‘...So my soul will reach Heaven’
Will Black Elk be canonized a saint?
By Charlene Scott Myers
Southwest Kansas Catholic
In August of 2016, the opened an official cause for the of Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala Dakota American Indian chief of the twentieth century who was known as a medicine man and a holy man.
He became internationally known through the book Black Elk Speaks, in which he described the religious visions he had as a young boy.
The end of the Civil War brought long lines of covered wagons packed with light-skinned families to the Dakotas.
Black Elk and his people participated in the Custer fight on the Little Big Horn in 1876, because he, like other American Indians, resented the intrusion of white strangers who stole their Dakota lands by force. His people were in despair as they had to move and search to find a life and livelihood elsewhere.
Black Elk announced his vocation as a holy man by performing the Horse Dance in 1881, leading the dance in which Indian participants imitated the motions of horses. (This dance included four black horses to represent the west, four white horses for the north, four sorrels for the east, and four buckskins for the south. Black Elk rode a bay horse. He had seen all of the horses in a vision when he was a boy of nine.)
Black Elk also had been a leader of the Indians’ Ghost Dance in 1883. Nervous white settlers thought it was a war dance (it was a holy dance), and responded with armed troops to stop the ancient traditional tribal performance.
International fame came to Black Elk when he joined Buffalo Bill Cody and traveled in Europe with Cody’s Wild West Show in 1887, also performing in London for Queen Victoria, whom he referred to as “Grandmother England.”
When he returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1889 after his adventure abroad, Black Elk was crushed to learn that large numbers of Wasichus (whites), including armed troops, were advancing daily into the Dakotas, grabbing at gunpoint the property that had been home to Indians for centuries.
This unlawful white settlement on Indian lands led Black Elk to participate in defending his people from the Dec. 29, 1890 attack of U.S. Army soldiers. More than 250 and possibly 300 Indians were killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On horseback, Black Elk was wounded by a bullet that grazed his hip as he fought in the battle.
After surviving Wounded Knee, Black Elk went on with his work as a healer and medicine man. Influenced by the Jesuits, he was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1904 and became a catechist, taking the name “Nicholas,” aka “Nick.” His first two Indian wives also became Catholics, as did their children. (His first wife had died, and he later remarried.)
Black Elk explained Lakota traditions to author Joseph Epes Brown, who in 1953 wrote the book The Sacred Pipe, in which Black Elk compared Lakota rituals to Catholic sacraments and professed his belief both in Christianity and in his people’s ancient religion.
John G. Neihardt interviewed him in 1931 and wrote the book Black Elk Speaks in 1932 and another book about him, When the Tree Flowered, in 1951.
I read Neihardt’s first book, in which he quotes Black Elk as saying: “The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”
Michael F. Steltenkamp’s book Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, published in 1993, portrays Black Elk “as a progressive Catholic who retains little meaningful commitment to traditional religion,” according to an article in America Magazine. “Black Elk’s Story: Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose (1991) by Julian Rice describes Black Elk’s participation in Catholicism as “a response to oppression.”
Black Elk was born at the Little Powder River in Wyoming around Dec. 1, 1863, some historians claim. Others insist he was born May 9, 1865, the first year after the Civil War ended. He was a second cousin and close friend of the War Chief Crazy Horse (their fathers were brothers), and he had his troubles with whites encroaching onto his lands just as Crazy Horse did. (Crazy Horse was stabbed to death by a white soldier after he was taken prisoner.)
Black Elk was fortunate enough to die a natural death on August 19, 1950 at the age of 96 in , . He was buried at St. Agnes Catholic Cemetery in Manderson, South Dakota.
Black Elk did not turn his back on the Ghost Dance or other Oglala Sioux rituals after he converted to Catholicism, nor did he abandon his people. He continued to be a tribal leader in good times and bad, and even demonstrated his tribe’s traditional rituals at a Duhamel Sioux Pageant.
BLACK ELK’S LAST TESTAMENT
Holy Rosary Mission
Pine Ridge, South Dakota
January 26, 1934
I shake hands with my white friends. Listen! I will speak words of truth. I told about the people’s ways of long ago, and some of this a white man put in a book but he did not tell about current ways. Therefore I will speak again, a final speech.
Now I am an old man. I called my priest to pray for me, and so he gave me Extreme Unction and Holy Eucharist. Therefore I will tell you the truth. Listen my friends!
For the last 30 years I have lived very differently from what the white man told about me. I am a believer. The Catholic priest, Short Father, baptized me 30 years ago. From then on they have called me Nick Black Elk. Very many of the Indians know me. Now I have converted and live in the true faith of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, I say in my own Sioux Indian language “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” as Christ taught us and instructed us to say. I say the Apostles Creed, and I believe it all.
I believe in the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. I have now received six of these: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, and Extreme Unction. For very many years I went with several priests to fight for Christ among my people. For about 20 years I helped the priests, and I was a catechist in several communities. So I think I know more about the Catholic religion than many white men.
For eight years I participated in the retreat for catechists, and from this I learned a great deal about the faith. I am able to explain my faith. From my faith I know Who I believe in, so my work is not in vain.
All of my family is baptized. All my children and grandchildren belong to the Catholic Church, and I am glad of that, and I wish very much that they will always follow the holy road. I know what St. Peter has to say to those men who forsake the holy commandments. My white friends should read carefully 2 Peter 2:20-22.
I send my people on the straight road that Christ’s church has taught us about. While I live, I will never fall from faith in Christ.
Thirty years ago I knew little about the one we call God. At that time I was a very good dancer. In England I danced before our Grandmother, Queen Victoria. At that time I gave medicines to the sick. Perhaps I was proud. I considered myself brave, and I considered myself to be a good Indian, but now I think I am better.
St. Paul also became better after his conversion. I know that the Catholic religion is good, better than the Sun dance or the Ghost dance. Long ago the Indians performed such dances only for glory.
But for the sake of sin, Christ was nailed on the cross to take our sins away. The Indian religion of long ago did not benefit mankind. The medicine men sought only glory and presents from their curing. Christ commanded us to be humble, and He taught us to stop sin. The Indian medicine men did not stop sin. Now I despise sin. And I want to go straight in the righteous way that the Catholics teach us so my soul will reach heaven.
This is the way I wish it to be. With a good heart, I shake hands with all of you.
-- Nick Black Elk