Heȟáka Sápa, commonly known as Black Elk (December 1, 1863 – August 19, 1950[1]), was a wičháša wakȟáŋ ("medicine man, holy man"), heyoka of the Oglala Lakota people and educator about his culture. He was a second cousin of the war leader Crazy Horse and fought with him in the Battle of Little Bighorn. He survived the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. He toured and performed in Europe as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Black Elk
Heȟáka Sápa
Black Elk.jpg
Nicholas Black Elk, daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife Anna Brings White, photographed ca 1910.
Born(1863-12-01)1 December 1863
Died19 August 1950(1950-08-19) (aged 86)
Pine Ridge, South Dakota, United States
Resting placeSaint Agnes Catholic Cemetery, Manderson, South Dakota

Nicholas Black Elk
PatronageNative Americans

Black Elk is best known for relating his religious views, visions, and events from his life to poet John Neihardt. Neihardt published these in his book Black Elk Speaks in 1932. This book has since been published in numerous editions, most recently in 2008. Near the end of his life, he recorded the seven sacred rites of the Sioux to ethnologist Joseph Epes Brown which were published in 1947 in the book The Sacred Pipe. There has been great interest in these works among members of the American Indian Movement since the 1970s, and by others who have wanted to learn more about Native American religions.

Black Elk converted to Catholicism, becoming a catechist, but he also continued to practice Lakota ceremonies. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rapid City opened an official cause for his beatification within the Roman Catholic Church in 2016.[2] His grandson, George Looks Twice said, "He was comfortable praying with this pipe and his rosary, and participated in Mass and Lakota ceremonies on a regular basis".[3]


Black Elk was born into an Oglala Lakota family in December 1863 along the Little Powder River (at a site thought to be in the present-day state of Wyoming).[4]: 3  According to the Lakota way of measuring time (referred to as Winter counts), Black Elk was born in "the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed on Tongue River".[4]: 101 


When Black Elk was nine years old, he was suddenly taken ill; he lay prone and unresponsive for several days. During this time he had a great vision in which he was visited by the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan)"... spirits were represented as kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers."[4]: preface  When he was seventeen, Black Elk told a medicine man, Black Road, about the vision in detail. Black Road and the other medicine men of the village were "astonished by the greatness of the vision."[4]: 6–7 

Black Elk had learned many things in his vision to help heal his people. He had come from a long line of medicine men and healers in his family; his father was a medicine man, as were his paternal uncles. Late in his life as an elder, he told Neihardt about his vision. He also envisioned a great tree that symbolized the life of the earth and all people.[5] Neihardt later published these accounts in Black Elk Speaks. Since the late twentieth century, Neihardt's books have received renewed attention, largely from non-Lakota. An annotated edition was published by the State University of New York in 2008.[5]

In one of his visions, Black Elk describes being taken to the center of the earth, and to the central mountain of the world. Mythologist Joseph Campbell notes that an "axis mundi, the central point, the pole around which all revolves ... the point where stillness and movement are together ..." is a theme in several other religions, as well.[6] Campbell viewed Black Elk's statement as one key to understanding worldwide religious myth and symbols in general.[6]

From DeMallie's book:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.[4]: intro., 97 

Battle of the Little BighornEdit

Black Elk was present at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and described his experience to John Neihardt:

There was a soldier on the ground and he was still kicking. A Lakota [Sioux] rode up and said to me, 'Boy, get off and scalp him.' I got off and started to do it. He had short hair and my knife was not very sharp. He ground his teeth. Then I shot him in the forehead and got his scalp. ... After awhile [on the battlefield] I got tired looking around. I could smell nothing but blood, and I got sick of it. So I went back home with some others. I was not sorry at all. I was a happy boy.[7]

Buffalo Bill's Wild WestEdit

Black Elk (L) and Elk of the Oglala Lakota photographed in London, England in their grass dance regalia while touring with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, 1887

In 1887, Black Elk traveled to England with Buffalo Bill's Wild West,[8] an experience he described in chapter twenty of Black Elk Speaks.[9] On May 11, 1887, the troupe put on a command performance for Queen Victoria, whom they called "Grandmother England." Black Elk was among the crowd at her Golden Jubilee.[10]

