BORN: December, 1863 • Little Powder River, Wyoming
DIED: August 19, 1950 • Manderson, South Dakota
Native American shaman; writer
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Black Elk, a medicine man and spiritual leader of the Lakota, one of the three branches of the Sioux nation, was among the most influential Native Americans of his generation. During his lifetime, the lands of his people in the modern-day U.S. states of South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming were opened to white settlement. The Indians who lived in these areas were moved to reservations or limited territories. Other Native Americans during the late nineteenth century, such as Sitting Bull (1831–1890) and Crazy Horse (1849–1877), battled against the settlers and gold miners and were killed by soldiers. Black Elk also fought as a young man and was present at two of the most important battles in the closing chapter of Indian independence: the defeat of George
"The first peace … is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us."
Armstrong Custer (1839–1879) at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana, and the 1890 massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Ultimately, however, Black Elk turned to the spiritual world to help his people recover from the loss of their lands. Said to experience powerful visions as a boy, he became a wicasa wakan, or holy man. He was also a strong supporter of the preservation, or saving, of traditional Indian religious practices. When his healing and spiritual work were limited by the whites, who the Native Americans referred to as Wasichu, Black Elk became a Catholic and spread his beliefs through that religion. These beliefs were documented in two important works, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as Told to John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow) and The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Both whites and Native Americans have used these books to understand Indian traditions and spirituality.
Born to medicine men
Black Elk was born in December 1863, on the Little Powder River in what is modern-day Wyoming in the United States. He was the son of Sees the White Crow and of Black Elk, who was a medicine man for the Big Road band of Oglalas (one of the seven tribes of the Lakotas). At the time of Black Elk's birth, the United States government was beginning to take over large parts of what were traditionally Native American lands and encouraging white settlers to move to these lands. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota added to the crush of new settlers, and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad also displaced many Native Americans. (The Transcontintental Railraod was the first railroad to span the entire continent, from the east coast to the west coast. It was completed in 1869.) Several treaties (agreements) promising land rights were made with the Indians, but they were often broken by the U.S. government. The Native Americans began to lose their traditional way of life, which involved following the herds of buffalo on the Great Plains and moving from camp to camp across hundreds of miles of open land.
Black Elk began having visions as a very young boy, with one of the most important occurring when he was nine years old. In this vision a voice came to him, saying that the Grandfathers were waiting for him. Suddenly, Black Elk fell ill and went into a coma for many days. During this time, he experienced visions of being taken to a cloud world where he met six Grandfathers. These men represented the central spirit or mystery of Lakota belief. Each Grandfather gave him some special gift, such as a wooden cup of water that represented the life force, a sacred pipe to cure sick people, or a red stick which sprouted blooming branches and represented rebirth.
The Grandfathers told Black Elk that he had the spirit of an eagle and would make his nation live once again. Black Elk also experienced tests of strength and endurance in the vision. Horses ran at him from the four directions of the compass. He saw a village of tepees arranged in a circle, but the village seemed to be dying until he rode through it and planted the red stick. The stick quickly grew into a tree at the center of the village, giving fresh life to the Native American people. More tests followed. He saw the rise and fall of his people, and he saw the sacred hoop (representing the harmony and oneness of being) broken and finally repaired again. When Black Elk woke, his parents told him that he had been sick for many days. Black Elk did not tell them of his great vision, but he knew that somehow he must work to help his people.
The shrinking world of the Lakota
In 1866 the Lakota chief Red Cloud (1822–1909) fought and defeated the soldiers of Lieutenant Colonel William Fetterman at Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming. Almost one hundred U.S. soldiers were killed, and Black Elk's father was injured in the battle. Red Cloud later signed the Treaty of 1868, which was supposed to save the Lakota territory from white settlement. By the terms of the treaty, the Lakota were promised the western part of modern-day South Dakota. This area included the sacred Black Hills, where Lakota tradition says man first emerged from underground to live in the world.
