Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man turned Catholic teacher, is promoted for sainthood

Black Elk as a Catholic teacher and as a Lakota leader. (Left photo: Marquette University Archives, Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission Records, ID 00559; right photo: Marquette University Archives, Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission Records, ID 01287/Ben Hunt) Black Elk as a Catholic teacher and as a Lakota leader. (Left photo: Marquette University Archives, Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission Records, ID 00559; right photo: Marquette University Archives, Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission Records, ID 01287/Ben Hunt)

In Our Lady of the Sioux, a small Catholic church in Oglala, S.D., George Looks Twice is waiting. Looks Twice, 83, holds a stick next to a drum that sits beneath his legs as the priest intones the eucharistic prayer. He is waiting for the point of consecration, where the bread becomes the Body of Christ. But instead of ringing bells, Looks Twice will strike the drum three times, the honor beats heard in the Sun Dance and other Lakota traditional songs. The drum will give honor to Jesus, whom the Lakota call Wanikiya, “He Who Makes Live.”

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In one sense, George Looks Twice has been waiting since 2012. In October of that year he was in Rome for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk woman who became the first Native American saint from North America. It was during that trip when Looks Twice first thought of how his grandfather Nicholas Black Elk could one day too be declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

Before Mass, Looks Twice sat down next to Mark Thiel, an archivist from Marquette University, and they got to talking. Mr. Thiel was familiar with Black Elk but had never met one of his close relatives. Looks Twice mentioned his hope of sainthood for his grandfather. “I felt a tingling, like this was a divine moment,” Mr. Thiel remembers. “Never before had I heard someone speak of Black Elk that way.”

“I felt a tingling, like this was a divine moment. Never before had I heard someone speak of Black Elk that way.”

Outside of Pine Ridge Reservation, most people know of Black Elk through Black Elk Speaks, the book by John G. Neihardt first published in 1932, based on three weeks of interviews conducted the prior year. Neihardt told only part of Black Elk’s story; still, the Lakota medicine man became iconic for his presence at many of the events that represent the struggle of Native America as a whole. A second cousin to Crazy Horse, Black Elk was 12 years old when he participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in 1876. He became a ghost dancer and fought in the aftermath of the Massacre of Wounded Knee, in 1890. He spent two years touring Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody. Globally, Black Elk is seen as a teacher of what was lost, an alternative and oppositional voice to the forces of industrialization and colonialism. But most seem unaware that he spent half a century as an active Catholic.

The Holy Rosary Mission Cemetery, in PIne Ridge, S.D., includes the graves of many Jesuits and women religious. (Damian Costello)

Back at Pine Ridge, people of Looks Twice’s generation know Black Elk primarily from his work as a Catholic lay preacher, or catechist. In 1904, at the age of 40, he became interested in Catholicism after a Jesuit objected to a healing ceremony Black Elk was conducting. He gave up his medicine practice and converted to Catholicism. Black Elk then learned to read and became known for his ability to memorize Scripture and for his dynamic preaching. He spent decades as a catechist, taking numerous missionary trips to other reservations in what he called “spiritual scalping-tours.” The Black Elk family stayed so long on the Yankton Reservation that his daughter, Lucy, remembered being made fun for talking like a Yanktonai when she returned to Pine Ridge.

Today, in the parish where Black Elk did much of his pastoral work, the aura of sainthood is unmistakable. There is an air of reverence when his name is spoken. He is credited with bringing 400 people into the Roman Catholic Church. Black Elk also lived a life of unquestioned holiness and experienced the kind of suffering that is often associated with lives of the saints. His first wife died in 1903, son William in infancy, son John of tuberculosis at 12, an infant son and two stepdaughters of tuberculosis in 1910. He himself lived with tuberculosis from 1912. But Black Elk never complained about his suffering and he proclaimed his Catholic faith until the end. “Now my heart is getting sad—but my heart will never turn bad,” he wrote in a letter in 1948. “Ever since Wakan Tanka [the Lakota name for God] gave light to my heart, it stands in light without end.”

