In September of 2019 I took a trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota. My great uncle-in-law (complicated, I know) is a Jesuit priest on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and myself (along with 20 of my in-laws) visited the reservation to celebrate his 80th birthday and, more importantly, 50th year as a Jesuit priest. The five days I spent on the reservation impacted my life in many ways, and while I would like to share all about my trip, I am going to focus on the most significant experience: being introduced to Black Elk.
Now, before we go any further, I need to point out that this was not a physical introduction. Black Elk was born in the 1850s or 1860s (the exact date is speculated and often debated) and died on August 17, 1950, making an in-person meeting between us in 2019 quite impossible. Rather, I was introduced to the mission, work, and legacy of Black Elk, and I believe it is important you have the opportunity to be introduced, too.
Black Elk belonged to the Oglala Lakota tribe, and he was deeply rooted in his native culture. When he was about eight years old, Black Elk experienced a profound vision that lasted nearly 12 days. This vision Black Elk received in his childhood continued to guide his religious journey throughout his life, particularly as he became a medicine man, or pejuta wichasha.
A medicine man (or woman) is also known as a doctor. However, in Lakota culture, this title is more accurately assigned to a person who is capable of healing those around him. In his mid-teens, Black Elk underwent a Lakota ceremony known as the “horse dance,” which confirmed (for lack of a better word) him as a medicine man.
Black Elk worked as a medicine man through the horrendous Battle of Wounded Knee (one of the largest massacres of Native folks) and into the 20th century. While continuing his healing practices and ceremonies, Black Elk was in the process of healing a young boy when a Catholic priest arrived to give the boy his last rites. According to Black Elk’s daughter, Lucy, Fr. Lindebner (a Jesuit priest) threw what Black Elk had prepared for the healing into a stove and said, “Satan, get out!” Black Elk went to Holy Rosary Mission with the priest that day, and two weeks later he was baptized Catholic.
After his baptism in 1904, Black Elk immediately became a catechist. During that time period, catechists played a significant role in the life of the church. For example, catechists helped priests establish faith communities — one of their most important duties — but they also led Scripture services, preached, visited the sick, instructed new converts, and baptized those who were close to death.
As a catechist, Black Elk fully devoted himself to the mission of the Church. In addition to his other responsibilities within the faith community, Black Elk felt a strong calling to help people pray. While he focused his efforts with the Lakota, he didn’t stop there. In fact, Black Elk traveled across the United States to share the Gospel. Additionally, Black Elk was instrumental in developing the Two Roads Map. This catechetical tool depicted Catholic teaching in pictures that catechists could then narrate when interacting with people who belonged to communities that were predominantly oral and visual learners.
Unfortunately, Black Elk was diagnosed with tuberculosis and, by 1916, his primary mission became service to those in Oglala, as he was no longer able to travel. Despite his health, Black Elk continued to catechize on the reservation until the end of his life in 1950.
Black Elk’s love for his Lakota culture resulted in harmony between Lakota and Catholicism, with many elements of Lakota being introduced into the faith. I was able to witness this melding of faith and culture while visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation. For instance, at the Our Lady of the Sioux parish, a ceremonial drum (played by Black Elk’s grandson, George Looks Twice) is intertwined into the liturgy. Lakota words and phrases are used throughout the Mass, and the smudging ritual has been incorporated into the liturgy. Rather than taking away from the Mass, these practices enrich the celebration of the Mass and honor the culture of a people who are living as disciples. As Fr. Joe Daoust, S.J. (my great uncle-in-law) said in an interview with America, “Putting the [Lakota and Catholic] traditions together is a fulfillment of the Lakota people’s search for God.”
Black Elk impacted the Catholic faith in such a significant way, which is why a case has been made for his sainthood. The nomination for sainthood came from the Diocese of Rapid City, after a petition with more than 1,600 signatures was received and an investigation into his life took place. The USCCB supported this nomination, so the next step in this rather long process is for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to choose to reject the application or accept it and begin their own investigation of Black Elk’s life. If the application is accepted, Black Elk can be declared “Venerable.” If Black Elk does become a saint, he will be the second Native American in North America to be declared a saint, alongside St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk woman who became the first Native American saint from North America.
When I got on a plane to travel to South Dakota, I did not expect to encounter an individual of such great faith that would cause me to pursue my faith with more authenticity and passion, yet that is what happened. Through my encounter with Black Elk, I have been reminded of the beauty of the Catholic faith and the many cultures that influence our faith. Most importantly, I have learned that God does not desire for us to strip away our culture in order to live out our faith; rather, God wants us to fully embrace our culture and our Catholic identity, so we can live a life of authentic discipleship.
If you are interested in learning more about Black Elk, I recommend reading “Nicholas Black Elk” by Michael F. Steltenkamp, “Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala” by Michael F. Steltenkamp, and “Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt.
Photo courtesy of St. Francis Mission and Marquette University. St. Francis Mission Records, ID SFM 6-5 0350.