In October, Pope Francis will convene a worldwide synod of bishops and heads of religious orders to discuss the faith, young people, and vocations. To prepare for this gathering, we are going to feature three stories focusing on vocation and discernment. This month, we focus on the vocation to evangelization and catechesis by looking at Nicholas Black Elk, a layperson who brought Christ to his own people, the Lakota of South Dakota. In coming issues, we will highlight vocations to the priesthood and married life.
When he was about nine years old, an Oglala Lakota boy received a vision. Two men came down from the clouds and brought him into a sacred tent. Inside, six elders charged him to lead his people along the red road of goodness to the sacred hoop so that they could be “made over”—spiritually awakened. Take courage and be not afraid, for you shall know him, the first elder said. Behold him whom you shall represent. The vision was so strong that he remembered it his whole life.
The boy carried the weight of this vision from Wakan Tanka—a Lakota term for the “Great Mysteriousness” that created the universe—into young adulthood. Taking the same path of his father and uncles, he became a medicine man, healer, and custodian of Oglala culture until his death in 1950. He was called Black Elk, and his legacy in the Black Hills rivals that of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and other famous Lakota Indians.
Today, Black Elk’s name is gaining recognition in the Catholic Church as well, because of his conversion to Catholicism and his work among the Native Americans. His story shows us that God reveals himself in every culture so that every race, tribe, and tongue can join in the chorus of saints.
“I Want to Understand.” Black Elk was born in 1863 in what is now Wyoming. He grew up hunting bison in South Dakota and throughout the Great Plains. From childhood, he followed the Lakota religion with its emphasis on cherishing the land. But it was a time of unrest and displacement; US troops had already begun the forced migration of Native American tribes. Deadly clashes resulted as the Lakota sought to preserve their way of life. Meanwhile, European and American settlers were swiftly—sometimes violently—laying claim to the land.
In his twenties, Black Elk briefly wondered if his people should adopt the white men’s ways. To learn more for himself, he signed a contract with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. As a member of this circus troupe that was traveling to Europe, he presented Native American customs. But naturally, he also became acquainted with the white man’s customs, including pieces of their language and the Christian faith.
The young Lakota was interested in stories he heard about Jesus coming to earth to die. If the Holy Land weren’t so expensive and far away, he would have liked to see it for himself. Since he couldn’t, he tried to observe Christians themselves. He wanted to understand “the white man’s beliefs about God’s will, and how they act according to it.” Christians had shown Black Elk hospitality in Europe, and he felt that their actions lined up with teachings in the Bible, which by this time had been translated into Lakota. In a letter home, Black Elk even quoted St. Paul’s teaching about people who have prophecies and visions: how they amount to nothing without love (1 Corinthians 13:2). Although he did not convert to Christianity in Europe, all that he had seen and heard intrigued him.
The Changes at Pine Ridge. When Black Elk came home in 1890, he learned that “home” had become the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Waves of fear and tension had swept over his community because of treaties broken by the US government. Shortly thereafter, he was present at the massacre at Wounded Knee, where US troops killed hundreds of unarmed Lakota. Black Elk tried to help defend his people, but it was too late.
In the wake of the violence, and for the next decade and a half, Black Elk once again served as medicine man on the reservation. When someone was injured or sick, the Lakota called on him to bring physical and spiritual healing through yuwipi—the Lakota healing ceremony. These sick visits gave Black Elk a new point of contact with Christianity, because Catholic priests also visited the sick.
While Black Elk was in Europe, Jesuit missionaries had come to Pine Ridge to serve and to evangelize the Native American population. Many received their message well, and the Jesuits built networks of mission churches and Catholic societies that took root on the reservations. At the invitation of Chief Red Cloud, they started Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge. Black Elk knew of the Jesuits and had Catholic friends among the Lakota, but he didn’t show any interest in converting for several years.
Then in 1904, just shy of his fortieth birthday, Black Elk had an awakening. It started with a typical sick visit. At the sick boy’s home, he mixed together tobacco offerings, pounded a drum, and called upon Lakota spirits. He was interrupted, however, by the arrival of a mild-mannered Jesuit priest called “Short Father” by many of the Lakota. The priest had already baptized the boy and was coming to administer the Anointing of the Sick.
