Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Nicholas Black Elk
By John Janaro
The story of Black Elk (1863–1950) is partly familiar to many who seek to understand the traditions of Native Americans prior to their final defeat, the failure of their last efforts to secure their own territory, and their humiliation and subjugation within the United States government’s reservation system. John Neihardt’s book Black Elk Speaks (1932) collected stories from a man who was one of the last of the Lakota Sioux who remembered the dramatic confrontations of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, traveled around Europe as an actor in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and had deep knowledge of the religious worldview, imagery, rituals, and practices of the Plains Indians.
But the full story of the remarkable personality of Black Elk centered on his conversion to the Catholic faith in 1904 and his decades of dedicated service as a catechist, teaching the Gospel to his own people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Not only was Black Elk’s conversion something much more than a mere conformity to the “new regime” (as some have suggested); it represented for him the decisive possibility to fulfill a sense of vocation that began for him in childhood, when he had a powerful, visionary dream which impressed upon him the oneness and transcendence of “the Great Spirit” (the Lakota term for God), and the unity of all human beings and all of creation. He drew from this experience an earnest and searching desire to do the will of the Great Spirit.
Meanwhile, Jesuit missionaries became more prominent in the early days of the Lakota reservation; the “black robes” lived in poverty with the people, accompanied them, and witnessed to belonging to Jesus within the Church as a communal life, with its own rituals, its vivid awareness of the realm of the sacred, and its presentation of the Gospel in vivid, pictorial imagery. From these priests as well as from his experience in Europe, Black Elk began to consider that the “Great Spirit” may have revealed his will for unity and peace between all people through Jesus Christ.
Black Elk’s interest in the Catholic faith grew as friends, neighbors, and his own wife and children were baptized into the Church. He thought, however, that his particular calling required him to continue to serve as a “medicine man” in the community. Valued for knowledge of herbal remedies and a wide range of counseling, medicine men also performed certain “curing” practices dependent on superstitions. Eventually, Jesuit Father Joseph Lindebner managed to convince Black Elk that these dark and strange elements of superstitious practice were not the will of the “Great Spirit,” but were powerless to heal, and impeded the priest’s own efficacious ministry of administering the sacraments to the dying.
Black Elk didn’t resent this correction. On the contrary, he welcomed it as a clarification his own heart had been seeking in his desire to obey God. He immediately went with Father Lindebner to the mission center for two weeks, and was baptized on December 6, 1904, as Nicholas Black Elk. The mysterious vision of his childhood became clear, as did the vocation it entailed: “Nick” became a revered leader and guide for his Lakota people during the difficult times ahead, serving as a catechist for the next thirty years, bringing hundreds of people into the Church while also fostering the Lakota cultural heritage and its many insightful and worthwhile perspectives and practices that were in harmony with the Catholic faith. In 2016, the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, officially opened the cause for Nicholas Black Elk’s canonization.