The new times of Nicholas Black Elk, Native American and lay catechist

Two weeks after his encounter with a Jesuit priest, Black Elk asked to be baptized. A year later, on Dec. 6, 1904, he was received into the Catholic Church, taking the Christian name Nicholas after the saint’s feast day.

Left: Nicholas Black Elk is pictured in an undated historical photo teaching a girl how to pray the rosary. (CNS photo/courtesy Marquette University) Right: A young Black Elk and Elk of the Oglala Lakota as grass dancers touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, London, England, 1887. (Wikipedia)

December 6th provides an occasion for Catholics in the universal Church to celebrate the life of a great fourth-century saint: St. Nicholas. Some American Catholics are also now associating the day with a different Nicholas. December 6th is the anniversary of the baptism of Nicholas Black Elk (c. 1866-1950), a Native American Catholic currently at the “Servant of God” stage on the path to canonized sainthood. A member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, Nicholas served his people and other Native American groups in relative obscurity as a lay catechist.

This obscurity is relative to the notoriety he achieved through the book Black Elk Speaks, a transcription of interviews in which he described the religious practices and world-view of the Oglala Sioux. Originally published in the 1930s, the book became a sort of bible for the counter-culture of the 1960s, a time when Americans were disillusioned with the materialism of modern American life and looked to the traditions of Native Americans for an alternative, more spiritual, way of life.

Scandalously absent from Black Elk Speaks is an account of Nicholas’s conversion to the Catholic faith in 1904. John Neihardt, the anthropologist who interviewed Nicholas, deliberately suppressed this fact in the original edition of the book. Only in recent years have Native American Catholics begun to reclaim the Catholic dimension of Black Elk’s life.

Nicholas Black Elk was born around 1866, along the Little Powder River in Wyoming, near the Wyoming/Montana border. The end of the Civil War in 1865 brought a renewed commitment to U.S. westward expansion, which led to war against the Native Americans who posed the main obstacle to that expansion. Within a few months of Nicholas’s birth, the Powder River War broke out. Native American tribes united under the leadership of the Oglala chief Red Cloud. This war ended in 1868 with the second Fort Laramie Treaty, which established the Great Sioux Reservation. Nicholas was too young to have fought in this war but participated in the greatest Native victory of the Indian wars, the triumph over George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Cousin to the famous Oglala warrior Crazy Horse, he would later recount the glee with which he scalped white soldiers during the battle.

Still, from his youth, it was clear that he would not follow the warrior path. The son and grandson of an Oglala medicine man, he was expected to carry on the family tradition; from a very early age, he began to have visions. His career as a warrior was as fleeting as the victory at the Little Big Horn. The U.S. Army continued its relentless land clearance, pushing Natives further West or on to reservations in order to make room for white settlers. Nicholas sought escape, ironically, by becoming a professional stage Indian, joining “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show, which staged recreations of famous battles, including that of the Little Big Horn.

After a few years of touring the United States and Europe with Buffalo Bill, Nicholas returned to his people just in time to experience the last great event of Native American life in the 19th century, the Massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation on December 29, 1890. He arrived at the scene in the middle of the slaughter. Nicholas tried to save those he could, but as a holy man, not a warrior: at one point he charged, unarmed, into the rifle fire of the soldiers, yet emerged untouched by any bullet.

This miraculous invincibility prepared the way for the greater miracle of Nicholas’s conversion. His experiences with white, Christian civilization could easily have led him to reject Christianity for the hypocrisy of preaching the love of Jesus in the midst of a violent conquest. Still, by the 1890s, the line between Christian and Native was already blurred. Christian evangelization went hand-in-hand with conquest and the establishment of the reservation system. Catholic missionaries, in particular the Jesuits, took the lead, establishing the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Nicholas remained on the reservation after the massacre and continued his practice as a Native holy man/healer, yet married a Catholic convert, Katherine (“Katie”) War Bonnet; the couple had three sons together. Katie died in 1903. Despite his marriage to a Catholic woman, Nicholas remained committed to his role as a Native healer.

One day in mid-November of 1903, he experienced a crisis of his Native faith. A Native boy lay seriously ill in a tent about seven miles from the Holy Rosary Mission. The family was desperate but divided on how to respond: some family members held to the old ways, yet some had become Catholics. They ended up calling on both a Native healer and a Catholic priest. Black Elk was the Native healer; he arrived first and quickly began to perform various Native healing ceremonies, which including drum beating, singing, and tobacco burning.

A Catholic mission priest, Fr. Joseph Lindebner, S.J., arrived in the middle of Black Elk’s healing ceremony. Fr. Lindebner was outraged by this display of paganism, particularly because the boy was a baptized Catholic; he immediately threw out Black Elk’s drum and rattle, and then threw out Black Elk himself, screaming “Satan, get out!” Defenders of Native culture today may see this as an act of cultural imperialism, but Black Elk himself responded with neither anger nor indignation. So too, Fr. Lindebner, having regained his composure, restrained his Christian indignation and simply invited Black Elk to join him on his trip back to the Holy Rosary Mission.

