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August 19 – Nicholas Black Elk

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Acts 15:5-11

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

More thoughts for meditation about Black Elk

On this day in 1950, Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) died, at age 87. He lived, along with his cousin Crazy Horse, during the last days of the Indian Wars. He participated, at about age 12, in the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876. He was wounded during the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. 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 in 1886, travel internationally, and to agree to be interviewed for the book for which he is best remembered, the much debated Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt in 1930. 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. Others say that when Black Elk provides the details of seven traditional rituals of the Oglala people in John Epes Brown’s, The Sacred Pipe, it shows that the tribal traditions concerning Wakan Tanka (The Great Spirit) were more important to him than his Catholicism.

John Neihardt’s interpretation of Black Elk put into a prayer:

One integration Black Elk accomplished 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 Black Elk, it was a ceremony to remind the people of the suffering and death of Christ for all of creation.

Further Reading

Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism by Damian Costello

Short Article on his life and faith by Pat McNamera

Black Elk, Woke — book review by Ann Neumann that explores meaning and integration.

Suggestions for action

Pray for all people. List the people you consider your enemies first, as you pray. consider the depth of faith it took to be confined to the reservation prison and reorient the sun dance to intercession.

Consider again how you may benefit from the domination system, or how, in essence, your prayers may be mostly for power in battle, not strength in suffering love.

Black Elk’s faith was “indigenized,” it was enculturated into the ways of the Lakota. He saw how the wisdom of his people also led to faith in Jesus. The famous book about Black Elk’s wisdom left out his integration with his faith. Are you living by some wisdom that is not integrated or even at odds with your faith?