Nicholas Black Elk, daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife Anna Brings White are seen in their home in Manderson, South Dakota, around 1910. Photo: Denver Public Library

Native Sun News Today: Sainthood sought for Lakota healer Nicholas Black Elk

Church wants sainthood for Black Elk

By Cecily Hilleary
Voice of America
Special to Native Sun News Today

WASHINGTON —  Last month, U.S. Catholic bishops voted unanimously to pursue sainthood for Oglala Lakota healer and visionary Nicholas Black Elk, who is credited with bringing hundreds of Native Americans to the Catholic faith.

It is the realization of a dream for Catholic Lakota on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, among them, some of Black Elk’s descendants. But not everyone one supports the move, mindful of the Church’s role in the historic suppression of indigenous cultures.

Most of what is known about Black Elk is derived from an autobiography dictated to writer John Neihart in 1932, “Black Elk Speaks.” He was born in present-day Wyoming in December, 1863, according to the Lakota calendar, and given the name of Hehaka Sapa, literally, “Black Elk.” Black Elk grew up during the period of American settler expansion into the West and the U.S. governments forced removal of Native Americans onto reservations. During this time, missionaries from various Christian denominations flocked to reservations in order to “save” Native souls. Catholic priests of the Jesuit order — called “black robes” by Lakota — established a mission at Pine Ridge.

Black Elk’s childhood was punctuated by religious visions which led him to later serve as a wicasha wakan, a traditional healer and spiritual leader. Black Elk announced his vocation in 1881, but after the U.S. government banned many Native American religious practices, he was forced to go underground.

“The Jesuits could tolerate Lakota spirituality and practice, but they did not like the healing ceremonies,” said Damian M. Costello, author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism. “They saw them as calling in spirits in an inappropriate way.”

In 1904, Costello explained, a Jesuit priest angrily interrupted Black Elk while he was performing a healing ceremony.

“In the aftermath of that, Black Elk was invited to Holy Rosary Mission, and he stayed there, learned about the faith and was eventually baptized," he said.

Black Elk took the Christian name of Nicholas, after the 4th century healer, St. Nicholas. For the next 40 years, he served as a Church catechist, or lay cleric, and is said to have brought more than 400 Native Americans to the Catholic faith.

The road to sainthood

The movement to have him declared a saint began in March 2016, when some of Black Elk’s descendants presented a formal petition to Rapid City, South Dakota, Bishop Robert D. Gruss.

Gruss formally opened the case for sainthood on October 21 during a Mass at Pine Ridge’s Holy Rosary Church.

“Our task now is to continue to gather more information, testimony about his life, and to pray that he is found worthy to have his cause moved forward,” Gruss said.

The canonization process involves three steps: First is the declaration of a person’s heroic virtues, after which the church declares the person “venerable.” Second is beatification, after which the person is called “blessed.” Third is canonization, sainthood.

Petitioners must show evidence of two miracles occurring before and after beautification.

Bill White, a Lakota Catholic, will serve as the postulator for Black Elk’s cause. His job is to gather evidence to present to Rome.

“I believe God spoke to Black Elk at a very early age, and it isn’t likely that this was a message that just came from his village,” White said. “The message that we must all live in peace and harmony, it was such a Christian concept that it had to have come from God Himself, and it actually informed him and gave him direction for the rest of his life.”


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Church wants sainthood for Black Elk