On this day in 1950, Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk died, at age 87. He lived, along with his cousin Crazy Horse, during the last days of the Indian Wars – witnessing both the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn and later in life the massacre at Wounded Knee. Black Elk was part of the first generation of Lakotas to be confined to reservations. Extreme poverty and communal responsibility were factors that led him to both join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, travel internationally, and agree to be interviewed for the book for which he is best known, the much debated Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt. One of the major controversies with the book is the exclusion of Black Elk’s faith in Jesus and mission – as well as the withholding of payment for participation in the work.
As a medicine man, Black Elk had prepared to visit a dying boy in the village, only to encounter a Jesuit priest praying there first. He encountered a power greater than his own, and accepted an invitation to spend time at the mission. He was baptized and took the name Nicholas shortly after. As a Catholic Catechist (an often downplayed aspect of his life), he was widely considered an apostle to the plains Indians. Thousands of people were brought to faith – both Indian and non-native, through his work and famous preaching.
His primary work was with new converts and as an evangelist alongside the priests — when priests were not available his duties included baptizing and burials. His passion for Christ as the Creator and fulfiller of things drove him to vigorous and passionate study. Nick thought that many of the Lakota spiritual traditions had come from God to teach them to live in a good way and that Christ made sense of all of it. Many experts agree that his practice of the Christian faith, life, and mission were well-integrated with his worldview and practice as a Lakota.
One such integration is the change in the symbolism for the sun dance ceremony. Traditionally, it was a time of fasting, prayer, and suffering in order to attain personal power for victory in battle. It has become, and many credit Nicholas Black Elk for this shift, a ceremony of prayer and fasting on behalf of all the people – including enemies. For Nick, it was a ceremony to remind the people of the suffering and death of Christ for all of creation.
Circle of Hope Daily Prayer pauses on the days we celebrate our spiritual ancestors to meditate on their example and take courage from their witness. See more about Black Elk there [Daily Prayer :: WIND]