Although the details of the encounter are unclear, it seems the priest made Black Elk take his instruments and leave the room. Instead of feeling outraged, Black Elk believed that the priest had channeled a greater power than his own when he entered the sick room. He followed Short Father back to Holy Rosary Mission and spent the next couple of weeks studying the Bible and receiving instruction in the Catholic faith. Then on December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, he was baptized and took the name Nicholas Black Elk.
Bringing All People to God. Black Elk remained a respected leader in his tribe after he became Catholic. He soon adopted the role of a lay catechist and traveled across the reservation with a Jesuit missionary.
As a teaching aid, Black Elk brought his “Two Roads Map,” a picture catechism made by the Jesuits that consisted of a long scroll filled with biblical imagery. Woven amid the images were two roads: a red “way of good” and a black “way of evil”—just as he had seen in his boyhood vision. Black Elk taught the people that to follow the red way of good, they needed to know Jesus, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). As his childhood vision had foreshadowed, Black Elk was bringing a spiritual awakening—but a different kind than he had originally expected.
Black Elk’s daughter, Lucy, later said that her father brought the Bible to life in a way that made sense to the Lakota. He spoke their language, of course, but he also made connections to the way they understood creation, the animal world, and the plants of the earth. Because he was such an effective teacher and leader, Black Elk went on behalf of the Jesuits to form Catholic societies on neighboring reservations as well.
As he grew older, his desire to promote peace between white people and the Lakota grew. In speeches to both, he told the opposing groups firmly that Christ told them to love their neighbors as themselves. This was a strong message from a man of his standing.
One hymn he sang went:
“O God (Wakan Tanka) most good,
Who wants to make himself known,
All rejoice rightly,
He asks of you your hearts.
You Lakota are a nation,
Quickly may they come together;
Jesus would have it so,
Because he has called you all.”
The Lakota World—In Light of Christ. As a Catholic, Black Elk came to believe he couldn’t participate in everything his culture upheld. Lakota men often fought in small-scale wars, but as a Christian, he had rejected violence. He also stopped performing the yuwipi ceremony, realizing that it attributed some of God’s spiritual power to the medicine man himself.
But Black Elk did not abandon Lakota ceremonial life altogether; instead, he came to view it in light of his Catholicism. When smoking the ceremonial pipe in the past, he had prayed that the Great Spirit would boost only his tribe’s power. As a Lakota Catholic smoking the pipe, he now asked God to bring peace and goodwill to all people. In Black Elk’s eyes, Catholicism helped make sense of the truths about God and creation that his tribe members sought in the Wakan Tanka. He felt that the Lakota were like “the Jews, waiting for Christ,” his daughter, Lucy, said.
Black Elk embodied the conviction that you can be both Lakota and Catholic. He continued to live out elements of Lakota culture that didn’t conflict with the gospel, even as he lived out the sacramental life of the Church. He taught other Lakota Catholic devotions like the Rosary. He sat patiently with children, telling them Bible stories. And he helped his own family understand the faith.
Jesus—In Your Own Words. During his forty-five years as a Catholic Lakota, Nicholas Black Elk brought more than four hundred Native Americans into the Catholic Church. His story is so remarkable that the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota opened his cause for canonization in October 2017. The Oglala Lakota will always remember him as a leader and holy man, but now all Catholics can celebrate him as a family man who shared the gospel in his own words with his own people.
Black Elk’s story shows that the gospel can be understood by any culture, especially with the help of an “insider.” Whether we are spending time on the blogosphere or in the marketplace, on the blacktop or on our phones, we are all insiders in one group or another. Just as Black Elk’s Native American knowledge was his greatest asset in sharing Jesus, our own experience and history may be the keys that open the gospel to someone. So many people are waiting for an introduction to Jesus that resonates with them personally, and we can be their connection to him.
Kevin Loker is a Washington, DC journalist who hails from South Dakota.