The priest raises the host and Looks Twice strikes the drum three times. Black Elk taught that the drum is the beating heart at the center of the universe, saying, “the voice of Wakan Tanka [Great Spirit], and this sound stirs us and helps us to understand the mystery and power of all things.” The host stays in the air, the congregation is still, and the drum echoes, filling the small church.

Pine Ridge

Last fall, Black Elk’s grandchildren presented the bishop of Rapid City, also in South Dakota, with a petition of over 1,600 names requesting that the diocese formally nominate their ancestor for canonization.

What would the canonization of Black Elk mean to Lakota Catholics today? Not surprisingly, there are significant cultural issues involved. The conflicts of the Indian Wars and the reservation system, easily filed away as history elsewhere, remains palpable and unresolved here. And unknown to Catholics in other parts of the United States, the church, and particularly the Society of Jesus, is right in the middle of it all. The Jesuit-run Holy Rosary Mission was founded in Pine Ridge in 1890, as its website explains, “with the westward expansion that delivered Christianity to the Lakota.” While many missionaries were well intentioned and well liked, the church was also a willing participant in the federal government’s program of cultural persecution, where “saving the man” meant “killing the Indian,” or erasing the only identity he had known.

Some voice no resentment. “It wasn’t so bad,” one Lakota-speaking elder says in passing about Red Cloud School, where children are enrolled from kindergarten through high school. “I learned religion there.” But history has scarred many, and the desire to escape anything related to the colonial past is strong. For some, there is the feeling that the canonization of Black Elk would be a continuation of the church’s role in colonialism. This makes them wary of the process, as if the church is appropriating something that is not hers to take. Once a participant in the cultural persecution of the Lakota, this thinking goes, the church is now using what is left to cover its sins in Native garb.

For some, there is the feeling that the canonization of Black Elk would be a continuation of the church’s role in colonialism.

I heard these concerns in Pine Ridge recently from a couple of 30-something Lakota who had recently returned to the church. They saw the practices of Catholicism, along with those of the Lakota way, as part of their path of sobriety. But they were unsure about the motives behind the cause of Black Elk. “Look, the Catholic way, it’s a good way,” one said. “It teaches spirituality and goodness, something we desperately need more of around here. But the church has never owned up to what they did in the past. Until they fully admit that and take steps to make reparations, the wounds won’t heal.”

Uncertainty and pain are real, but this healing is occurring, and Black Elk is a part of the process. Much of the church’s ministry in Pine Ridge is now in the hands of the Lakota, both in the parishes and in the community. The “Lakota Catholic Radio Hour” on KILI, the tribal radio station, is a fine example. The station sits on Porcupine Butte, just north of Wounded Knee, and its broadcast area covers 30,000 square miles. Every Friday at 2 p.m., Patricia Catches, a lay minister at the largest parish on the reservation, discusses the intersection of Lakota tradition and Catholicism with a fellow Lakota Catholic lay minister, Charles McGaa, and one of the Jesuit fathers of Pine Ridge.

Patricia Catches’s own roots run deep in both Lakota tradition (Lakota is her first language) and the Catholic Church. Her grandfather, Paul Catches, was a catechist and filled in for Black Elk when he was away on missionary trips. Pete Catches, her father, started out as a catechist before leaving to become a medicine man. Her mother remained active in the church, working with the nuns at the local Montessori school. Patricia was raised in both traditions.

It has not always been easy for Ms. Catches to be both. She was sent to boarding school back when students were prevented from speaking Lakota. “After that, I had a lot of bitterness and moved away from the church,” she once explained in an interview on the “Lakota Catholic Radio Hour.” “But over the last 20 years, as I practiced my Lakota traditional ceremonies, I realized that they teach us to pray for those who have done us wrong. And I saw how much the church has changed, and how today it includes and honors Lakota traditions as well. So now I’m following in my father’s footsteps as a catechist. I’m in the fourth year of a class to become a Lakota lay minister in the church. I’m letting the Lord lead me in that way.”

“I had a lot of bitterness and moved away from the church... [But] as I practiced my Lakota traditional ceremonies, I realized that they teach us to pray for those who have done us wrong.”

