Nicholas Black Elk (c.1863-1950) was an Oglala Lakota medicine man, mystic, and Catholic catechist (a member of the laity who assists priests and nuns by teaching the faith to children and to adult potential converts). It has been estimated that Black Elk was responsible for bringing approximately 400 Lakota into the Catholic Church. His commitment to his newfound faith (he converted in middle age), his exemplary life, and his attachment to those aspects of traditional Lakota spirituality that did conflict with Catholic doctrine or practice make him an interesting candidate for sainthood. Besides, at this moment there is only one Native American on the Catholic list of saints — St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), a young Mohawk woman whose village stood in what is now Auriesville, New York, in the lovely Mohawk Valley.
So, in 2016, some of Black Elk’s relatives — including his oldest surviving grandson, George Looks Twice — presented the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, with a petition asking him to open the investigation into Black Elk’s life with eye to his possible canonization. Part of the investigation process is collecting testimony from anyone who knew him, which could be a challenge since the holy man died in 1950. According to Seth Tupper, reporter for the Rapid City Journal, the petition Bishop Robert Gruss received bore about 1,600 signatures.
The first step is for Gruss to recommend Black Elk as a candidate to his brother bishops at the next meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a pro forma request: routinely, the bishops give the go-ahead. From that point, it is an arduous process that can take years of study, of collecting documentation, and praying that God will favor the cause by working two miracles through the intercession, the prayers, of the potential saint. Typically, these miracles are dramatic healings which medical science cannot explain. Once such a “miracle” seems to have occurred, doctors and other medical specialists are consulted for their take on the case. If the docs give it the thumbs-down, then the people involved in the cause will have to pray and wait a little longer.
With or without the title “Saint” in front of his name, Black Elk is a fascinating man who was comfortable in two worlds — the ancient beliefs and traditions of the Lakota, and the ancient faith and traditions of the Catholics. Writing in America Magazine, the Jesuit journal, Damian Costello and Jon M. Sweeney gave us a précis of Black Elk’s life. In 1876, when he was still an adolescent, he participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Crazy Horse was Black Elk’s second cousin). He became a Ghost Dancer, part of mystical movement to drive out the whites and restore the prairies to the Lakota, along with their traditional way of life. He was wounded at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. And he toured Europe as a performer with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.
Black Elk’s first wife was Catholic. In 1904, a year after her death, Black Elk converted, too, taking at his baptism the name Nicholas. He became a member of the congregation at Holy Rosary Mission, which is still a thriving Lakota parish on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Costello and Sweeney spoke with one of Black Elk’s descendants, Maka Clifford, who comes from a complicated family. His mother is an activist — he describes her as emphatically “anti-Christian.” His father, at one time, was a Camaldolese monk, a branch of the Benedictine religious order. Clifford is a practicing Catholic and a chief in the sacred Sun Dance — a ritual which Black Elk helped to revive. He sees as an encouraging sign the possibility that Black Elk might be the first Lakota to be venerated as a saint of the Catholic Church. “My hope,” Clifford said, “is that we can learn that we can be indigenous and all these other things: Catholic, worldly, a diplomat, a scientist, etc. My hope is that being indigenous is not limited. And Black Elk is part of that conversation.”
Father Joseph Daoust, S.J., pastor of Holy Rosary, put a rhetorical question about Black Elk to Costello and Sweeney: “Why should the church be interested in this potential saint?” And then, good Jesuit that he is, the father answered the question for them: “Putting Black Elk forward is an example of Natives not just receiving gifts in their conversion but bringing gifts and in turn enriching the church and how we understand God working in our world.”
As it happens, Black Elk is not the only Native American who is being promoted for sainthood. In 2015, the Catholic bishops of Florida formally opened the cause of four Apalachee Indians who were captured and martyred by English raiders and their Creek Indian allies. The English colonists were convinced Catholic missions operated by the French in Maine and the Spanish in Florida were actually launching pads for invasions of the Thirteen Colonies — so the English struck first.
In 1704, a party of English and Creek overwhelmed the Mission of La Concepcion de Aubale, on the site of what is now Tallahassee. The four Indians who were taken prisoner were Antonio Cuipa, a husband, father, Apalachee chief, and Catholic catechist; Fernando, another chief; and two warriors, Francisco El Chiquito and Panther. Antonio, Francisco, and Panther were burned alive, bound to stakes erected in the shape of large crosses. Fernando was killed later.
Interest in the Indian martyrs began shortly after their death, when Philip V of Spain heard their story and passed it along to Pope Clement XI. The cause has been moving slowly, primarily because documentation about the martyrs is sketchy; they are barely known even in Florida.
It’s fortunate that the cause for Black Elk was put forward by his family. If had been started by the Jesuits, or a group of Catholics of European descent, I could imagine a charge of “cultural imperialism,” of trying to co-opt a Native American holy man. But since this does come from the family, it gives Black Elk’s cause firm Lakota roots.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.