Nicholas Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux, came into the world in Wyoming before it was Wyoming, and died in the village of Manderson, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, in 1950. At his death, he was thought to be about eighty-four years old. The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, a publication of the University of Nebraska, calls him “probably the most influential Native American leader of the twentieth century.” Unlike Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, the previous century’s famous Sioux, Black Elk won fame not for deeds of war but because of a vision. During an illness when he was nine years old, he saw something that can be interpreted as the totality of earthly creation conjoined in glorious, sky-spanning unity. He described his vision to John G. Neihardt, a Nebraska poet, in 1930, and Neihardt put it in his book of the holy man’s recollections, “Black Elk Speaks.”
Almost no one bought the book when it first appeared, but in time it picked up readers by the millions. Non-Native American people looking for alternative kinds of spirituality sought it out, and young Native Americans used it and another Black Elk text, “The Sacred Pipe,” his descriptions of Sioux rites, compiled by the anthropologist Joseph Epes Brown, to revive religious practices from the past. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, “Black Elk Speaks” became the kind of book one carried in a backpack while hitchhiking around the West. (In this, I am describing myself.)
Neihardt left out a key fact about Black Elk: after his baptism, which took place on the name day of St. Nicholas, in December of 1904, Black Elk was a practicing and proselytizing Catholic. He remained one until his death. He baptized hundreds of Sioux and other Indians, taught the Bible, held Masses, preached sermons, and lived a humble, righteous, and useful life. By all accounts, he was a model of what a good Christian ought to be, and more so. Last month, the bishops of the U.S. Catholic Church, meeting in assembly in Baltimore, voted to begin a process that, if successful, will end with Nicholas Black Elk being declared a saint.
Credit : Ian Frazier for www.newyorker.com | Photo : Transcendental Graphics / Getty