Nicholas Black Elk and the quest for justice

A scene from "Walking the Good Red Road: Nicholas Black Elk's Journey to Sainthood" showing Black Elk teaching the Two Roads Catechism. Courtesy of Sr. Judy Zielinski, O.S.F.

I thought I was well versed in our country’s history. I am a senior at a Jesuit university; I was raised in a politically minded family, attended well-funded public schools in a liberal neighborhood, and have always read a lot, both growing up and now.

Watching “Walking the Good Red Road: Nicholas Black Elk’s Journey to Sainthood,” a documentary by Judy Zielinski, O.S.F., woke me up to the gap between my perception of my awareness of our country’s violent and racist past and the reality of my ignorance. That ignorance extends even to the racist history of my own hometown in California, which the Black Lives Matter movement and recent efforts to uncover other such histories has brought to my attention.

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Sister Zielinski explores the life of Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota chief and Catholic convert who has since been declared a “Servant of God” by the Catholic Church. Black Elk could be called many things—a modern mystic, a catechist, a “bridge builder,” as Sister Zielinski called him in our interview—but his story is about more than just a saint who lived in two worlds at once. This documentary can be considered one more piece of the recent American narrative pushing us continually to wake up to our past injustices. It called me to reckon with my ignorance of this tragedy and how it reveals the greater issue of how, as both Americans and Catholics, we address the history of oppression in this country.

This documentary called me to reckon with my ignorance of this tragedy and how it reveals the greater issue of how, as both Americans and Catholics, we address the history of oppression in this country.

As a young boy, Black Elk fell ill and had a great vision, describing a “sacred hoop” connecting all of humanity “as they must live together as one being.” This, as his biographer Michael F. Steltenkamp, S.J., says in the documentary, was “the early rumblings of [his] vocation." Black Elk pursued this vocation of bringing unity through his teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Black Elk taught the Lakota using a pictorial catechism called the ‘Two Roads Catechism,’ which depicted a black road and a red road. The red road leads from the birth of Christ to salvation, and Black Elk said he ‘saw [his] vocation as leading my people from the black road to the red road.’”

But Black Elk saw firsthand how this “red road” was littered with suffering for his people at the hands of white oppressors. As a warrior in the Battle of Little Bighorn and a first responder to the Wounded Knee Massacre, Black Elk witnessed violence and participated in active resistance as he worked to bring his vision to life.

“The buffalo is a spiritual gift—it gives all of itself,” says Basil Brave Heart, an elder and holy man among the Lakota American Indians, who was interviewed for the documentary. Brave Heart’s words are followed by a black-and-white image of a white settler standing atop a mountain of thousands of buffalo skulls, one of many stunning stills from Marquette University’s archives included in the film. “The buffalo, in our way, in our prayer, was a spiritual gift to the Lakota people,” he says, “because the buffalo gives all of itself. Food shelter, clothing.”

 

Damian M. Costello, a Catholic theologian, narrates how during Black Elk’s lifetime, white settlers were paid by the U.S. government to kill the buffalo in order to “starve out” and subjugate Native people. Brave Heart goes on to explain that the Lakota word for white man, “wasi’chu,” does not refer to the color of their skin. The translation means “someone who takes the fat,” which refers to greed and blatant disrespect for nature. “A dead buffalo is a dead Indian,” Brave Heart says. “Killing a buffalo was part of the genocide.”

White Catholics must reckon with our dual role in this in this cultural genocide. Red Cloud Indian School, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, was founded in 1888 by members of the Society of Jesus who had been expelled from Germany. In accordance with government policy, the Jesuits ran the school in English and forbade the Lakota children from speaking their native tongue. They forced the children to dress in European clothes and cut the boys’ hair against their will. Recent efforts to respond to that injustice include the Lakota Language Project.

The documentary explains that the long hair of Lakota men is an integral part of their cultural tradition. When hair is cut, it is an important ceremonial process. The hair is prayed over and reverently wrapped in cloth. Brave Heart remembers the sadness that accompanied the mandated hair cutting. “That hair that they cut fell on the floor,” he says. “It was walked on. That to me was a disgrace, a disrespect.”

“Walking the Good Red Road” sheds light on the cultural erasure that took place in these boarding schools, one of many horrifying acts of violence against Native Americans that characterize U.S. and Canadian history.

These regrettable histories are everywhere, but for too long they have remained undiscussed by white mainstream culture. “Walking the Good Red Road” sheds light on the cultural erasure that took place in these boarding schools, one of many horrifying acts of violence against Native Americans that characterize U.S. and Canadian history. In recent weeks, Americans have witnessed a call to rename university buildings, remove Confederate statues and rethink how school curriculums glorify white historical figures and ignore the struggles and triumphs of Indigenous people and people of color in the United States. In my own hometown, white violence is part of the fabric of our community.

Bruce’s Beach is a beachfront park in my neighborhood in Manhattan Beach, Calif., whose disturbing history was raised anew when a recent New York Times video began circulating on social media. Charles and Willa Bruce, an African-American couple, bought the land to build a resort in 1912, at a time when African-Americans were banned from most Los Angeles County beaches. After enduring threats from the Ku Klux Klan and protests from the city’s white residents, the Bruces were forced off their land in 1924 by the city’s claim of eminent domain. A plaque at Bruce’s Beach that recounts this history—all that is left of the Bruces’ resort—reads: “Those tragic circumstances reflected the views of a different time.”

This “different time” is not so far behind us, as I have come to recognize that some of my own elementary school curriculum was also racist. As a first grader, I was cast as a “Chinese twin” in our play called “We Come From Everywhere.” My classmates and I dressed as “Indians” and put on a play in second grade about their “friendships” with the white settlers. We built models of the missions and learned about St. Junípero Serra. We wore ponchos and made tortillas on “Mission Day,” doing all of this without discussing the nuanced and horrifying past of the mission system. What we did not do is talk about the history of segregation, whether it be the seizing of the Bruces’ resort or the intentional segregation Manhattan Beach has enforced by maintaining a separate school district, keeping funds for ourselves and away from poorer, more ethnically diverse communities in Los Angeles.

When I was a sophomore in high school, the home of a Black classmate was firebombed. The police refused to investigate the incident as a hate crime, and the town held vigils at the town’s iconic pier, where white residents tearfully repeated that “This is not OUR Manhattan Beach.”

Yes, I remember saying, firebombing a house, hate crimes, racial discrimination—it is OUR Manhattan Beach. Someone in our community did this. We need to sit with that. This is our town, and embedded in its history is deep racial prejudice and segregation.

It seems disingenuous for white Americans to claim to be shocked by racism, whether it rears its ugly head as a firebombing or the killing of an innocent man, when our culture regularly dresses up our violent history as bowdlerized children’s plays in our schools. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the ways in which we have rewritten history to gloss over injustice and suffering.

“Nicholas Black Elk was living in heaven long before he died,” says an anonymous commentator at the beginning of “Walking the Good Red Road.” We can still honor his memory by committing ourselves anew to the ministry of Black Elk to bring the kingdom of God to all who seek it through our own resistance and struggle for justice.

“Walking the Good Red Road: Nicholas Black Elk’s Journey to Sainthood” is available for free streaming on the website of the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D.

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