Nicholas Black Elk
Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint
Jon M. Sweeney
Read the full introduction to this book…
Imagine you are someone who is passionate about your faith. You probably are if you’ve turned to a book like this. One day you discover teachings or spiritual practices that are new, as well as appealing, to you. While not obviously kindred to your faith, these new ideas and practices seem applicable. What do you do with them? This is the experience many Christians have when encountering Native American spirituality for the first time. There is a “wow” factor when they discover Indigenous folktales, creation myths, theological ideas, religious rituals and ceremonies—the list could go on. There is a desire to grasp onto these things and appropriate them because they are exciting and rich—and to perhaps even incorporate some into their Christian lives. Is that acceptable? How much of this adopting is appropriate, and at what point does appropriation become usurping and colonizing?
This is the crux of the problem when talking about Black Elk or writing a book about him—a book which mostly Christians will read. It is too easy for Christians to “use” him. It is too common for Christians to take parts of what they discover in someone like Black Elk and leave the rest behind. Then Native people are entitled to feel that, yet again, what is precious to them and what is truly theirs has been taken away.
The best way to avoid such a situation is to tell it straight. So this book will be simple biography, not a work of spirituality. If you came here looking for an introduction to Native American spiritual practices and customs, you’ve come to the wrong place. You will encounter words, phrases, and practices such as Sun Dance, Ghost Dance, sacred pipe, releasing of the soul, and rites of purification—but they are presented simply to tell the story of the life and afterlife of Nicholas Black Elk.
As will soon become clear, the potential for misunderstanding goes both ways when it comes to Black Elk. He lived a complicated life as both an Oglala Lakota wichasha wakan, or “holy man,” and a trained Catholic catechist. He bridged Western and Native religious life in a way that is sure to make people on both sides somewhat uncomfortable. So, just as Native people may feel that the integrity and sanctity of their spirituality and practices are being threatened, Christians can feel the same when faced with someone who, in himself, incorporates Indigenous spiritual traditions into a historical faith that they thought they knew. For all these reasons, we move forward carefully and deliberately.
There is also the issue, best stated up front, of how American colonists, then citizens, filled with purportedly Christian self-justification, hurt the Native Americans whom they came to “save.” When Thomas Jefferson was president of the fledgling United States, Black Elk’s Lakota occupied much of what we now call Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and all of North and South Dakota, as well as parts of Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan in Canada. “Lakota” means “friends or allies,” which was the aim of the various Lakota tribes who went by the name, even though it wasn’t always the reality. There are seven bands or subtribes of Lakota, of which the Oglala are the majority. They all lived on the vast Great Plains for centuries before European settlers arrived on the continent’s eastern shores and eventually began exploring west. There were millions of Native people hundreds of years ago. No one knows for sure how many. The US census of 2000 revealed 108,000 US residents identifying as Lakota, most living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota, on the border with Nebraska. It’s White Christians who put them there, of course, on “reservations.” Before then, Christians lied to them, stole from them, tricked them, destroyed their way of life (often intentionally), and subjected them to a variety of humiliations. Pine Ridge was established in 1889.
Today we teach our children the myth of the first Thanksgiving, as if the arrival of Europeans on the shores of North America led, most of all, to peace between peoples celebrated over roast turkey and grandmother’s stuffing. Is it still necessary to say that this is not so? I think it is.
There is also the issue of a famous, often confusing, book that has made millions of people think they understand Black Elk. I’m talking about the most popular book ever written about a Native American: Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt, first published in 1932. Some have called it an autobiography, including Neihardt himself, but if that’s the case it is an accounting of the life of Black Elk that excludes the most important aspect of more than half his lifetime. The millions of people who have read Black Elk Speaks might never discover how he converted to Catholicism—and why—and what a profound impact this had on the second half of his life. For this reason and more, twenty or so years ago the editor of The Black Elk Reader opened his introduction with this sentence: “The more we learn about Black Elk, the more controversial he becomes.”
You’ve already seen, a few pages above, the opening lines of this book, which I hope you now will reread more ironically: “My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it.” What Black Elk, whom we know today as Nicholas Black Elk, had to tell John Neihardt was much more than the story of his own life. It was the story of his people: the Lakota Sioux and his people in the church—even though that part didn’t make it in.
