Native American History

The Challenge of Black Elk’s Visions

Black Elk on Harney Peak late in life

I first learned about Black Elk when asked to read the book, Black Elk Speaks, in a high school religion class. The book is the now well-known account of Black Elk’s spiritual experience as a Lakota youth, when at the age of nine he encountered life-changing visions while dangerously ill. It was written by John G. Neihardt, and it has been influential for many, but not without critical commentary regarding its historical accuracy. In my high school religion class we were asked to write an essay comparing Black Elk’s visions with those of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. To compare the two, given their significantly different temporal and cultural backgrounds, was and is a serious but also a notable challenge, and one still worth considering.

Here is the paradox that lies at the center of the question about Nicholas Black Elk (Nicholas being his baptismal name) and his identity, and one of the most beautiful persons about whom I have come to know through a book. He was present at and had vivid memories of both the battle of Little Bighorn as well as of what is rightly termed the massacre at Wounded Knee. In adult life, he was recognized and affirmed as what Anglo’s call a ‘medicine man’ among his own people. Yet, he was also received into the Roman Catholic Church and served in a distinguished way as a Catechist for that faith.

Here is a further paradox. Years ago, I met a former Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota, also a Lakota community member, who told me this. There were many baptized Episcopalians at the battle of Little Bighorn. And most of them were on the Native American side! To appreciate this comment may take some study, and perhaps deserves some reserve regarding the possibility of hyperbole. Yet, with due consideration of the history of Episcopal Church missions in Lakota territory, his view may well have some merit.

But, as the photo at the top suggests, near the end of his life, Black Elk still practiced the religion in which he had been nurtured as a child and youth. To me, this is part of the mysterious beauty of Black Elk. Perhaps it may also illustrate a documented propensity of some Native Americans¬†to preserve an intense privacy about their culture while also realistically engaging with emerging external circumstances in a sincere way. Black Elk’s willingness to retain the spiritual world view of his childhood while accepting the Christian world view of his adult faith, in a both-and way, has not been without criticism. Yet, and maybe because I grew up in Japan, his example of ‘cultural engagement’ positively affects me.

Nicholas Black Elk serving as a catechist of the Roman Catholic Church

For Anglo and other non-Native Americans who wish to become more knowledgeable about the history of many of the peoples who populated this land before our arrival, Black Elk’s story is both informative and yet also challenging. Here is someone who engaged his spiritual life in a deeply serious and experiential way, and who was willing to reflect on its significance from more than one point of view. Whether we might identify with his personal commitments or not, many find Black Elk to be a compelling example of someone who takes his or her faith to be at the core of one’s life.

I continue to find him and his life story, while not easily understood, to be very moving. What I have come to learn about Black Elk has certainly impacted me. May God bless the memory of Nicholas Black Elk.

In addition to the books by Jackson and Neihardt, I warmly commend Peter Cozzen’s book, The Earth is Weeping.

Black Elk (on the left) photographed as a young man


I want to thank Martha, who is my editor. For anyone interested in the questions raised by the life and commitments of Black Elk, I recommend the following books: Black Elk: The Life of of an American Visionary, by Joe Jackson; Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neighardt; and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary Mystic, by Michael F. Steltenkamp. Joe Jackson’s book provides a particularly compelling portrait of Black Elk. Peter Cozzen’s book, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, provides the best overall historical background for a proper appreciation for Black Elk and his community’s story.