Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was an Oglala Sioux medicine man in the transition period from nomadic to reservation life for his people and then, as an interviewee, a source for Native American tribal traditions and Plains Indian spirituality.
Born in December 1863 within a paternal lineage of shamans, or medicine men, Black Elk was nearly 70 years old when John Neihardt, Nebraska's poet laureate, interviewed him and several other Sioux elders in May 1931. This contact, the result of Neihardt's search to find survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 1890, produced the literary classic in American western and Native American writing, Black Elk Speaks, published in 1932. Black Elk became known to the world beyond Pine Ridge Reservation through Neihardt's literary interpretation, which covered the first 27 years of his life.
The actual interviews highlighted prominent features of Plains Indian nomadic life, including accounts of military conflict with the United States government, concluding with the 1890 tragic encounter at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. As a teenager, Black Elk had also been at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Montana, the last stand of General George Custer in 1876. Ten years later he joined William (Buffalo Bill) Cody's Wild West Show on tour in the United States, Great Britain, and the European continent between 1886 and 1889.
The central event in Black Elk's life, however, occurred when he was nine years old while suffering from a lifethreatening illness. He had then "the great vision" that took him to the spiritual center of the Lakota world where he was presented to the Six Grandfathers that symbolized Wakan Tanka or The Great Mysteriousness expressed in the powers of the four directions and of the earth and sky. In this transforming experience, Black Elk received instructions typical of shamanic initiation. For the rest of his life, the vision possessed determinative power. Especially in his young adult years, he sought to act out parts of it for the sake of preserving the unity and survival of his people. Aided by a wise elder and medicine man named Black Road, Black Elk launched his career as a shamanic healer at Fort Keogh, Montana, in the spring of 1881. Present as witnesses were his relatives, who had returned from Canada where they had been since 1877 following the death of the warrior Crazy Horse, a cousin of Black Elk's father.
The great vision, as told to Neihardt in 1931, became the center of the text of Black Elk Speaks. In remembering it so vividly, Black Elk resurrected its spiritual power, which had not waned despite his sincere conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1904. His depiction stands as a major source in visionary religious literature, attracting the interest in the last half century of symbologists, depth psychologists, and scholars in comparative mythology and prompting pan-Indian revitalization movements of traditional rituals.
Twice married, Black Elk's wife of 1892, Katie War Bonnett, died in 1903. Nicholas, added as a Christian name, lived with his second wife, Anna Brings White, from 1905 until her death in 1941. The father of four sons and a daughter, Black Elk was particularly dependent upon the third and last child by Katie, Benjamin, who provided him a home in his failing years and who also proved enormously helpful to Neihardt's projects. A victim of tuberculosis, Black Elk was treated first in 1912 and as late as the last years of his life. From the fifth decade of his life, he suffered from poor eyesight.
Traveling as a catechist for Roman Catholicism, Black Elk visited the Wind River, Winnebago, and Sisseton reservations between 1908 and 1910. But he kept some traditional practices alive in performing dances for pageants for summer tourists to the Black Hills, first probably in the late 1920s and certainly after 1935. When first hosting Neihardt, he ritualized the occasion of the telling of the great vision and of his deep involvement in the corporate life of his people. The event was so potent that Christian missionaries required Black Elk to disavow any intent to renew the traditional practices of the Sioux. Thirteen years later, he gave Neihardt another interview which became a novel entitled When the Tree Flowered when it was published the year after Black Elk died. After the interview of 1944, no disavowal was required of the octogenarian.
In 1947 Joseph Epes Brown, later a scholar of Native American religion and culture, met Black Elk in Nebraska. Brown spent the next winter with the elderly spiritual teacher in Manderson, South Dakota. Through that contact and their conversations Black Elk provided the details of seven traditional rituals of the Oglala people which Brown published as The Sacred Pipe. They included a purification ceremony (the sweat lodge), crying for a vision, female puberty, marriage, soul-keeping, throwing the ball, and the great medicine of all traditional Plains people, the Sun Dance.
Even though there is no public evidence that Black Elk practiced the healing rituals of a shaman after he converted to Catholicism, all of his adult life, beginning with his first major exposure to the world of "white" America and Europe, was spent creatively blending native and Christian perspectives. As catechist, he retained the role of spiritual leader, focused as always on the welfare and future of his people. Black Elk's bicultural religious orientation went far beyond the impression mediated by Neihardt's first book, which has no mention of his later Catholic roles and which presents an elegy to the last generation of Plains Indian survivors before the dominance of the reservation. With a spirituality infused by hopefulness and imaged as the sacred hoop and the flowering tree—symbols of the corporate reality of his people—Black Elk was continually devoted to trying to find a way for the tribe to live. His own long life, despite bad health and the economic difficulties of existence on the reservation, testified to a strong determination to endure while facing threatening cultural changes. Within a decade of his death the Sun Dance was renewed under his nephew, Frank Fools Crow. Such an action reflected the impact of Black Elk on the reservation where, coming full circle, what he described but no longer performed became a living practice again. Through the books with Neihardt and Brown, Black Elk made the world at large heirs of his spiritual wisdom, ensuring in them that the rituals of empowerment of the Sioux people would not depend on oral tradition. He died on August 19, 1950, at Manderson and was buried from St. Agnes Mission Chapel in a barren cemetery.
Further Reading on Nicholas Black Elk
Raymond DeMallie has edited, with an introduction rich in detail and insight, the interview notes from both Neihardt visits with Black Elk in The Sixth Grandfather (1984). Joseph Epes Brown remembered Black Elk as a Heyoka or clown-trickster in an interview, "The Wisdom of the Contrary," in Parabola (1979). Several writers comment on Black Elk in Vine Deloria, Jr., editor, A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John Neihardt (1984). Clyde Holler has authored two articles that argue for Black Elk's bicultural religious perspective in American Indian Quarterly (Winter 1984) and Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 1984). Will Gravely has reviewed the changing perspectives on Black Elk in The Iliff Review (Winter 1987). The place to begin, of course, is Neihardt, editor, Black Elk Speaks (reprinted in softcover 1991), and Brown, editor, The Sacred Pipe.
Additional Biography Sources
Black Elk, Black Elk speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Ogalala Sioux, Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1991; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1932, 1979, 1988.
The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's teachings given to John G. Neihardt, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Petri, Hilda Neihardt, Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow: personal memories of the Lakota holy man and John Neihardt, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Rice, Julian, Black Elk's story: distinguishing its Lakota purpose, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
Rice, Julian, Lakota storytelling: Black Elk, Ella Deloria, and Frank Fools Crow, New York: P. Lang, 1989.
Steltenkamp, Michael F., Black Elk: holy man of the Oglala, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.