Neihardt was the poet laureate of Nebraska in 1930 when he traveled to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to find Black Elk—or someone, anyone, like him. Neihardt conducted three weeks of interviews with his subject in the spring of 1931, suspecting that he’d have an incredible tale to tell—of a living icon of the tears and epic struggle of the Native peoples of the Americas. He depicted in colorful detail how Black Elk grew up on the Plains as second cousin to the famous Crazy Horse. At ten, Black Elk was at the Battle of Little Bighorn and saw what happened. He then became a Ghost Dancer among his people. Stories of ghost dancing were at the heart of what Neihardt wanted from him. Black Elk fought among his people in many of the battles that led to the Massacre at Wounded Knee. There was an exoticism to the tale Neihardt wanted to tell, of what had been lost, perhaps forever.
Most of all, Neihardt wanted to paint a portrait of lost spiritual and religious treasures in Native life. Lost dreams, a vision destroyed. He had an agenda, as every writer does, even those seeking a simple interview. He was writing epic poems about Native American ways, and he wanted to understand the Ghost Dance, what he called the song of the messiah. Black Elk was his opportunity to do that. Neihardt likely invented some of what his subject speaks in the famous book, but we’ll go on quoting it anyway, supplementing it with many other sources.
Why is all of this important? The Black Elk that Neihardt preserved is the image that remains in the popular imagination: a lost warrior, a spiritual sage of a once proud people. Scholar of Catholicism and Lakota ways Damian Costello describes it as “the essentialist Black Elk: the proud, defiant, yet vanquished warrior.” That’s the person Neihardt went looking for when he knocked on the front door of the Pine Ridge Agency in 1930, and as a result, that’s what he found. He missed a great deal—some say intentionally so. He wrote in his original preface that Black Elk “seemed . . . to represent the consciousness of the Plains Indian.” Such statements are dreamy, indefinable, and yet powerfully appealing to readers hungry for spiritual understanding—and perhaps weary of traditional Western Christianity.
And as I said, every writer has an agenda. I’m sure that I do, too. Another agenda is the one portrayed by Native Americans who want to use Black Elk to support their causes of Indigenous resistance, most recently, in 2016, in the protests in North Dakota over a pipeline at Standing Rock. Sioux author and professor Nick Estes, for instance, blamed Neihardt for using Black Elk, but then also assumed that Black Elk became a Catholic only “to protect himself and his family.” This is just as common of a trope about our subject as the tale that Neihardt told of a lonely, sad Indian who had lost everything that mattered to him.
The Great Depression was just beginning when Neihardt traveled to Pine Ridge. There was a crisis of meaning throughout America and the world. World War I had disillusioned Europeans; it took the Great Depression to do the same here. The American Dream was suddenly seen to be a fantasy. It had crumbled. Perhaps a lost civilization provided a key. Also at work in 1930 and even more so when Neihardt’s book appeared in 1932 was the sculpting of Mount Rushmore eighty miles northwest of Pine Ridge, still in the Black Hills (Paha Sapa, in Lakota). Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was hard at work creating the faces of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, each the size of ten men, on a mountain once called, in Lakota, “The Six Grandfathers,” now baptized “Mount Rushmore” for the New York lawyer who donated $5,000 toward Borglum’s work. The White man was imprinting his gods on the face of the mountains of the people whose land they’d recently stolen. For many, Rushmore is a monument to their pain. As Estes has put it, “Each president—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt—had participated in Indigenous genocide and land theft.”
Most important to realize is the misunderstanding about Black Elk’s life that Neihardt’s book leaves behind. Millions of readers have, for decades now, been left with the impression that Black Elk Speaks offers a complete portrait. In fact, it leaves out much from Black Elk’s final four decades, including every aspect of his Catholic family, his Catholic formation, and his life as a would-be Catholic saint. Kin to this confusion is the mistaken notion that Black Elk sat for those interviews as an old man at the end of life—a confusion fostered by Neihardt’s repeated statements at the time about Black Elk’s physical blindness. The suggestion wasn’t true. Black Elk lived another nineteen years and, as you will soon see, he made clear statements in those nineteen years about how certain people had mis-portrayed him and how his life was about much more.
