Long after death, Nicholas Black Elk walks good red road, now being considered for sainthood
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It was a short walk from our car to the grave of Nicholas Black Elk, one slow step at a time through brittle prairie grass and a persistent northwest breeze that brought life to the plastic flowers, sage bundles and waning iris stands at other grave sites along the way.
A mottled heeler-type dog with a swollen jaw followed us, having trotted out from behind a house across from where three children watched us peripherally with shy smiles as we passed.
Hoping for food, which one of our cookie-packing grandchildren eventually would deliver, the dog had fallen in behind us during our sluggish drive up a dirt trail to St. Agnes Cemetery from BIA 28, the sometimes-bouncy asphalt highway running north to Rockyford School or south into Manderson, past St. Agnes Catholic Church.
Black Elk’s home parish, in Black Elk’s home town, in the land of Black Elk’s people, the Oglala.
We had stopped at the church when we first arrived from Rapid City by way of Scenic, the South Unit of Badlands National Park and Sharps Corner convenience store and intersection. Three of our 16 grandkids rode with us — all three with Lakota blood, and one an enrolled Oglala.
They were excited about the drive, the day and the coming ceremonies, which would mix Lakota tradition with Catholic ritual. But they also needed a snack and a drink. They got both, along with a welcoming smile and information on Black Elk, in the larger hall behind the church from Parish Coordinator Joyce Tibbitts.
Nicholas Black Elk had held Tibbitts’ job generations earlier, along with more detailed duties that included reservation-wide evangelization, Catholic instruction and leading prayer services, offering scriptural interpretation and even standing in for priests at burials or baptisms.
He was called a catechist, but the job then and there included some duties typically reserved for priests or deacons. He was also a caretaker of the St. Agnes Church, and an inspired builder of the parish — both in physical and spiritual construction.
As Joyce Tibbitts shared food and insights with Mary and the grandkids in the main church hall, I visited a smaller hall nearby. Now providing work space for the parish staff, it is named for the medicine man, mystic and missionary who was initially made famous through the book Black Elk Speaks, as told through John Neihardt.
If you are a living, breathing adult who occasionally inhales literature, you probably have read or have heard of Black Elk Speaks. Published in 1932, it was called the bible for all tribes by Vine Deloria, Jr., whose 1969 non-fiction book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto was a bit biblical in its own right, especially among young Native Americans and their supporters pushing for justice and respect.
Black Elk Speaks reshaped non-Native perspectives on Native Americans and their traditions and culture in a way no book had before, nor probably has since. And it strengthened and further informed the self-image of Native people themselves.
Neihardt was the Nebraska state poet when he traveled to meet with Black Elk, heading west from Manderson a couple of miles on what he described as a “dead-end road that led through the treeless, yellow hills to Black Elk's home — a one-room cabin with weeds growing out of the dirt roof.”
To reach Black Elk’s cabin, Neihardt would have crossed Wounded Knee Creek, which has its beginning not far from the hamlet of Wounded Knee a dozen or so miles southeast of Manderson. We would stop there, too, with the grandkids on Saturday, at another graveyard on another breezy knoll — the center of the sad, sacred place where 300 or more indigenous men, women and children died in a flurry of bullets from U.S. Cavalry gunners in what was initially called a battle but has since been known as a massacre.
Black Elk was there on that terrible December day in 1890. He arrived after the worst of the killing was done, but wearing a sacred shirt and holding a sacred bow, he led a small band of warriors that drove back some U.S. soldiers and allowed groups of tribal people to run to safety.
That and Black Elk’s experience fighting against the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn River in what is now southeast Montana were part of the personal history the medicine man shared with Neihardt during the interviews in1931. He also told in detail of Lakota spiritual ways and tribal customs, of his own visions and of his family history of bringing good medicine and healing.
And with that telling, and the book it inspired, Black Elk would foster a better understanding of the Oglala and Lakota, and Native Americans overall.
But the book did not explode in popularity, not for years. It was initially praised by critics but generated only modest enthusiasm from general readers. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, Black Elk Speaks was becoming the bible of insights of which Deloria would speak. It was also criticized for being a sometimes-extravagant interpretation by Neihardt that sometimes didn’t reflect exactly what Black Elk had or would have said.
It was, however, only part of the Black Elk story. For whatever reason, Neihardt dismissed or was not interested in much of the remainder of Black Elk’s life, in particular his Catholic conversion and work as a catechist. Books since Black Elk Speaks have helped shape a broader, deeper picture of the holy man from Manderson, including the essential role his Catholic faith played in his life after his warrior years.
And that, of course, is the part that is being honored and explored during the canonization effort that had its official beginning Saturday during Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Gruss at the Holy Rosary Chapel at Red Cloud School.
Back in the late 1800s, Chief Red Cloud had invited the appropriately nicknamed black robes, or Jesuits, onto the reservation and also converted to Catholicism. He is buried in a cemetery immediately above the school and Holy Rosary Chapel, where the Cause for Canonization Mass was held.
The Mass was an inspired mix of Lakota tradition and Catholic doctrine and ritual, celebrated near an icon painting hung behind the altar that shows a Native-looking Jesus being held up on one side by Black Elk and on the other by Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17-Century Algonquin-Mohawk and the first Native American canonized by the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary holds out a shawl over all of them.
Black Elk is said to have signed an initial petition in the late 1800s supporting Kateri’s canonization. And by 1904 he had converted to Catholicim himself and was spreading that faith, along with Native tradition, far from Manderson.
“He walked the good road being fully Lakota and fully Catholic,” says the Rev. Peter Klink, SJ, vice president of mission and identity at Red Cloud School. “He was blessed by both and he walked in both. They both enlivened him.”
