Black Elk (1863-1950), Oglala Lakota Spiritual Leader and Healer

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Black Elk
(1863-1950), Oglala Lakota spiritual leader and healer.

Nicholas Black Elk attracted international attention with the publication of Black Elk Speaks (1932), a narrative of his life and visions based on interviews by John G. Neihardt. Black Elk's "Great Vision," which came in a twelve-day coma when he was nine years old, revealed to him the roles of warrior, healer, and spiritual guide that would be his responsibility for the remainder of his life; the images also showed the coming devastation of his people, but ended with his seeing, from the top of Harney Peak in the Black Hills, a future when all peoples would live in respect and harmony. In 1882 he did his first healing, using a flowering herb he found that he had seen first in his Great Vision and later during a vision quest when he was eighteen; other power-giving visions guided him throughout his life. Black Elk's personal story often mirrors the dramatic transition in culture his people endured. He was a participant in or in the vicinity of significant events: the battle with Custer (1876); the killing of his cousin Crazy Horse (1877); and the Wounded Knee massacre by the U.S. cavalry (1890). Before the massacre, he had joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show (1886–1889), hoping his travels would help him to understand the religion and power of the Wasi'chu, the white people; and after returning he had taken part in the Ghost Dance cultural revival initiated by the Paiute Wovoka. In 1904 he was baptized a Catholic, receiving the name Nicholas. He became a catechist for the church, often working with the Jesuits; appeared on the cover of The Indian Sentinel magazine of the Bureau of Catholic Missions in 1926; and was a representative to the Catholic Sioux Indian Congress in 1946. But he retained an affinity for traditional spiritual ways, and he wove them into his Christian faith; the two spiritual approaches had been integrated in his Ghost Dance vision of a man bathed in light, whom he later identified as the son of the Great Spirit. While earlier books focused exclusively (Neihardt 1932) or primarily (Brown 1953) on Black Elk's Lakota ways, recent works (DeMallie 1985, Steltenkamp 1993, Holler 1995) have rounded out his story with details and analysis of his life and work as a Catholic. Today Black Elk's legacy for many is his exposition of fundamental Lakota beliefs, ceremonies, and spiritual teachings; the ageless quality of this focus often obscures the Christian era of his life, when he internalized Lakota and Catholic spiritual dynamics as complementary expressions of sacred reality. Black Elk has become an inspiration to generations of Native American men and women seeking their historical and spiritual roots. Stories of his visions and teachings helped inspire the twentieth-century revival of Native American culture, and aided Native American indigenous peoples' human rights struggles initiated in the 1960s and continuing to the present. He is revered as a visionary, healer, and teacher among the Lakota, members of other indigenous cultures, and people of all faiths.

See alsoNative American Religions; Roman Catholicism; Spirituality; Visionary; Vision Quest.


Brown, Joseph Epes, ed. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk'sAccount of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. 1953.

DeMallie, Raymond J., ed. The Sixth Grandfather: BlackElk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. 1985.

Holler, Clyde. Black Elk's Religion: The Sun Dance andLakota Catholicism. 1995.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Storyof a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. 1932.

Steltenkamp, Michael F. Black Elk: Holy Man of theOglala. 1993.

John Hart