Nicholas’s daughter, Lucy Looks Twice, once recalled: “My father never talked about the incident but he felt it was Our Lord that appointed or selected him to do the work of the Blackrobes [the Jesuits].” Two weeks after his encounter with Fr. Dindebner, Black Elk asked to be baptized. A year later, on Dec. 6, 1904, Black Elk was received into the Catholic Church, taking the Christian name Nicholas after the saint’s feast day. In 1905, he remarried, again to a Native Catholic convert, Anna Brings White; in 1907, at the age of 41, he began his ministry as a lay catechist.

It is not clear if he totally abandoned the old ceremonies; partisans of his Native heritage cite examples of the persistence of old ways to cast doubt on the depth of his conversion. I think it is better to see any blurred lines in his post-conversion life in the long tradition of inculturation. In late antiquity, a pagan convert such as St. Augustine could offer scathing critiques of pagan philosophy yet continue to philosophize. The blending of Native and Catholic was still very much in process at the time of Nicholas’s conversion and may still be in process today.

On one point there is no doubt: following his conversion, Nicholas, like Augustine, dedicated his life fully to the service of Christ and his Church. As Augustine’s struggles with philosophy reflected the circumstances of his particular time and place, so Nicholas’s particular ministry as a lay catechist emerged in a specific context, that of Native Catholic life in early twentieth-century America. Jesuit missionaries in the mountain West were few in number and responsible for a vast territory with challenging terrain and limited infrastructure. Priests ministered as circuit riders, traveling from mission to mission so as to provide the Mass at least once a month to each of the scattered communities. They realized that sustaining the faith among Native Catholic required more than a once-a-month visit from a priest; the encouragement of lay catechists to instruct people in the faith was one solution to the problem.

These local circumstances dovetailed with broader changes in the Church’s approach to evangelization. Breaking from a traditional reluctance to delegate institutional authority to members of non-Western communities in the early stages of evangelization, Benedict XV, in his Maximum Illud (1919), insisted on the need to develop native clergy in order to help make Christianity appear less foreign; his successor, Pius XI, went even further in his Rerum Ecclesiae (1926), adding that native leadership should also reflect the “native genius” of specific cultural groups. Given their long history of cultural evangelization, the Jesuits of the mountain West did not need to wait on papal pronouncements to adopt this approach.

Among the Jesuits, Nicholas Black Elk soon came to be something of a poster child for this approach to cultivating native leadership. In 1910, Fr. Henry Westropp, S.J., of Holy Rosary Mission, wrote of the lay catechists:

One of the most fervent [of the catechists] is a [onetime] . . . chief of the medicine men. His name is Black Elk. Ever since his conversion he has been a fervent apostle and he has gone around like a second St. Paul, trying to convert his tribesmen to Catholicism. He has made many converts.

Fr. Westropp’s comparison to St. Paul captured something of the scale of Nicholas’s efforts, but his reference to “tribesmen” is somewhat misleading. Nicholas certainly served the Oglala Sioux, but he also led groups of lay catechists beyond the Pine Ridge Reservation to evangelize other Native peoples, including the Arapahos, the Winnebagos, and the Shoshones.

The rudimentary level of much of Nicholas’s catechetical work belied the development of a deep spirituality rooted in the Ignatian tradition. Nicholas became an enthusiastic participant in Jesuit retreats conducted according to Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. On the third day of his first retreat, he approached the retreat master and said “We catechists resolve never to commit a mortal sin . . .” Nicholas expressed his wish that all lay catechists could take the retreat and would himself go through eight more Ignatian retreats.

Most Americans had little interest in or awareness of life on Western reservations. Those few likely to be interested in Native American culture would have little or no interest in Catholicism. Among American artists and intellectuals, particularly those in the emerging field of anthropology, there had long been a fascination with Native American peoples and cultures. As far back as James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), Americans skeptical of progress found in Native American life a virtuous and pure alternative to civilization—even as they accepted the inevitability of its passing with the march of progress.

The seeming collapse of modern civilization during the Great Depression breathed new life into this old skepticism, and many went looking once again to Native American life for an alternative. The anthropologist John D. Neihardt sought out Nicholas Black Elk as a recognized repository of the old Oglala beliefs, practices, legends and lore. He distilled the many hours of interviews into a book, published in 1932, under the title Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life-story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. The book was an international bestseller at the time and became a publishing sensation once again in the 1960s. In both moments, the book received near universal praise as an expression of a pure, authentic Native American worldview.