Black Elk aided her in her journey. In the 1990s, Ms. Catches read a book by the Jesuit anthropologist Michael Steltenkamp, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (he recently wrote another book on the subject under the title Nicholas Black Elk), that has, more than any other, explained the Catholicism of Black Elk. “What caught my attention is that he was always with the children, that he taught the two ways. It really affirmed my role as a lay minister,” she told me when we recently sat down to talk. When I asked about the possible canonization, she responded: “I’m very excited. Many Native Americans could be named saints…. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and Nick Black Elk certainly was [one of them].”

Black Elk serves not only as a spiritual mentor but also as a lodestar for sorting out issues of Native identity. “There’s an element of mystery to Black Elk,” Maka Clifford tells me. Mr. Clifford is a graduate of Red Cloud Indian School and works there now as the volunteer coordinator. I was told to be sure to meet him because he is a descendant of Black Elk, but Maka quickly downplays that connection. As a descendant, he explains, it “puts a false authority on me, one I haven’t fought for or earned.”

“His journey was complicated, just like mine,” he adds. Clifford’s mother, Charlotte Black Elk, is a lawyer, prominent activist and, according to Clifford, explicitly “anti-Christian.” His father, Gerald Clifford, spent a number of years as a Camaldolese Benedictine monk. When Gerald married Charlotte, he became a Sun Dance chief while remaining a practicing Catholic. As a result, Maka grew up with all the prominent traditions and perspectives in his family.

The most important issue at the moment for Maka Clifford and his students is to figure out how to be indigenous in modern society: “History has produced a society that feels the need to authenticate itself.” He says that participating in activities deemed nontraditional leaves people open to the criticism that they are “not Indian enough.” The witness of Black Elk, as both indigenous and a potential Catholic saint, is a resource in the process of decolonization and healing, he says. “My hope 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.”

The Church

Bishop Robert D. Gruss of the Diocese of Rapid City is the person tasked with deciding whether or not to formalize Black Elk’s cause. Bishop Gruss was born and raised in Texarkana, Ark., and worked as a pilot for several years in his 20s before deciding to go to a four-year college. In 1990, he earned his B.A. from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, with a degree in theology. Now 62, he is a genial man put in a unique situation.

George Looks Twice (center), along with other grandchildren of Black Elk, presents a petition for canonization to Bishop Robert Gruss. (Becky Berreth/West River Catholic)

He came to Rapid City with powerful connections in the Vatican. Bishop Gruss is a former vice-rector of the Pontifical North American College, in Rome; he was also chaplain to Pope Benedict XVI and is a close friend of the pope emeritus. Intriguingly, the Diocese of Rapid City has been a training ground for a number of people who now hold much more prominent positions in the church: Bishop Gruss’s two predecessors were Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap, now the archbishop of Philadelphia, and Blase J. Cupich, now the archbishop of Chicago.

Soon after members of Black Elk’s family brought the petition to Bishop Gruss, he began to deliberate. It was his first time in such a process and, he admits when we talk, it was a lot of work. “In the beginning it was going through a lot of documents,” he says, and he felt the pressure.

Essential to the petition’s future is the appointment of a local postulator for the cause. Bishop Gruss has chosen Bill White, a Lakota candidate for the diaconate and the father-in-law of Jerome Lebeaux, a prominent Sun Dance chief. (It is not common for a postulator to be a layperson, but there is no restriction against it.) If the cause ends up moving forward, a postulator at the Vatican will be found, and White will become vice-postulator.

For Bishop Gruss, there is no debate over the authenticity of Black Elk’s conversion. When I ask if the lack of public awareness of Black Elk’s Catholic life could complicate the cause, he does not respond with theory but with pastoral concern. “There is overwhelming support from Lakota people, from the Natives,” he says. (A diocese that uses smudging, the Native practice of burning sage or cedar for purification, and the Lakota Four Direction Song at the Chrism Mass has presumably worked out many of the uncertainties regarding how Catholicism and Lakota practices can make a spiritual home together.)

