A proud Lakota, a beloved teacher of Native American traditions, a second cousin to Crazy Horse, a member of Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling show, and a potential for sainthood in the Catholic Church: Nicholas Black Elk lived a life filled to bursting with facets of his identity.
While some may recognize his name from the popular book ‘Black Elk Speaks,’ this work chronicles only part of Black Elk’s life story. Following his baptism in 1904, Black Elk taught himself to read scripture in his native language Lakota. His passion for his Catholic faith was evident and he went on to be appointed catechist to his community and served as a long-term missionary alongside the Jesuits.
Yet, this was not a story of Black Elk exchanging one identity or spirituality for another, but instead of the miracle that is recognizing the song which your heart has hummed all along. As a dedicated member of the Lakota tribe, Black Elk wove the spirituality of the Lakota people into his Catholic faith. In each he saw and taught a love and care for creation, God’s people, and the spirit within us all. He wrote about the interweaving of Native tradition and Catholicism in his book ‘The Sacred Pipe,’ articulating how the connection is meant to “to help in bringing peace upon the earth, not only among men, but within men and between the whole of creation.”
Black Elk held the traditional role of a deacon, serving as a catechist and ministering to his parish when the priest was traveling. His zeal in service and missionary work have garnered the attention of many who hope for his eventual sainthood. Father Daoust, the current priest in Black Elk’s parish, states “Putting Black Elk forward [for sainthood] is an example of Natives not just receiving gifts in their conversion but bringing gifts and in turn enriching the church and how we understand God working in our world.”
As we in the States celebrate Thanksgiving and Native Heritage Day, I encourage you each to consider both how we bring our full selves to our faith and how we welcome the identities of others into organized religion. Nicholas Black Elk beautifully enhanced our understanding of spirituality and creation through his Native American identity woven within his Catholicism. As Father Dauost says, Black Elk brought “a gift of Native American spirituality to the Church,” what gifts will you bring and what will you welcome?