk claim that he regarded the traditional religion of the Sioux as equal to that of Christianity. In her 1995 memoir, Hilda Neihardt, wife of John Neihardt, claimed that Black Elk, nearing death, told his daughter, “The only thing I really believe is the pipe religion.”

There is debate, then, over the depth and sincerity of Black Elk’s Catholicism. Writers such as the Neihardts and Joseph Epes Brown, who published The Sacred Pipe, portray Black Elk’s conversion as a strategic accommodation to the white man’s world. However, Fr. Michael Steltenkamp, author of the biography, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, and others criticize Neihardt’s and Brown’s work as amateurish oversimplifications of a complex individual and highly influenced by their partiality for Native American culture over against Western culture. It is reasonable to ask if a man portrayed as so genuine and sincere in Neihardt’s and Brown’s books could carry out such a profound pretense for nearly half a century, even leading others to embrace a faith to which he himself was tethered only as an accommodation.

Bill White, a Lakota Sioux and deacon candidate, has been named postulator of Black Elk’s cause. White says that Black Elk, “pretty much devoted his whole life to Christianity and building up the world.”

On the occasion of the October 21 Mass at Holy Rosary Church officially opening his cause for canonization, Bishop Robert Gruss of the Diocese of Rapid City, said of Nicholas Black Elk, “His holiness of life is a great model for what is not only possible, but is how lay Catholics, Native and non-Native alike, are called to live and share their faith even in the most challenging times we all face in the world today. … One of the great challenges among many Lakota Native Americans today is how to be both Lakota and Catholic. Nicholas Black Elk was able to do both and taught others to do both. He could integrate the two traditions, thereby bringing a richness to both.”

Nicholas Black Elk died at Manderson, South Dakota, on August 17, 1950.


Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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