Black Elk: Native American & Catholic

April 1995By Christopher T. Dodson

Christopher T. Dodson works for the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala.  By Michael F. Steltenkamp. University of Oklahoma Press. 211 pages. $19.95.



In 1930 poet and historian John Neihardt met Black Elk, a Sioux "medicine man" who witnessed the battle at Little Big Horn, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the difficult transition of the Lakota (the proper name of the group which, with others, is often called Sioux) from nomadic life to reservation life at the end of the 19th century. Two years later, Neihardt published Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk's life story as supposedly told by Black Elk. More than a recollection of war stories, much of Black Elk Speaks concerns a vision Black Elk had as a child and his quest to fulfill his spiritual calling. Black Elk Speaks was later joined by Joseph Epes Brown's The Sacred Pipe, an account of Lakota religious ritual as described by Black Elk.

The two books became "spiritual classics" and the definitive works on Native American, or at least Lakota, spirituality. The impact of the books, however, went well beyond religious studies. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and other scholars adopted Black Elk's life, as portrayed in the books, as normative for studies of the Lakota. Black Elk's story also found its way into movies, books, plays, songs, poems, and various political, religious, and environmental movements.

The books portray Black Elk as a man yearning for the past and despondent about the loss of the way of life the Lakota once had. Moreover, the books give the impression that Black Elk was a Lakota medicine man who had no spiritual home in the 20th century.

Black Elk Speaks, however, addressed approximately only the first 25 years of Black Elk's life. The Sacred Pipe, based on conversations with Black Elk in 1947-1948, only briefly touched on Black Elk's reservation life. Sixty years of Black Elk's life remained untold.

Readers of both books might be surprised to learn that the Black Elk both Neihardt and Brown met was a devout Catholic. Based on information compiled from Black Elk's surviving friends and relatives, especially Black Elk's last surviving daughter, Michael F. Steltenkamp's Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala tells the rest of the story of Black Elk. It tells the story of Black Elk the Catholic.

The details regarding Black Elk's conversion are sketchy. The conversion, however, was genuine. Black Elk became not only a Catholic, but also a catechist. Indeed, Steltenkamp discovered that the respect and reputation Black Elk had among the Lakota was due to his work as a catechist rather than as the subject of two popular books.

Steltenkamp describes Black Elk's life as a catechist, missionary to other tribes, and spiritual leader for his community. The book is not, however, mere hagiography. Steltenkamp, an anthropologist, uses Black Elk's spiritual journey to reach conclusions about Lakota society in general.

Steltenkamp contends that the Lakota society with which we are familiar -- a view based primarily on Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe -- was actually a temporary response to circumstances it faced in the 19th century. Although both laypersons and experts tend to view the Lakota as a nomadic warrior community whose reservation life and acceptance of Christianity extinguished the essence of Lakota existence, Lakota society was, in fact, more adaptive and fluid. Many of the aspects of Lakota life portrayed in the books of Neihardt and Brown were not essential to "Lakotaness."

According to Steltenkamp, the single most important constant in Lakota life was a belief and dedication to God (Wakan Tanka) and a willingness to seek God out wherever and in whatever form or religion God might appear. This "broader sense of definition" is reflected in Black Elk's spiritual journey. As Steltenkamp states: "Black Elk embodied traditional Lakota ideology as he manifested a resilient willingness to let go of what was and to experience what might be the disclosures of Wakan Tanka." Put another way, "His passage from medicine man to catechist, from horseback to motorcycle and cars, from forager to successful rancher, from buffalo subsistence to sauerkraut, and from buckskin to three-piece suits provides a more accurate picture of what it has meant, and does mean, to be a Lakota." (A note on the sauerkraut: Most of the missionary priests were German immigrants, and Steltenkamp occasionally reveals how two distinct groups, Lakota and German priests, together adjusted to a new way of life.)

Black Elk did not consider his conversion a betrayal of his Lakota heritage or his vision. He viewed it as part of his search for Wakan Tanka. He repeatedly spoke of how the Lakota ways were "connected" to Catholicism, and how the spiritual experiences of the Lakota prepared them for Christ. To illustrate, Steltenkamp discusses some of the similarities between the two practices, and between Black Elk's vision and Christianity. To Black Elk, the fundamentals of Lakota spirituality did not necessarily conflict with the fundamentals of Catholicism.

Scholars and commentators have often taken an "either/or" approach to Native American spirituality and Christianity. Some scholars, apparently contrary to the evidence, have concluded that Black Elk's conversion was either a rejection of his "Indianess," insincere, or misguided. Vine Deloria Jr., in the popular God is Red, states that in Native American religion "there is no demand for a personal relationship with a personal savior." Nevertheless, most Lakota, like Black Elk, became Christians. Moreover, they, like Black Elk, viewed their conversion as consistent with the essentials of Lakota spirituality -- that one could search for and rely upon Wakan Tanka in the everyday course of events.

The discovery of Black Elk's Catholicism will disappoint some. I am reminded of when I purchased Steltenkamp's book at a North Dakota bookstore specializing in books on the Plains Indians. The salesgirl noted that she had not yet read "this one." (I got the impression that she had read every other book about Black Elk.) When I said that it covered his life after his conversion to Catholicism, she only said, "Oh," but with a tone of surprise and disappointment.

Many Native Americans attempt to return to the "ways of the grandfathers" without examining why their grandfathers became Christians. Steltenkamp warns that "advocates of a ‘return' might find themselves embracing what their forebears chose to relinquish, modify, or regard as nonessential" and, therefore, "run the risk of replicating moviedom's tendency toward romantic portrayals." Ironically, the Black Elk portrayed by Neihardt and Brown stands with the "revitalists" as an unreal grandfather.

Catholics who rely on Black Elk and the archetypal images and symbols in Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe for new directions in worship and liturgy could make a similar mistake. While Black Elk did not reject all Lakota practices, he found their essence present, or even deeper, in the practices of the Catholic Church -- indeed, a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. Many "green" Catholics may not relish the idea that to "be like Black Elk" means to evangelize and pray the Rosary.

Steltenkamp's stated purpose is merely to set the record straight about a person who has become for many synonymous with Lakota spirituality. Black Elk, however, was a Christian with deep evangelistic commitments. This story of his life therefore inspires, and reminds us of the importance of such qualities. Black Elk's conversion should also cause us to reconsider the Catholic Church's claim of universality -- a claim we too often forget or conveniently ignore because it is not socially acceptable.



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