In Ages Past
Black Elk: Lakota Holy Man, Catholic Catechist
In his book Black Elk Speaks, author John Neihardt interviewed a Lakota holy man who recounted pre-reservation life and events he witnessed, including Custer's Last Stand and the Wounded Knee massacre. Later, anthropologist Joseph Epes Brown interviewed Black Elk about Lakota religious traditions for his book The Sacred Pipe (1953). Both works are touched with a certain sadness, that of a man whose best days have passed. Together they introduced millions to the richness of Native American traditions.
But Black Elk's prestige among his own people had little to do with these books. It was based more on his ministry as a Catholic catechist on South Dakota reservations. A convert to Catholicism, for nearly fifty years he helped prepared people for baptism, led prayer meetings, organized events for Native American Catholics, and worked as a lay missionary to the Lakota (also called Sioux).
A member of the Oglala branch of the Lakota Sioux, Black Elk was born around 1865 on the Little Powder River in what is now Wyoming. As a child, he told Neihardt:
We roamed the country freely, and this country belonged to us in the first place. There was plenty of game and we were never hungry. But since the white man came we were fighting all the time.
A second cousin of the great war chief Crazy Horse, as a teen Black Elk was at the Battle of Little Bighorn. But the defining moment in his life occurred earlier at age 9, when he experienced a vision that defined his future. He would be a medicine man. His vocation was to heal, spiritually and physically.
For a while, though, he traveled the world. In 1886, he joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and toured Europe for nearly two years. Returning to the Oglala reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, he became involved in the Ghost Dance movement, an attempt to revive Native American culture. Later at Wounded Knee, he helped carry the wounded to safety. In its aftermath, he said: "A people's dream died there."
He continued his healing work, but slowly was moving toward Catholicism. His first wife was Catholic and so were their children. In 1904, then a widower, he had a unique conversion experience. He was visiting a sick child when an arriving blackrobe* forcibly expelled him. This jarring incident, his daughter recalled, was like St. Paul "falling off a horse." Sensing that the priest's healing powers were greater than his, he took religious instruction and on December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, he was baptized Nicholas.
In some ways, converting wasn't that much of a stretch. Lakota spirituality sees the world as a sacred place charged with spiritual forces, not unlike the Catholic sacramental worldview. Both have a communitarian focus, another important factor that eased Black Elk's conversion. While he didn't abandon the traditional Lakota worldview, he did resituate it within the context of his Catholic faith.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.