Nicholas Black Elk Collection: Scope and Content

Articles and letters in translation by Nicholas Black Elk and about him by his contemporaries plus meeting minutes, petitions, ephemera, and photography regarding his legacy and canonization cause. Also included are links to related archival materials in other Marquette special collections and other repositories.

Gift from the following: Black Elk letter translations: Michael F. Steltenkamp, S.J., 1980s, Paul Steinmetz, S.J., 2002, Ben Black Bear, Jr., 2014-2017, and Patricia Catches the Enemy, 2018; meeting minutes: Black Elk Ad-hoc Committee, 2015-2016, and The Diocese of Rapid City Black Elk Working Group, 2016-; photography: Mark G. Thiel, 2013, West River Catholic, 2016-. Processed by Mark G. Thiel, 2019.


Biographical and Historical Note

Nicholas W. [William] Black Elk, Sr. (1860s-1950) was born in Wyoming into Big Road's Band within a lineage of distinguished Lakota medicine men (traditional healers) all named "Black Elk." Although his birth year has been contested, he was favored with a great vision in which he was atop Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills during the first decade of his life. Therefore, while Big Road's Band was in exile in western Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, his elders trained him to become a healer too. His practice began in 1881, just prior to the Band's settlement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

During the winter of 1884-1885, Black Elk visited the Standing Rock Agency, North Dakota. There, he was one of many grass dancers who signed a petition that supported the canonization cause of Kateri Tekakwitha. He also dictated his first letter for publication, which was a pessimistic one published in Iapi Oaye (Word Carrier), which asked Christians to pray for the Lakota people. Thereafter, he danced in wild west shows in Europe and dictated two more letters, 1888-1889, which noted his observations about Christian faith in action.

In 1890, he returned to Pine Ridge and embraced the Ghost Dance, which the U.S. Cavalry ended in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Two years later, he married Katherine War Bonnet who bore three sons (including Ben) all baptized Catholic. In 1904, while doctoring a child, he encountered Rev. Joseph Lindebner, S.J., who invited him to study Christian faith at the nearby Holy Rosary Mission where Fr. Lindebner baptized and named him "Nicholas" on the "Feast of St. Nicholas" (December 6) during the "Moon of Popping Trees."

Soon, Black Elk stopped his healing practice and became a staunch member of the St. Joseph's Society (a Christian Lakota men's group). Then Katherine died and he married Anna Brings White, a staunch member of the St. Mary's Society (a Christian Lakota women's group). She bore two more sons and a daughter (Lucy, later Lucy Looks Twice).

The Jesuits then appointed Nick Black Elk as catechist, first at St. Elizabeth's Church, Oglala, and then at St. Agnes, Manderson. Sinasapa Wocekiye Taeyanpaha (The Catholic Voice or Catholic Sioux Herald) published at least 16 pastoral letters he wrote on Christian living, 1907-1916 (see Nicholas Black Elk Collection Series 1 and Sinasapa Wocekiye Taeyanpaha for letters about him by others); he evangelized Native people across South Dakota and beyond, 1908-1917 (see Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions Records, Series 1-1 Correspondence), and again locally at St. Agnes, 1917-1936. While teaching the Bible, he often used the "Two Roads" Pictorial Catechism by Rev. Albert Lacome, O.M.I. (see Spotlight: January 2009-Catholic Ladders Pictorial Catechisms and Holy Rosary Mission - Red Cloud Indian School, Series 7-1 Jesuit Papers: Two Roads Narrative), from which he derived colorful metaphors for describing Judeo-Christian and Lakota traditions.

In 1931, John G. Neihardt interviewed Nick Black Elk about his entire life, which became Black Elk Speaks, an aesthetic account focused on his great vision and life through 1890. Since Black Elk was a well-known Pine Ridge catechist, Neihardt's lack of acknowledgement caused a local controversy that prompted Black Elk to reassert his Catholic beliefs through two letters in 1934 (see Holy Rosary Mission - Red Cloud Indian School Records, Series 1 Correspondence). Nonetheless, his reputation as a traditional leader led to his involvement in a summertime Sioux Indian pageant in the Black Hills, where he narrated and reenacted Lakota traditions for tourists, 1936-1946 (see Digitized Collections). Then Joseph Epes Brown interviewed him for The Sacred Pipe, and through Brown, he corresponded with Père Gall Schuon, O.C.S.O., of Sourmont Abbey, Belgium (see Nicholas Black Elk Collection, Series 1).