In spring 1888, Buffalo Bill's Wild West set sail for the United States. Black Elk became separated from the group and the ship left without him, stranding him with three other Lakota. They subsequently joined another wild west show and he spent the next year touring in Germany, France, and Italy. When Buffalo Bill arrived in Paris in May 1889, Black Elk obtained a ticket to return home to Pine Ridge, arriving in autumn of 1889. During his sojourn in Europe, Black Elk was given an "abundant opportunity to study the white man's way of life," and he learned to speak rudimentary English.[4]: 9 

Wounded Knee MassacreEdit

Black Elk participated in the fighting at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. While on horseback, he charged soldiers and helped to rescue some of the wounded. He arrived after many of Spotted Elk's (Big Foot's) band of people had been shot, and he was grazed by a bullet to his hip.[11]

Later yearsEdit

For at least a decade, beginning in 1934, Black Elk returned to work related to his performances earlier in life with Buffalo Bill. He organized an Indian show to be held in the sacred Black Hills. But, unlike the Wild West shows, used to glorify Native American warfare, Black Elk created a show to teach tourists about Lakota culture and traditional sacred rituals, including the Sun Dance.[12]

Black Elk's first wife Katie converted to Roman Catholicism, and they had their three children baptized as Catholics. After Katie's death, in 1904 Black Elk, then in his 40s, converted to Catholicism. He also became a catechist, teaching others about Christianity. He married again and had more children with his second wife; they were also baptized and reared as Catholic. He said his children "had to live in this world."[13] In August 2016, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rapid City opened an official cause for his beatification within the Roman Catholic Church.[14][15][7]


Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She converted to Catholicism, and all three of their children were baptized as Catholics.

His son, Benjamin Black Elk (1899–1973), became known as the "Fifth Face of Mount Rushmore", posing in the 1950s and 1960s for tourists at the memorial. Benjamin played an uncredited role in the 1962 film How the West Was Won.[16]

After Katie's death in 1903, Black Elk became a Catholic the next year in 1904, when he was in his 40s. He was christened with the name of Nicholas and later served as a catechist in the church.[4]: 14 [17]: 44  After this, other medicine men, including his nephew Fools Crow, referred to him both as Black Elk and Nicholas Black Elk.[17]: 44 

The widower Black Elk married again in 1905 to Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. Together they had three more children, whom they also had baptized as Catholic. The couple were together until her death in 1941.

In the early 1930s, Black Elk spoke with John Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown, which led to the publication of Neihardt's books. His son Ben translated Black Elk's stories into English as he spoke. Neihardt's daughter Enid recorded these accounts. She later arranged them in chronological order for Neihardt's use. Thus the process had many steps and more people than Black Elk and Neihardt were involved in the recounting and recording.[18]

After Black Elk spoke with Neihardt over the course of several days, Neihardt asked why Black Elk had "put aside" his old religion and baptized his children. According to [Neihardt's daughter] Hilda, Black Elk replied, "My children had to live in this world."[13] In her 1995 memoir, Hilda Neihardt wrote that just before his death, Black Elk took his pipe and told his daughter Lucy Looks Twice, "The only thing I really believe is the pipe religion."[19]


Since the 1970s, the book Black Elk Speaks has become popular with those interested in Native Americans in the United States. With the rise of Native American activism, there was increasing interest among many in Native American religions. Within the American Indian Movement, especially among non-Natives and urban descendants who had not been raised in a traditional culture, Black Elk Speaks was an important source for those who were now seeking religious and spiritual inspiration. However, some critics believe John Neihardt, as the author and editor, may have exaggerated or altered some parts of the story to make it more accessible and marketable to the intended white audience of the 1930s, or because he did not fully understand the Lakota context.[20]

Some sought out Black Elk's nephew Frank Fools Crow, also a medicine man, for information on Native traditions.[18]

On August 11, 2016, the US Board on Geographic Names officially renamed Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota, Black Elk Peak in honor of Nicholas Black Elk and in recognition of the significance of the mountain to Native Americans.[21]

