- A. Kristen Foster
Black Elk ( December 1863–19 August 1950), Lakota holy man, was born on the Little Powder River (probably within the present-day borders of Wyoming), the son of Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man, and Mary Leggins Down (also called White Cow Sees). Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota, was raised in Big Road’s Band, which lived and hunted in the territory west of the Black Hills through which white settlers blazed the Bozeman Trail in 1864. When he was only nine, Black Elk experienced a vision that would eventually give him distinction among his people: he was visited by Thunder-beings, which embodied the powers of the West and heralded his gift to cure and help his people in war. In 1877, after losing the cultural clash west of the Black Hills, the Oglala bands relocated to the Great Sioux Reservation in present-day South Dakota, and Black Elk’s people fled to Canada after Crazy Horse was killed at Fort Robinson. Not until he was seventeen did Black Elk share his vision with an old and experienced medicine man, Black Road, and found the help he needed to cope with his great vision. The village medicine men were all astonished by the greatness of Black Elk’s vision and advised him to sponsor a horse dance in which he could demonstrate the first part of his vision to his people. In the spring of 1881 Black Elk performed the horse dance at Fort Keogh, Montana, and thus began his life as a medicine man. In 1882 he and his family settled with the Oglalas at the Pine Ridge Agency. Here in South Dakota, Black Elk began the fasting and purification that preceded his cry for a vision. After asking for understanding to control his vision’s power and thus help his people, Black Elk became a respected medicine man.
Reservation life rapidly changed traditional cultural patterns among the Lakota, and Black Elk chose to adapt and help his people do the same by learning about Euro-American ways. In 1886 he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to earn money and familiarize himself with the dominant American culture. Between 1886 and 1889 Black Elk traveled to New York, England, Germany, France, and Italy. Upon his return to South Dakota, Black Elk prepared to settle down, taking a job as a store clerk. The Ghost Dance, however, swept through his world and renewed his commitment to the great vision and the revitalization of his people. This hopeful religious movement ended tragically in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, leaving Black Elk scarred but not broken. After the massacre, he settled in the Wounded Knee district of the Pine Ridge Reservation and married Katie War Bonnet in 1892. Black Elk remained a traditional healer but also showed an interest in the Roman Catholicism and the reservation mission established by the Jesuits during his trip to Europe. Black Elk and Katie, who died in 1903, had three children, and the last, Benjamin, survived and remained close to his father to his final days. Black Elk gave up his resistance to the Catholic church in 1904. While the holy man was treating a dying boy, Father Joseph Lindebner arrived to administer last rites. He threw Black Elk and his healing instruments out of the tent, commanding Satan to leave. A dejected Black Elk returned to the mission with Lindebner to begin two weeks of instruction before his baptism on 6 December 1904, when he became Nicholas Black Elk.
Nicholas Black Elk was a sincere and committed member of the Catholic church at Pine Ridge. He joined the St. Joseph Society in Manderson and helped the priests whenever he could. For his hard work and enthusiasm, the Jesuits appointed him a catechist and hoped he would help them speed conversions among his people. As a catechist, Black Elk substituted for unavailable priests, holding Sunday services, leading prayers and hymns, reading from the Scripture, and instructing his people—all in Lakota. In 1906 Black Elk married his second wife, Anna Brings White (also known as Brings White Horses). Although both had children from previous marriages, the couple had a daughter and two sons. In 1908 the Jesuits sent Black Elk and Joseph Redwillow on their first missionary trip to the Arapaho Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. They also made their way on a similar mission among the Nebraska Winnebago. In 1926, as a reward for their hard work and devotion, the Jesuits built a catechists’ house near the church.
In 1930 John G. Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, appeared at Black Elk’s home in Manderson and changed forever Black Elk’s place in history. Neihardt began a friendship with Black Elk that eventually revealed the complexity of the latter’s religious beliefs. Neihardt was visiting the Sioux in order to write the final volume of his epic poem A Cycle of the West. He hoped the Sioux would share their story of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee. Black Elk responded to Neihardt with deep emotion, sensing a kindred spirit, and so agreed to teach the poet what he could. In May 1931 Neihardt returned with his daughters and began the slow process of interviewing, interpreting, note taking, and writing. During this month Black Elk, as the sixth grandfather (the spiritual representative of the earth and mankind), named Neihardt Flaming Rainbow and charged him with the responsibility of carrying his vision and Lakota culture to a larger audience. The details of the vision itself were recounted for the first time since Black Elk had shared it with the medicine men of his youth. Finally, when they finished, Black Elk with his son and interpreter, Ben, joined the Neihardts on a journey to Harney Peak in the Black Hills, where the old holy man prayed to the six grandfathers that the tree of his vision would finally bloom, that his people would flourish again. On 30 May the group climbed the peak, and Black Elk told his son if he had any of his old power, they would soon have thunder and rain. On that bright and clear day, clouds and rain did come during the old man’s prayer. Neihardt’s publication of Black Elk Speaks in 1932 represented the literary culmination of this extraordinary spiritual kinship between Black Elk and John G. Neihardt. Neihardt offered his readers a chance to understand the spiritual decline of the Lakota through the eyes of their holy man Black Elk. Because Neihardt’s work ended with the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, Black Elk’s conversion to Catholicism and his remarkable adaptation to reservation life were noticeably absent. Despite an angry response to the book from the Jesuits, Black Elk continued to mesh his traditional Lakota culture with his Catholic faith, and he remained dedicated to teaching. He participated in Alex Duhamel’s Sioux Indian Pageant every summer from 1935 until his death. As the pageant’s main attraction, Black Elk demonstrated the role of the medicine man in traditional Lakota rituals. In 1941 Black Elk was hospitalized for nagging tuberculosis, but in 1944 he met again with Neihardt. This time the poet hoped to learn more about the general history of the Lakota people, interviewing Black Elk along with others. This material, When the Tree Flowered, was published in 1951. Black Elk died at Manderson, South Dakota, before he could see this second book.
Black Elk’s place in history is complicated because so much of his biography is derived from John Neihardt’s self-defined interpretive account of the holy man’s life. Through Neihardt, Black Elk has come to represent for many “the vanishing American” and “the noble savage.” Black Elk, however, was more complex, adapting to change and integrating old and new cultural forms to create a vibrant, living whole. The Lakota holy man remains a testament both to what America lost at Wounded Knee in 1890 and to the strength and flexibility of native cultures.
While few papers written by Black Elk exist, some may be found in the collections of the Records of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, Holy Rosary Mission Records at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and in the Western History Manuscripts Collections, John G. Neihardt Collection at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Black Elk’s letters home from Europe were published in the Sioux language in the Santee, Nebr., monthly newspaper Iapi Oaye (the Word Carrier). The most straightforward sketch of Black Elk appears in Raymond J. DeMallie’s edited collection of the notes taken during the interviews between Black Elk and John G. Neihardt, The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (1984). John G. Neihardt shaped these interviews into two books, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1932) and When the Tree Flowered: An Authentic Tale of the Old Sioux World (1951). Both books have fostered a significant debate about the relationship between the holy man and his interviewer and about methods for cross-cultural understanding. Joseph Eppes Brown, ed. and recorder, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953), is also a significant rendering of Lakota teachings. More recently, Michael F. Steltenkamp published his interviews with Black Elk’s daughter, Lucy, in Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (1993), and Hilda Neihardt published her recollections of Black Elk and her father in Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow (1995).