Still, the image of Black Elk holding a position of honor in the church equivalent to that held by St. Teresa of Calcutta may be controversial. I ask about the conflict that occurred over the recent name change of Harney Peak, the highest natural point in South Dakota, to Black Elk Peak. “There was a lot of opposition,” the bishop says. “The Lakota felt they had a legitimate reason for the change, as it was a desecration to name something that they feel is theirs after someone who perpetrated massacres. The opposition thought it was just P.C. [political correctness], a reflection of the dominant P.C. culture that tells you what to believe and what to say.”

“This is about lifting up people who lived lives of sanctity. And about those people who lived lives of sanctity lifting up the communities they come from.”

Could there be similar resistance to Black Elk’s cause? “There may be, but I’m not concerned about that,” Bishop Gruss says. “This is about lifting up people who lived lives of sanctity. And about those people who lived lives of sanctity lifting up the communities they come from. You can’t worry about what people think.” He recalls that people complained about Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization: “‘Why her? Why now?’ they asked. I’m sure that will happen here.”

When I ask Bishop Gruss what he hopes to accomplish in his episcopacy, he puts his approach to Black Elk’s cause in proper perspective. “This is a mission diocese,” he says, using a common term for a geographically remote outpost of the church. “I hope that I’m able to say that I moved this diocese from a mission diocese to a diocese with a mission.” He does not say so explicitly, but I suspect that having a homegrown missionary saint would help.

Bishop Gruss has decided to continue the process by formalizing the cause for canonization. “The next step is to get the support of the regional bishops, in this case the entire U.S.,” he explains. He will bring the matter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and expects that his fellow bishops will affirm his findings, as usually happens. He had hoped that this would occur at their June meeting but was unable to get it on the agenda in time; so it will wait until the fall meeting.

The Society of Jesus

In talking to the Jesuits who live at Holy Rosary Mission you get a bigger theological picture. This is only natural. Jesuits have been working alongside the Lakota since Red Cloud, the famous Oglala leader buried in the cemetery overlooking the mission, asked for sina sapa, or “black robes” (the Lakota term for a Catholic priest), to set up a school. The government approved and Holy Rosary Mission was established. That was nearly 130 years ago.

At the height of the Jesuits’ influence in southwestern South Dakota, there were 23 Catholic missions. America reported just a few months ago that 525 acres of that land were being legally and formally returned to the Rosebud Sioux.

For over a century, the Jesuits and their Lakota congregations, like missionaries and new Christians throughout the history of the church, have been sorting out what of pre-Christian culture should be retained. That is one of the important functions of Black Elk’s life and legacy, according to Joe Daoust, S.J., head of the Holy Rosary Jesuit community today. “Putting the traditions together is a fulfillment of the Lakota people’s search for God,” he told me. Father Daoust has been in Pine Ridge for only two years, but his Lakota phrases flow effortlessly when celebrating Mass. He became fascinated with the story of Black Elk through contact with Lakota Catholics at Pine Ridge.

For Father Daoust, Black Elk’s work is not just for Lakota Catholics. There is the other, often-neglected side of conversion: what new Christians bring to the church. “When opening a cause for sainthood, it’s not just a question of personal holiness,” he says. “You also ask, why should the church be interested in this potential saint? What is exemplary about their witness? 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.”

“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.”

The analogy of St. Thomas Aquinas and his use of Aristotle comes to mind. It is easy to forget how innovative it was for the Catholic theologian to draw upon the work of the Greek philosopher, but this method gave the church a new and deeper understanding of God and God’s work in the world. What was once controversial is now seen as one of the most traditional sources of Catholic theology. In a similar way, indigenous thought has the potential to give the church a new method for understanding and interacting with God’s creation, what Father Daoust calls “a gift of Native American spirituality to the church.”

Ultimately, Father Daoust is hopeful about Black Elk’s cause. “Pope Francis has spoken of indigenous spirituality in “Laudato Si’,” and I think he will be particularly receptive to the cause.”