He remained as comfortable in the use of a sacred pipe as he was in praying the rosary, with not the hint of a wall of separation in-between.
Already deeply spiritual with mystical gifts in the Lakota tradition, Black Elk turned to Catholicism through Jesuit missionaries with the same natural gifts. He came to be converted after the death of his first wife, a Catholic, and soon embarked on his personal outreach to other Lakotas to bring them into the church.
He is credited with inspiring more than 400 Native people to become Catholics, which will be part of his spiritual resume as the Cause for Canonization progresses.
But Black Elk’s work as a catechist wasn’t and isn’t universally embraced among Native people, given the heavy handed manner in which the Catholic Church worked with Native Americans in the early years. That has changed through more enlightened Jesuit practices that seek to understand and honor Native tradition and culture, and incorporate them in Catholic ceremony.
The Catholic Diocese of Rapid City and its clergy have also gone through the enlightenment process in coming to more fully respect and honor Native people and their traditions, and to learn from them. The work was begun in earnest for the diocese by former Bishop Charles Chaput, an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Nation who now serves as archbishop of Philadephia. And it was continued by Chaput's West River successor as bishop, Blase Cupich, now a cardinal serving as archbishop of Chicago.
Bishop Gruss gladly carries on that responsibility for the diocese, in the Black Elk canonization effort and other work with and for Native people.
Still, parts of the past still linger.
“I’m sure there are some mixed feelings. There is tension in some people’s minds while other people just love it,” Klink said. “People wonder, given all the history, ‘What does this all mean? And how is the church growing in its sensitivity to recognizing someone like Black Elk for this possibility, because of the force that he was.’”
A force indeed. He is credited with with bringing hundreds of Native people to the Catholic Church, while also maintaining his stature and value as a Lakota mystic and healer from a family of healers.
His gifts revealed themselves early. He was only five when he had his first remembered vision, one that involved the proclamation of a kingbird and two men descending from the clouds to tell him he was being called by a sacred voice.
When Black Elk was 8 or 9, he had a life-defining vision that came during an illness. It involved key symbols from his native culture — horses, eagles, hawks and all kinds of other wildlife, and messages from the grandfathers for his future, and the future of his people.
That vision would define Black Elk and his mission in life as a healer and mystic in traditional ways, and as a warrior who was at both the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Wounded Knee Massacre. And it would lead him to walk the red road of virtue. It would also make him more open to a different-but-related spiritual path with the Catholic Church.
From there, he walked the red road as both a Lakota medicine man and a committed Catholic who became an effective catechist as well as a widely respected mystic and healer.
One of Black Elk’s visions was on a granite peak in the Black Hills that is visible from promontories across the Pine Ridge Reservation. The peak was known as Harney to non-Natives for more than a century. But it has recently been renamed Black Elk Peak, through an effort promoted by Oglala elder Basil Brave Heart, 84, and a group of Black Elk descendants, including Myron Pourier.
I was lucky enough to cover that story, and to meet several years ago at Brave Heart’s house near Red Cloud School with him and Pourier and other descendants, as well as Native American columnist David Rooks. We smudged, smoked the pipe and I listened to their stories about Black Elk, and about the need to change the name of South Dakota’s highest point.
Saturday, Brave Heart and Pourier each carried an eagle staff in the procession into the Holy Rosary Chapel, followed by 10 priests, two deacons and Bishop Robert Gruss. Leading the way was Bill White of Porcupine, a Catholic deacon candidate and Lakota relative of Logan and Macey, two of the grandchildren with us that day. White has been named the postulator for the canonization effort. His duties will include compiling materials to build the case for sainthood, which is no small thing.
The chapel was full of people, sage smoke, song and drumbeats as the Mass began. And Black Elk family members and their friends were at the heart of the celebration.
Joyce Tibbbitts was there from St. Agnes to read from Thessalonians. Patricia Catches the Enemy read from Isaiah. Deacon Ben Black Bear, Jr. proclaimed the Gospel. And George Looks Twice, the eldest of Black Elk’s grand children, led a family delegation in bringing forward the decree initiating the canonization effort, which was signed by Gruss as the Pine Ridge Agency Drum group inspired with song.
In his homily, Bishop Gruss said it was an essential beginning in examining the life of a holy man.
“From a very early age there was this openness to the spirt of God,” he said. “God gave him a personal invitation through the Jesuit priests to lead this child of God to the Catholic faith.”
Gruss said Black Elk lived that faith “joyfully, boldly, lovingly” for half a century.
Did he lead it in a way that will lead to sainthood?
“This is the very beginning,” Gruss said. “ Where the process ends? We hope it ends at his canonization as a saint. But it’s up to the Holy Spirit.”
Black Elk would surely have felt comfortable leaving it in the hands of the Holy Spirit. Which does not mean it is entirely out of human hands. Gruss called for those with knowledge or documents or oral histories, points that will support the cause for canonization, to come forward in the coming months, and also to engage in prayer for the process and for the ultimate results.
After Mass, members of the Black Elk family gathered with clergy and friends outside the chapel, then strolled to a nearby school cafeteria to share stew and fry bred. There Pourier spoke with me about the books he has that were handed down from Black Elk through family members — books the Lakota mystic used in his work as a catechist. They are treasures that Pourier will return to, again and again, as the process proceeds.
“This is an historic event, to have a Native American from our own country, our own land, who could become a saint.,” he said. “It’s humbling.”
It’s hopeful, too, as a process begins that could lead to sainthood for a Lakota holy man. It could also inspire many others to walk the good red road, as he did.
More than half a century after his death, Black Elk still teaches, still inspires and still offers a way forward in hope — a better path for all.