In sharp contrast, the ostensible subject of the book, Nicholas Black Elk himself, felt betrayed. Neihardt stopped his account of Black Elk’s life at the moment prior to his conversion to Catholicism. Nicholas was angry. He protested to Neihardt, to no effect. By 1934, ill and fearing death, he wrote several letters to set the record straight regarding his relationship to Christianity. The following excerpt gives some sense of the tone and clarity of these letters:

I shake hands with my white friends. Listen, I speak some true words. A white man made a book and told what I had spoken of olden times, but the new times he left out. So I speak again, a last word. I am now an old man. I called my priest to pray for me and to give me holy oil and the Holy Food, (the Yutapi Wakan). Now I will tell you the truth. Listen my friend. In the last thirty years I am different from what the white man wrote about me. I am a Christian. I was baptized thirty years ago by the Black-gown priest called Little Father (Ate-ptecela). After that time all call me Nick Black Elk. Most of the Sioux Indians know me. I am now converted to the true Faith in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I say in my own Sioux Lakota language: Ateunyanpi: – Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name — as Christ taught us to say. I say the Apostle’s Creed and I believe every word of it. I believe in seven holy Sacraments of the Catholic Church. . . .

Nicholas recovered from his illness and lived for another decade and a half; he died in his home on August 17, 1950. He received last rites and a Catholic funeral at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Manderson, SD, and is buried on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Sadly, his efforts to tell the world of his Catholic faith fell on deaf ears. The readers of Black Elk Speaks seemed to prefer Nicholas Black Elk in his “pure” pagan form. Thankfully, the faithful descents of Black Elk have refused to allow his Catholic story die.


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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 24 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World was published in June 2022 by Ignatius Press.

7 Comments

  1. Blessings, very interesting, and thanks for the history!!…..but not sure how one with either authenticity or sincerity says, keeping the pagan/demonic ‘gentile’ ways makes one totally or fully dedicated to Christ and the Church – the Holy Spirit Divinely Taught, Inspired and Infallibly wrote through and in the human authors in the NT that this is not the truth or reality, rather ‘all the old ways (of Judaism in that cases) have no part with Christ, the Church, Gospel and Faith….the old stuff has passed away and the New – Christ and His Gospel and Church Ways have come’….

    If the Gods’s old Judaic ceremonies had to be fully stopped, even more so those of gentile-ism…

    Advent, blessings, Father

  2. Dr. Shannon, your recap of Nicholas Black Elk’s discipleship to Jesus Christ As Lord and Savior is greatly appreciated. As a Holy Man of Jesus, Nicholas Black Elk, and his profound prophetic visions, are even now unfolding to reveal the Powerful Hand of Jesus Christ and His salvific role to the Great Four Directions of Mankind. As a reader of Black Elk Speaks, I can assure you that, though John Neihardt may have tried to eliminate any so called Christian themes to Nicholas’ life, nonetheless, Jesus Christ makes Himself very clear in Nicholas’ visions. A follower of Jesus will instantly recognized how the poignant and profound lights of wisdom given to this humble Lakota man, really are lights showing the Salvific role of Christ in Nicholas’ life and for his Oyate (People). Yes, these prophetic visions are from HEAVEN, and soon the world is going to be shown the great beauty of of the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) and their powerful holiness by God’s design, that will soon see people streaming from the 4 Directions, who will come and honor Black Elk and venerate the One Triune God that Nicholas Black Elk spoke eloquently about as a disciple of Christ her on earth, and now a most holy soul to be soon counted among the “Saints” of Heaven Host. Ahoooooo!!!! Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (All Are Related”

  3. The abusive practice of erasing a person’s history by other “progressive” and tyrannical factions brings to mind the warning of Wm. Shakespeare, about the predicate self-deception involved in lying to others: “To thine own self be true, and hence as night follows day that thou cans’t be false to any man.”

    Thank you Dr. Shannon for this fitting tribute to this man who gave all for the name of Jesus.

  4. Every culture has good and evil elements. It is not cultural imperialism to decry and eliminate what is evil. It’s charity.

    Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to the Father and He founded one Church. Despite what modernists and liberalists teach, shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. will not, cannot save one. You might not like it. You might not agree. But the truth is the truth.

  5. Let’s set the record straight about the incident regarding the omission of Nicholas Black Elk’s conversion in John Neihardt’s book,’Black Elk Speaks’. This book was based on interviews conducted by Neihardt and a Lakota interpreter of Nicholas Black Elk’s recollections of his youth, ending with the Massacre of Wounded Knee. Black Elk could not read nor speak English, and had no input over the contents. Later, when the Priests became aware of the lack of mention of Black Elk’s later conversion to Catholicism, they unfairly punished Black Elk by threatening to withhold Last Rites as he lay gravely ill, unless HE ‘recanted’ the book. Nicholas was crushed by this unfair accusation, yet did his best to repair the damage. (Hence, the ‘Letter’.) This is just one example of the heavy handed tactics that were used in those days. Nicholas Black Elk’s heroic virtue is unquestionable. Servant of God, Nicholas Black Elk, I love you! Please pray for us!

  6. “Native American”(sic)

    American Indians are not indigenous to North America. Their ancestors all migrated across the Bering Strait Land Bridge from Siberia.

  7. Everybody migrated from somewhere.
    Except for some particular Africans, who apparently really did originate from a valleny in Africa . . . and then they migrated throughout the continent and beyond . . .

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