A Living Presence

The plains of Pine Ridge fall away easily to the horizon. Bleak and windswept in winter and desert-like in the droughts of summer, the grass is now long and green from an unusually wet spring. Small horse herds graze, their tails waving like the prayer flags on Sun Dance trees that remain from last summer. Deer dart away from the road, and a red-tailed hawk circles above. It all feels like the renewed world of Black Elk’s vision, where “the birds and animals and lightening and thunder were like laughter.”

Will Black Elk one day be made a saint? One can never be sure, but the echoes in Pine Ridge from him and his work have a vibrancy that cannot be overlooked. It remains to be seen if miracles will be brought forward and authenticated, but Black Elk has left more than a legacy. There is the feel of a living presence at Pine Ridge—and perhaps elsewhere in this country. Black Elk always had a way of finding himself in the middle of important events.

Basil Brave Heart is another of the many Lakota on Pine Ridge trying to sort out what it means to be both Lakota and Catholic, and to heal the pain for those who feel a sense of opposition between the two. Brave Heart wears many hats: a graduate of Red Cloud, Korean War veteran, a Sun Dance chief and a regular at daily Mass at Holy Rosary Church. He went to school with Black Elk’s son, Ben, at Holy Rosary Mission and remembers first seeing Black Elk while picking potatoes with his family in Nebraska. As a writer, Brave Heart mines Lakota tradition, Christian theology and quantum physics in an effort to articulate a unified Lakota Catholic theology. He is also the one who initiated the movement to rename Harney Peak.

It happened unexpectedly. Two years ago Brave Heart got up at 3 a.m. and picked up a book on Lakota history. He read an account of the Blue Water Creek massacre, where U.S. Army General William S. Harney and 600 troops attacked a Lakota village of 250, killing 86 (half of them women and children) and taking 70 prisoners. Brave Heart became overwhelmed by the tragedy. He lit some sage to smudge off and started to cry. This was not merely an expression of sorrow, Brave Heart explained to me, but “an act of prayer.” The word for “to cry” in Lakota, ceya, is also the root of the word for prayer, “when the whole body pushes up sacred water that emerges in your tears.”

In the midst of his lament, Brave Heart says that Black Elk came to him, not in a dream but while he was both conscious and in the realm of the spirits. He was not thinking of Black Elk at the time, he emphasizes. “People always ask me ‘How did you come up with Black Elk?’” Brave Heart says. “I had nothing to do with it. It came from God, Goddess, whatever you call the Creator.”

There was a lot of opposition and anger when this religious experience turned into a national cause for changing the name of a local mountain. But after two years, the peak became Black Elk Peak, a change that Brave Heart calls “the answer to many prayers.” And if we take Brave Heart’s word about that process, this was an example of the ongoing work of Nicholas Black Elk, an extraordinary Catholic.

Author's note: In an earlier version of this piece, I described Basil Brave Heart as a "retired Yuwipi healer," based on information provided by other individuals. However, in Lakota tradition, only family members are permitted to refer to an individual as a "healer," and I believe it was inappropriate for me to use the term. Also, Black Elk’s references to a “spiritual-scalping tour" is cited in Michael Steltenkamp’s book Nicholas Black Elk,but it should be noted that some descendants of Black Elk strongly express doubt that he would have used the phrase.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Michael Steltenkamp’s book Nicholas Black Elk as a "revision" of his book Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala. They are, in fact, separate works.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Barbara DeCoursey Roy
2 months 1 week ago

Thanks for a heartwarming history lesson. Hope and no white-washing. Beautifully written.

Henry George
2 months ago

Perhaps all the Jesuits in America could gather in South Dakota
and ask forgiveness to the crimes they committed against all
Native Americans and then perhaps all of them could write to
Pope Francis asking that Black Elk be named a Saint by Acclamation.

Jay Edward
2 months ago

Time to storm Heaven with prayers asking for Nicholas Black Elk’s intercession. If God wills he be sainted, He will surely grant some miracles through his intercession.

Nicholas Black Elk, ora pro nobis!

René Frank
2 months ago

this story is completely fake. lol

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