Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1993
Volume 5, Number 1

Black Elk, Catholic Catechist: The Rest of the Story

A review of Michael F. Steltenkamp, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). 209 PP

Reviewed by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Professor of Theology

Black Elk (1863-1950) may well be the most famous native North American. That he is even better known than Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull is due mainly to the achievement of John Neihardt. The Nebraskan poet interviewed the Oglala holy man when the latter was 68. Out of those sessions he published, in 1932, the now classic Black Elk Speaks, which presents a stunning portrait of Black Elk as late 19th-century visionary and medicine man. Out of another set of interviews during the winter of 1947-48 (three years before the subject died), Joseph Epes Brown published The Sacred Pipe (1953), which gave the world further material from Black Elk's 19th-century medicine-man years. These two books are responsible for most people's picture of the man. Curiously missing from this portrait is the latter and longer part of his life-the fifty years lived in the 20th century, including his conversion to Christianity in 1904 and his long and productive career as a Catholic catechist.

Anthropologist Raymond DeMallie filled in the gap partially in 1984, when he published The Sixth Grandfather, an edition of the original field notes from which Neihardt wrote his book. DeMallie introduced that material with a lengthy discussion of Neihardt's transmutation of Black Elk's statements along with some reflections on the medicine man's conversion and career as a catechist. Even in this book, the focus remained the old days of Black Elk's 19th-century career. No one had yet told the full story of the person the people on the Pine Ridge reservation remember best, Nick Black Elk, Catholic catechist, man of song, humor, great speeches, boundless energy, and lay leader responsible for some 400 conversions. Jesuit anthropologist Michael Steltenkamp has finally told that story. Using as his primary source the reminiscences of the holy man's only daughter, Lucy (Black Elk) Looks Twice, supplemented by interviews with other eye-witnesses, Steltenkamp tells the story of Nick Black Elk, the catechist. The author quotes one of his former teachers, Joseph Epes Brown himself, as warrant for this work: "I have felt it improper that this phase of his life was never presented either by Neihardt or indeed by myself. I suppose somehow it was thought this Christian participation compromised his 'Indianness,' but I do not see it this way and think it time that the record was set straight.

In format, the study mainly presents stretches of the transcript of Lucy's taped testimony interspersed with Steltenkamp's commentary, which draws from his own anthropological and historical research as well as from his personal experience of the interviews. This biographical material is prefaced by a chapter on the Lakota culture and its contemporary analysts. The life-story is followed by a chapter reviewing and evaluating, in the light of this second half of Black Elk's life, the diverse body of material generated by the earlier Neihardt/Brown portrait of Black Elk--including academic studies, popular literature, films, and social and political commentary.

The richly detailed anecdotal material provided by Lucy and other contemporaries is full of surprises.

Black Elk's Christian conversion was occasioned in part by an abrupt confrontation with a local Jesuit priest who interrupted his Lakota ritual at the bedside of a dying child. Out of this collision of cultures, which Steltenkamp finds in some ways embarrassing to relate (but Lucy finds funny), came a relationship that Black Elk could understand as providential.

The same zest for learning and adventure that led a young Black Elk to join the Buffalo Bill show on its European tours led him to quiz the Pine Ridge Jesuits constantly about the story of Jesus and the church. This active adult learner became one of the busiest and most successful native catechists on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In his catechetical work, Black Elk used a currently popular visual aid called the Two Roads Map featuring a pre-Christian black road and a Christian red road. Steltenkamp makes a fascinating case that some of the vision imagery that Neihardt transmitted regarding black and red roads may have been Black Elk's retrospective blending of conventional Lakota symbolism with his own (by then, three-decade) experience of the Two Roads Map.

The book is full of such fresh angles on an American figure whose image had grown increasingly familiar. Steltenkamp shows us how incomplete and even inaccurate that received image was. What emerges is a down-to-earth, yet inspiring portrait of a Native American who had embraced Christianity as the full revelation of the Wakan Tanka (Lakota for God) he had begun to know as an Oglala holy man. His practice of the Catholic faith was not (as some would have it) a regrettable caving in to Euro-American subjugation but a joyful extension of his life-long quest to find and serve the Great Spirit.

The book is enhanced by two maps, eighteen photos, an index/glossary, and detailed endnotes filling in background and discussing the pertinent secondary literature. One senses that the quest for the historical Black Elk is not over. The study has something to fascinate scholar and general reader alike. Teachers of comparative religion and U.S. religious history will find the book a useful resource and healthy challenge to stereotypes of Native American experience.

Church workers will delight in this stunning story of a lay leader adapting to changing times. It is a fascinating window on a little-known segment of U.S. church history and a welcome corrective to some of the overly negative readings of church mission work that surfaced during the Columbian quincentennial.