Despite this treaty the whites continued to push into the western lands. Custer led an patrol in 1874 and 1875 that discovered gold in the Black Hills, and the area was taken from the Lakota. By late spring of 1876, Black Elk's father had lost faith in his chief, Red Cloud, for accepting this white injustice. He took his family to join with the band led by Crazy Horse, his cousin and a chief who was still eager to fight the whites. Many other tribes gathered that summer at Greasy Grass, the Indian name for the Little Big Horn in Montana. They held a ritual Sun Dance, with the chief Sitting Bull as the leader. The next day the bands were attacked by soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry, led by Custer. The cavalry, however, was hugely outnumbered by the four thousand warriors it faced, and the Native Americans defeated the U.S. soldiers, killing Custer in the process. Black Elk, only twelve at the time, killed a soldier and took his first scalp at this battle.
This defeat of Custer's forces, however, did nothing to strengthen the Native Americans' claims to their land. In fact, the U.S. defeat brought more soldiers into their territory. When Crazy Horse was killed by soldiers in 1877, Black Elk's clan headed north to Canada, where they joined Sitting Bull outside the reach of the U.S. Army. In Canada, Black Elk continued to have visions, and he began to feel he should go back to his people and use the power his visions told him he had.
Black Elk returned to the United States in 1879, where he found most of the Native Americans gone and the buffalo herds destroyed by the whites. At age seventeen, Black Elk finally told an old medicine man, Black Road, about his visions, and this man became his teacher. Black Road trained Black Elk, telling him how he could use his visions and powers to create a ritual dance to educate his people. The next year Black Elk was forced to move to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. On the reservation he began to practice as a healer, or medicine man.
From Europe to the Ghost Dance
In 1886 Black Elk joined many other Native Americans, including Sitting Bull, in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill (1846–1917) was a scout and promoter who gathered a cast of hundreds and toured throughout the East Coast and Europe. Black Elk traveled with the show in an effort to learn the secrets of the Wasichu. He was disappointed, however, to learn that the whites did not have any special knowledge or powers, and that in fact they were less civilized in many ways than the Native Americans. Black Elk left Buffalo Bill after the show toured England. He joined another western show and traveled through Italy, Germany, and France. He stayed for two years in Paris, settling down with a French woman.
Black Elk had more visions while in Paris, and in 1889 he returned to Pine Ridge, where he found his family and his band suffering. The soldiers had taken their rifles and horses from them, and they were dying from diseases passed to them from the whites. Black Elk began working as a healer once again. He soon heard of a Paiute Indian named Wovoka who claimed to have had a vision for the renewal of the Native American way of life. Wovoka was leading the people in a movement called the Ghost Dance. This movement became a rallying cry for Indians across the Great Plains who thought that by dancing they could bring the buffalo back and get rid of the white settlers. Black Elk saw similarities in the vision of Wovoka and his own, and joined the Ghost Dancers. He developed colorful Ghost Shirts, which were thought to be able to protect the wearers even from bullets.
The Ghost Dance movement soon earned the suspicion of the soldiers and administrators running the reservations. They were afraid of renewed Indian wars and decided to put a stop to the practice. On December 29, 1890, soldiers rode into an Indian camp at Wounded Knee, not far from the Pine Ridge Reservation where Black Elk was living. They killed 153 men, women, and children in an effort to take their weapons away, and another 150 were missing after the attack. Black Elk rode to Pine Ridge and managed to save a baby from the massacre, but was too late to stop the rest of the slaughter. For him, this was the end of the dream of Indian independence.
Converts to Catholicism
Black Elk continued to work as a healer and holy man for the Indians on the reservation. He was married in 1892 to Katie War Bonnet. After she died in 1903 he converted to the Roman Catholic faith, taking Nicholas as his Christian name. This conversion was partly a practical measure, as the traditional Lakota spiritual practices and societies were not allowed on the reservation. Although his eyesight was beginning to fail, Black Elk committed himself to his new religion with great energy and made a thorough study of the Bible, the sacred book of Christianity. He became a catechist, or assistant to the priests. Sometimes, if no priest were available, he would even perform the church services. In 1905 Black Elk took a second wife, Anne Brings White, and they were together until her death in 1941. He had four sons and a daughter from his two marriages. Black Elk became an important elder in the Oglala Lakota band. He kept their traditional practices alive by organizing dances for tourists visiting the Black Hills.
