In Ages Past
Black Elk: Lakota Holy Man, Catholic Catechist
He also discovered a new calling. He told a friend: "I want to be a catechist the rest of my life." Before the arrival of Native clergy, catechists held the local Catholic community together. In the absence of a priest, they led prayers, and they read and explained scripture. They visited the sick, sometimes they baptized, and led burial services. They instructed both adults and children. One Jesuit said they "do more good than many a priest."
It wasn't easy work. The priests could be demanding, some of his people rejected him, and he was frequently penniless, having given away his money. But the Jesuits came to depend on him greatly. By the time of his death in 1950, it was estimated that he participated in the conversion of over four hundred people, and was godfather to over one hundred. A peer said, "When he got up he really preached. People sat there and just listened to him." One priest called him a "a second St. Paul."
In the best of times, reservation life could be difficult, poverty and alcoholism being major problems. One historian notes that opposition to the use of alcohol was a trademark of Lakota Catholic life. Members of the St. Joseph's Society, a Catholic men's group on the reservations, abstained from drink. At the Sioux Catholic Congresses, a gathering of Catholics from all the reservations, temperance societies were founded and pledges made.
In the summer of 1930, Nick (as he was known) received a visit from John Neihardt, a poet and author who interviewed him for a book he was writing. The resulting work, which took Black Elk's life up to Wounded Knee in 1890, became the best-read book on Native American life. But, his latest biographer Michael Steltenkamp aptly comments, the last "sixty years of the man's life are unaccounted for."
Black Elk himself felt that Neihardt painted an incomplete portrait. He was, he wrote in 1934, "different from what the white man wrote about me. I am a Christian." He noted that he had asked Neihardt to write something about his work as a Catholic, but was ignored. As a story of his life, he considered the book "null and void."
Some assume that Black Elk's conversion was an act of accommodation to the white man's world. It was actually where he found true freedom and fulfillment. From childhood, he saw healing as his vocation. As a catechist, he helped heal a community wounded by poverty and alcoholism. "Those of us who are . . . suffering," he once said, "should help one another and have pity." Nicholas Black Elk remained true to his vision long into old age.
*The Catholic priests were called Sina Sapa, or "blackrobes." (The Episcopalians were called "white gowns," and Presbyterians were called "short coats.")
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.