Black Elk, Catholic Catechist, Speaks

In the book, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, Americans were treated to a hefty dose of pagan American spirituality. Paul Harvey-like, I would venture to tell “the rest of the story.” In brief, it is this: the famed Lakota Sioux medicine man, warrior, and adventurer (who traveled to England to perform for the Queen) converted to Catholicism, was baptized “Nicholas,” and taught his kinsman the true religion.

The book Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala by Michael F. Steltenkamp seeks to tell that part of the story so often left out. There exists a review of this book online: Black Elk, Catholic Catechist: The Rest of the Story by Dennis Hamm, S.J. True, there is no small controversy over how committed Black Elk was to his Faith, or how much he may have slid back into some pagan practices during this time. (I shall not enter into the debate concerning whether his engaging in certain dances after his Baptism entailed an embrace of devilry, but I’m very skeptical that it did.) For this Ad Rem, I will offer my readers Black Elk’s own works on the subject, which I have garnered from an appendix (pgs. 577-578) of Charles Coulombe’s book, Puritan’s Empire.

(To see what Black Elk looked like, click here.)

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BLACK ELK’S LAST TESTAMENT

Holy Rosary Mission
Pine Ridge, S. Dakota
January 26, 1934

I shake hands with my white friends. Listen! I will speak words of truth. I told about the people’s ways of long ago and some of this a white man put in a book but he did not tell about current ways. Therefore I will speak again, a final speech.

Now I am an old man. I called my priest to pray for me and so he gave me Extreme Unction and Holy Eucharist. Therefore I will tell you the truth. Listen my friends!

For the last thirty years I have lived very differently from what the white man told about me. I am a believer. The Catholic priest Short Father baptized me thirty years ago. From then on they have called me Nick Black Elk. Very many of the Indians know me. Now I have converted and live in the true faith of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, I say in my own Sioux Indian language, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” as Christ taught us and instructed us to say. I say the Apostle’s Creed and I believe it all.

I believe in the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. I have now received six of these: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, and Extreme Unction.

For very many years I went with several priests to fight for Christ among my people. For about twenty years I helped the priests and I was a catechist in several communities. So I think I know more about the Catholic religion than many white men.

For eight years I participated in the retreat for catechists and from this I learned a great deal about the faith. I am able to explain my faith. From my faith I know Who I believe in so my work is not in vain.

All of my family is baptized. All my children and grandchildren belong to the Catholic Church and I am glad of that and I wish very much that they will always follow the holy road.

I know what St. Peter has to say to those men who forsake the holy commandments. My white friends should read carefully 2 Peter 2:20-22.

I send my people on the straight road that Christ’s church has taught us about. While I live I will never fall from faith in Christ.

Thirty years ago I knew little about the one we call God. At that time I was a very good dancer. In England I danced before our Grandmother, Queen Victoria. At that time I gave medicines to the sick. Perhaps I was proud, I considered myself brave and I considered myself to be a good Indian, but now I think I am better.

St. Paul also became better after his conversion. I know that the Catholic religion is good, better than the Sun dance or the Ghost dance. Long ago the Indians performed such dances only for glory. They cut themselves and caused the blood to flow. But for the sake of sin Christ was nailed on the cross to take our sins away. The Indian religion of long ago did not benefit mankind. The medicine men sought only glory and presents from their curing. Christ commanded us to be humble and He taught us to stop sin. The Indian medicine men did not stop sin. Now I despise sin. And I want to go straight in the righteous way that the Catholics teach us so my soul will reach heaven. This is the way I wish it to be. With a good heart I shake hands with all of you.

(signed) Nick Black Elk
Lucy Looks Twice [BAM note: Black Elk’s Daughter]
Joseph A. Zimmerman, S.J. [BAM note: The Jesuit missionary, Father Zimmerman, was adopted by a Lakota family and given the name, Wanblee Wankatuya, which means “High Eagle.” He spoke their language fluently. His writings and photography from the mission are soon to be on exhibition at The Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa.]

Raymond De Maillee, The Sixth Grandfather, pp. 59-61.

  • Charles

    Great post ! Brother, I am surprised you didn’t include the story told by Lucy Looks Twice about how Nicholas Black Elk, everyday while he prayed his Rosary (while smoking his pipe), was visited by a wicasu wakan (sacred man, i.e. priest) from Europe who would pray with him. Personally, I believe that this priest who came from Europe every day to pray with Black Elk was Padre Pio.

  • Thank you, Charles. I would love to have a source for that. Can you tell me where to read about it?

  • Charles

    I don’t have it with me at the moment, but I think it is in one of the later chapters of ‘Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala.” Lucy Looks Twice is quoted in block text as telling an anecdote about her father during his latter years in the 1940s. She indicates that he has little time left on earth and asks if he is ready to die; he respond that she should not fear because he is visited by a wicasa wakan from Europe every day while he prays the Rosary. I would give a page, but unfortunately I recently lent this book to somebody.

  • busch

    Thank you so much for posting this. One of Black Elk’s contemporaries, Iron Hail, a.k.a. “Dewey Beard” also converted. Dewey Beard was the last living survivor of both the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. My grandfather knew Dewey Beard very well and thought very highly of him. I’ve written a post on my blog page that may be of interest to you.

    http://oldmanoftheski.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/history-revisited-digging-for-the-truth/