For the Lakota people and most other Native Americans, religious practice provided a basic way of observing the world and interacting with it. The Lakota rhythm of life was determined by the movement of the sun and moon. They believed the universe was a whole, and saw the circle, or hoop, as the symbol for that unity. Another Lakota symbol of unity was the buffalo skull. The buffalo was a sacred animal to the Lakota because it provided food and skins to make clothing. At the very center of this unity was the supreme god of the Sioux religion, Wakan Tanka, who was called the Grandfather or the Great Mystery. According to Lakota tradition, their lives passed through four stages: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. At death, a person's spirit went to meet an old woman who would determine if the person was ready to pass on to the spirit world or would be reborn on earth to learn to live peacefully and in harmony. Values such as a sense of community, bravery, wisdom, and generosity were highly valued.
Holy men, or wicasa wakan, were responsible for conducting seven sacred rites or rituals given to the Lakota by the legendary White Buffalo Calf Woman. Along with instructions for these holy rituals, she also gave the Lakota Cannupa Wakan, or the sacred pipe. By smoking it during ceremonies, the Lakota could send their prayers upward in the smoke to Wakan Tanka. The first of the seven rites was Inikagapi, or life renewal. During this the Lakota cleansed their bodies in a sweat lodge, a dome-shaped sauna. The second was a vision quest in which young men would be isolated on a hill for days without food or water until they experienced a vision. A third rite involved grieving for a year for dead relatives. The fourth rite, the Sun Dance, was one of the most important of all. It was a yearly gathering of tribes and bands during the summer in which participants sacrificed bits of their skin and tied them to a sacred tree at the center of the dance. Other rites included a young person taking an adopted family, prayers for a young girl just entering maturity, and a game in which a girl threw a ball up and many young men attempted to catch it. The winner was thought to be more fortunate than other participants.
In the early 1930s, poet John G. Neihardt (1881–1973) interviewed Black Elk to get information on the Ghost Dance for a cycle of poems he was writing. Black Elk did not speak English, so he told his stories to his son Benjamin, who then translated them for Neihardt. The Lakota holy man was impressed by Neihardt's interest in Native American affairs. He decided to entrust him with his life's story and the lessons he had learned and wished to pass on to others before he died. Working together, the two men created Black Elk Speaks, which follows the story of Black Elk's life up to the massacre at Wounded Knee. When the book was published in 1932, it was a critical success. The book's descriptions of visions and traditional Lakota values, however, were disliked by the Jesuit priests Black Elk worked with.
Black Elk Speaks has become a classic and a favorite on school reading lists. Since its publication scholars have disagreed about how much of the work is Black Elk's and how much is Neihardt's. Regardless, as the Native American author N. Scott Momaday (1934–) noted in A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John G. Neihardt, the Black Elk-Neihardt team "is one of the truly fortunate collaborations in our American heritage, bridging times, places, and cultures." Momaday also calls the work "an extraordinary human document."
Other authors came to talk with Black Elk after Black Elk Speaks was published. One of these was Joseph Epes Brown (1920–2000), who interviewed Black Elk during the winter of 1947–48. Brown focused on recording the rituals of the Lakota Sioux. His book, The Sacred Pipe, was published in 1953, three years after Black Elk's death at eighty-six.
Black Elk is an important figure in both his own culture and the culture of whites. He contributed to the renewal of his people through his role as a holy man. He was able to blend the cultures of Native American and white by serving in both traditional Lakota spirituality and the Catholic Church. His sayings have become part of a revival in native wisdom and faith. For non-Native Americans, his words have helped inspire interest in traditional and alternative religions. Though at the end of Black Elk Speaks the medicine man appears saddened that he was unable to save his people, others believe that Black Elk accomplished his mission. Gretchen M. Battaile, an American critic and educator, for example, noted in an essay for A Sender of Words, "By keeping their traditions alive, the [Lakota] people continue to live. Through the telling of his story, Black Elk fulfilled his vision."
For More Information
Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as Told to John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow) Illustrated by Standing Bear. New York: Morrow, 1932. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
Black Elk. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Edited by Joseph Epes Brown. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.
Black Elk. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Edited by Raymond J. DeMallie. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Deloria, Vine, Jr., ed. A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John G. Neihardt. Salt Lake City, UT: Howe Brothers, 1984.
Rice, Julian. Black Elk's Story: Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
Steltenkamp, Michael F. Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
Neihardt, John. "The Book That Would Not Die." Western American Literature (February 1972): 227-30.
Lorenz, Caroline and Rod. "Nicholas Black Elk, Cathecist." Olive Leaf. http://www.peace.mb.ca/00.Native/nlrnz02.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).