So despite the fact that Black Elk Speaks, after initially poor sales, became “one of the twentieth century’s most important documents on Native American culture and . . . a classic of world literature,” we must realize that its author neglected to tell a vital part of Black Elk’s story: his Catholicism.9 Neihardt the poet seems to have assumed that the White man’s religion was inessential to the true spirit of his Lakota ghost dancer. This is just one of the reasons why later editions of the book changed the cover from “as told to” to “as told through” Neihardt.
The book became an international sensation in the 1960s, translated into many languages. The defiance of Black Elk Speaks became most popular at precisely the time when the mighty invading US military was suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the humble Indigenous people of Vietnam. Neihardt was also a charismatic figure, and another stimulus for his book becoming a bestseller was an appearance by him, at the age of ninety-one, on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Cavett later wrote his memories of that day:
As taping went on, I could see the profound effect he was having on bystanders in the studio as he wove his tales and stories in that mesmerizing way of his, taking you back in time. He told his immortal story of Black Elk and the vision this mystic and noble American Indian had so fortunately settled upon Neihardt as the man with the skills and understanding to bring his colorful and spiritual vision to the world.
The TV personality then concludes:
That same post-Neihardt next morning, in New York City, my producer’s wife found herself among about twenty people outside the big bookstore across from Carnegie Hall, waiting for it to open. When it did, they all went to the yard-high stack of Black Elk Speaks the canny owner had put on display, having seen the show the night before. She bought her copy and then watched as the stack went down, one by one, to zero.
Neihardt had come to embody that essentialist aura that he had once given to his famous subject, and “a book decades old was re-born.”
But Robert M. Utley, a former chief historian of the National Park Service and an authority on Sitting Bull, wrote that Neihardt, like Mari Sandoz, who authored a biography of Crazy Horse, and Stanley Vestal, who wrote on Sitting Bull, were three literary scholars of a particular generation who presented themselves inaccurately as historians, “in works that are good literature but bad history.” We’ll leave it there.
Black Elk’s passionate involvement in historic Catholicism would have dampened the message of any mythic portrayal of a saddened, aging Lakota who had seen his people humiliated, the Plains decimated, and a pristine nomadic way of life gone forever. A Native man teaching the Gospel in a church was not the picture a mythmaker wanted to paint.
The first half of Black Elk’s life, as you will read here, does not differ greatly from what you might have read in previous books. But, for the second half of Black Elk’s story, you must meet Jesuit priests who were Black Elk’s friends, both before and after his conversion. You need to hear about St. Agnes Chapel, where Black Elk first assisted at Mass, and how he became a catechist. You’ll also encounter Our Lady of the Sioux, a small Catholic church in Oglala, South Dakota, and the Pine Ridge Reservation, where “Nick” Black Elk (as he came to be known) died and where many of his extended family still live. The people of Pine Ridge know the whole Black Elk—not simply the Oglala dreamer (chapter 3), the man of adventure and travel (chapter 4), the wise medicine man of their tribe (primarily chapters 3 and 7), but also the Catholic convert, catechist, and missioner (parts II and III).
Finally, this story wouldn’t be complete without looking closely at the cause for canonization that is now underway for Nicholas Black Elk. It began in the fall of 2016, first by petition from his great-grandchildren to the Bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, and then moved forward a year later when Bishop Robert D. Gruss took the case to a vote among the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, where it was easily approved. Nick Black Elk lived an exemplary life of Christian virtue, bringing hundreds to the faith by his witness and example. As Bishop Gruss explained to the USCCB, he became “an icon who reveals what God calls all of us to be—people of faith and hope, and a source of hope for others.”
Excerpt from Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint by Jon M. Sweeney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020). Used by permission of Liturgical Press. All rights reserved.
Jon M. Sweeney
Jon M. Sweeney is an editor, publisher, and writer. His books include the biography, JamesMartin, SJ: In the Company of Jesus, published in January, and Pilgrim Walks in Franciscan Italy, coming this fall.