As Nick Black Elk predicted, the night skys danced with an auroral display on the nights of his wake and funeral, August 17-19, 1950. Thereafter, his nephew, medicine man Frank Fools Crow (1890-1989), expanded his simultaneous support and advocacy for both religious traditions; medicine men and Jesuits at St. Francis Mission, St. Francis, South Dakota, conducted a four-year "Medicine Men and Clergy Dialog" (see St. Francis Mission Records, Series 7-1 Jesuit Papers: Stolzman) as the foundation for The Pipe and Christ, 1986; and the Inculturation Task Force of the Rapid City Diocese's Lakota parishes (see Inculturation Task Forces Records, Series 2) developed Recommendations for the Inculturation of Lakota Catholicism, 1999.

Inspired by the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in 2012, Black Elk's eldest grandson, George Looks Twice, and other Native Catholics, believed that he should be canonized too. Two years later, a Milwaukee-based petition drive for his cause gained traction there and in South Dakota, which his grandchildren presented to Rapid City Bishop Robert Gruss in 2016. Then, the U.S. Geographic Names Board renamed the Black Hills' highest point, "Black Elk Peak," and the next year, Bishop Gruss opened his cause, which received the endorsement of the U.S. Bishops. Thereafter, to support the writing of a positio (position paper) about Black Elk's holiness for submission to the Vatican Congregation of the Causes of Saints, a "Working Group" compiled and translated pertinent primary source materials, which concluded with a celebration on June 25, 2019, the 143rd anniversary of the Little Bighorn battle.


Scope and Content

Restrictions: There are no restrictions regarding the use of records in this collection. However, the researcher assumes full responsibility for conforming with the laws of libel, privacy, and copyright, which may be involved in the use of these records. Consult an archivist for further information. Copies available on request.

Nicholas Black Elk Collection Series 1, Articles and Letters: Dakota/Lakota language articles and letters dictated/ written or signed by Black Elk or written about him in part by his contemporaries. These materials were published or created for publication. Most of the materials appeared in newspapers -- Iapi Oaye, Sinasapa Wocekiye Taeyanpaha and Lakota Times. Includes one or more translation for each item.

Nicholas Black Elk Collection Series 2, Petitions and Minutes: Petitions and meeting minutes pertaining to Black Elk's canonization cause, 2014-.

Nicholas Black Elk Collection Series 3, Photography: Digital photography pertaining to the attendance of Black Elk's grandson, George Looks Twice, at St. Kateri Tekakwitha's canonization pilgrimage, Vatican City and Rome, Italy, 2012, and subsequent photography  pertaining to the development of Black Elk's canonization cause, 2016-.

Nicholas Black Elk Collection Series 4, Printed and Electronic Materials: Posters, handouts, brochures, and prayer cards honoring Black Elk. Most materials pertain to his canonization cause, 1985, 2017-.

Nicholas Black Elk Collection Series 5, Interviews: Interviews pertaining to Black Elk, which were conducted for the canonization cause.


Related Resources

Several Marquette special collections contain materials about the life and legacy of Nicholas Black Elk. Most notable are the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions Records, Holy Rosary Mission - Red Cloud Indian School Records, St. Francis Mission Records, and the Michael F. Steltenkamp, S.J., Papers. 

See: Search the Collections (digitized collections not included) and Digitized Collections, i.e. Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, Holy Rosary Mission - Red Cloud Indian School, In the Spotlight: January 2009-Catholic Ladder Pictorial Pictorial Catechisms, St. Francis Mission, The Indian Sentinel.

For materials elsewhere, see: Marquette's Guide to Catholic Records about Native Americans in the United States.

Questions: Ask an Archivist.