On October 21, 2017, the cause for canonization for Nicholas Black Elk was formally opened by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, paving the way for the possibility of him eventually being recognized as a saint. Black Elk's conversion to Roman Catholicism has confused many, both Indigenous and Catholic. Biographer Jon M. Sweeney addressed this duality in 2020, explaining, "Nick didn't see reason to disconnect from his vision life after converting to Catholicism.... Was Black Elk a true Lakota in the second half of his life? Yes.... Was he also a real Christian? Yes."[22] He is now designated as a "Servant of God", a title indicating that his life and works are being investigated by the Pope and the Catholic Church for possible canonization.[23] His work to share the Gospel with Native and non-Native people and harmonize the faith with Lakota culture were noted at the Mass.[24]

Books of Black Elk's accounts
  • Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (as told to John G. Neihardt), Bison Books, 2004 (originally published in 1932) : Black Elk Speaks
  • The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, University of Nebraska Press; new edition, 1985. ISBN 0-8032-1664-5.
  • The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (as told to Joseph Epes Brown), MJF Books, 1997
  • Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian (as told to Joseph Epes Brown), World Wisdom, 2007
Books about Black Elk

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Sources differ
  2. ^ Jon Sweeney, "The saint who danced for Queen Victoria," The Tablet, 23 January 2021, 10-11. Sweeney is also author of the book, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint (Liturgical Press, 2020) ISBN 0814644163
  3. ^ Petersen, Kirk (2018-08-25). "Vatican considers sainthood for Black Elk". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 2021-02-25.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g DeMallie, Raymond J (1984). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's teachings given to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-1664-5.
  5. ^ a b Neihardt, John, ed., Black Elk Speaks, annotated edition, published by SUNY, 2008, p. 33.
  6. ^ a b Campbell, Joseph (1991). The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers). Anchor Books edition (non-illustrated smaller-format edition). p. 111. ISBN 0-385-41886-8.
  7. ^ a b Frazier, Ian (26 December 2017). "Another Vision of Black Elk". Newyorker.com. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  8. ^ "BBC – Manchester – Features : Tracking the Salford Sioux". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  9. ^ "Black Elk Speaks : Index". Firstpeople.us. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  10. ^ "When she came to where we were, her wagon stopped and she stood up. Then all those people stood up and roared and bowed to her: "but she bowed to us." Neihardt, John, ed., Black Elk Speaks, annotated edition, published by SUNY, 2008, pp. 176-177.
  11. ^ John Gneisenau Neihardt (1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 274–. ISBN 0-8032-6564-6.
  12. ^ John G. Neihardt (1 August 2008). Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. SUNY Press. p. 313. ISBN 978-1-4384-2538-2. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  13. ^ a b DeMallie, Raymond J., ed. (1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. University of Nebraska Press. p. 47. ISBN 0-8032-6564-6.
  14. ^ "1950". Newsaints.faithweb.com. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  15. ^ "Diocese of Rapid City — The Catholic Church of western South Dakota". Diocese of Rapid City. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  16. ^ Kilen Ode, Jeanne (1984). Dakota Images: Benjamin Black Elk (PDF). 14. South Dakota Historical Society.
  17. ^ a b Mails, Thomas E. (1979). Fools Crow. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday. ISBN 0385113323.
  18. ^ a b Clyde Holler (2000). The Black Elk Reader. Syracuse University Press. pp. 39–43. ISBN 978-0-8156-2836-1. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  19. ^ Neihardt, Hilda (1999) [First published 1995]. Black Elk & Flaming Rainbow: Personal Memories of the Lakota Holy Man and John Neihardt. University of Nebraska Press. p. 119. ISBN 0-8032-3338-8.
  20. ^ Silvio, Carl (2003). "Sites about Black Elk Speaks". The Internet Public Library. Archived from the original on October 7, 2007. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  21. ^ "Feds rename Harney Peak, South Dakota's highest peak, to Black Elk Peak". Rapid City Journal. Associated Press. August 12, 2016. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  22. ^ Sweeney, Jon M. (2020). Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. pp. 85–86. ISBN 978-0-8146-4416-4.
  23. ^ "Cause Opens for Nicholas Black Elk, Holy Man of the Lakota". Ncregister.com. Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  24. ^ "Canonization process begins for Black Elk, the Native American who merged Lakota and Catholic culture". Americamagazine.org. 3 November 2017. Retrieved 17 April 2018.

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