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Black Elk

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Black Elk, revered visionary of the Oglala Lakota
Black Elk, revered visionary of the Oglala Lakota

Nicholas Black Elk was a Native American Oglala Lakota visionary prophet and, later, a Catholic lay preacher who lived from 1863 to 1950. A second cousin to the war leader Crazy Horse, he was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, when he was 12 years old, and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, when he was 27. Between these two encounters, he toured the United States and Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, portraying the role of an insurgent "Indian warrior." Black Elk was also a heyoka, a sacred clown who is a jester, social critic, and satirist, whose medium is contrarian acts and bold statements in daily life: bundling up during a heat wave, wearing clothes inside out, and generally doing the opposite of what most people do. Heyokas routinely violate cultural norms, both inspiring critique and, paradoxically, reinforcing traditions. In tough times they bring laughter; in good times they upset complacency.

The amateur ethnologist John Neihardt interviewed Black Elk, and In 1932 published the famous book Black Elk Speaks, which found its greatest audience among white seekers in the Americas and Europe, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Neihardt's text eventually came under fire for inaccuracy by both traditionalist Lakota people and Native American scholars. Raymond Mallie's The Sixth Grandfather, published in 1985, analyzed Neihardt’s original interviews with Black Elk, and included transcripts. Another book, The Sacred Pipe, by Joseph Epes Brown, published in 1953, consisted of Black Elk’s descriptions of Lakota sacred rites; young Native Americans have used it as a guide to reviving lost religious practices.

In 1896, Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, who was a convert to Catholicism. She died in 1903, and the next year he too converted to Catholicism. He remarried in 1905 to Anna Brings White. All of his children from both marriages were baptized in the Catholic faith, however, from 1934 though 1944 he also organized and participated in an "Indian Show" to teach tourists the ways of the Lakota, even allowing them to observe the sacred Sun Dance. Meanwhile, as a catechist and lay preacher, Black Elk baptized hundreds of Lakota people, celebrated masses, preached sermons, and was a humble, upright Christian man. In 2016, a group of American Catholic bishops began the process of his beatification, the first step on the path to Catholic sainthood. This movement was started by his grandson, George Looks Twice, after Looks Twice attended the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, another Native American. However, because of the complex history of relations between Catholicism and the Lakota people, the prospect of his possible sainthood is controversial. For instance, his great-granddaughter, Charlotte Black Elk, has stated that he became a Catholic for pragmatic reasons, and never gave up his traditional Lakota beliefs. In support of this, John Neihardt's daughter, Hilda Neihardt, wrote in 1985 that Black Elk had told her that he converted to Catholicism because, "My children had to live in this world," and that just before his death, he held his sacred Lakota pipe and told his daughter Lucy Looks Twice, "The only thing I really believe is the pipe religion." Thus, for some, the prospect of his canonization is an act of cultural appropriation, while for others, it is a source of cultural strength.

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