What took place in the four hundred years between Christopher Columbus reaching the New World and Black Elk’s generation has been accurately called a “European invasion.” It had disastrous results for the Native population. Some of the disaster was intentional, in the form of land grabbing and forced exile, and some was unintentional, in the form of diseases the Europeans brought with them, which killed more Native Americans than did European guns.
Columbus, like most Europeans who followed him, viewed all Indigenous people as either potential converts or potential slaves. On that first famous voyage in 1492, he wrote: “I have not found the human monsters which many people expected. On the contrary, the whole population is very well made. They are not Negroes as in Guinea, and their hair is straight . . . but they are strong nonetheless.” He believes he is describing a different species from his own. Then he describes Natives as defenseless (“They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.”); ignorant of Western ways (“When I showed them swords, they took them by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.”); useful (“They should be good servants . . . for I have observed that they soon repeat anything that is said to them.”); and credulous (“I believe that they would easily be made Christians.”).3
This was the way of the Western mind, with few exceptions. It was widely believed that, unless a people were Christian, they were unfit to inhabit the New World. This way of thinking was sanctioned at the highest levels of religion. Pope Nicholas V promulgated a papal bull (Dum Diversas, “Until Different”) in 1452 declaring that the slave trade was legitimate. The holy pontiff’s intention then was to allow the Portuguese king to conquer lands dominated by “Saracens” (what Christians called Arab Muslims) and take them as slaves if necessary. So-called pagans were also to be freely handled this way. Pope Alexander VI confirmed this judgment in 1493 in relation to exploration of the Americas and elsewhere, praising the notion of “Christian Empire,” saying that the sovereign of Spain was responsible to propagate it. A few decades later, in 1537, a papal bull of Paul III called Sublimis Deus, “The Sublime God,” showed small progress by declaring Native peoples fully human, even though heathen, and thus forbidding Catholic nations from enslaving them.
For the mostly Protestants who came from Europe to settle what became the United States, these notions were also understood, as was the idea of manifest destiny as an expression of Christ’s Great Commission. An anthropologist explains it this way:
When white men first witnessed Indians impersonating animal spirits in costume and dance, and worshiping rocks and rainbows, they failed to see this as a form of deep religious expression. To their Christian minds, these were deplorable pagan rites. Worship of more than one deity, and sacrificial offerings directed at the natural world, stamped Indians as a misguided, lesser form of mankind. Here were Christless heathens crying to be rescued from eternal damnation.
For their part most Native Americans were not averse initially to Christianity. Before the white man appeared, tribes had absorbed new waves of religious thought. To them a fresh form of worship did not negate the old. The great value they placed on their own traditional beliefs made them especially curious about the magical deeds of this new medicine man, the Son of God. But as Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota writer and leader of Black Elk’s generation, said:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as wild. Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was it infested with wild animals and savage people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.
Three Centuries of Missions
With those early explorers came priests and missionaries. French priests came from New France (Canada), south. Spanish priests came from New Spain (Mexico), north. The Requerimeinto, or Spanish “Requirement” of 1513, was a declaration by the monarchy that any Native people on land taken into possession by Spanish explorers should be given a choice between slavery and salvation. With a solemnity that mocked what is truly solemn, this document was often read aloud—in Castilian—to Native people who gathered to see what the explorers and settlers were all about.
Spanish Franciscans established missions throughout Florida in the 1570s, followed by New Mexico a decade later. Wherever a mission was planted, there were farms and military installations, too. Natives were expected to convert and join in Christian life. The French took a slightly lighter approach, moving in smaller numbers, often integrating themselves into Native tribes and communities.
Protestant missionaries were doing likewise in New England and Virginia, but it would be a century before they would move further west, and then they did not have the backing of a foreign nation and its military. So in 1819, the US Congress appropriated $10,000 (about $250,000 in today’s money) to pay missionaries willing to live among Native American tribes and convert them to Christianity, in the hope that this would make Native people more congenial to US westward expansion. Conversion to Christianity was supposed to entail adopting Western styles of dress and building houses. Assimilation was government doctrine, as missionaries made their way to the Great Plains.
Most missionaries knew nothing but their own standards of culture, literacy, decorum, and religion. For example, Rev. Stephen Return Riggs, a Protestant among the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota territory at the time of Little Bighorn, taught would-be missionaries that the “gospel of soap was a necessary adjunct and outgrowth of the Gospel of Salvation.” Most had little interest in understanding Native ways before they set out to conform them to European ones.
There are examples of early missionaries who defended the rights of Native people. Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish Dominican, for instance, rebuked his countrymen for violent acts committed against Indians, but he also advocated removing them from their homes to enculturate them with European values. Certain passages of Scripture assisted in this work, such as, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). This was made to mean that Indigenous ways of life were to be abandoned for Christ. Three centuries later, during Black Elk’s lifetime, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, Rev. Henry Benjamin Whipple, was often genuinely committed to serving the Dakota and Ojibwe, but he did so most of all by building Indian missions to educate them like whites. And the phrase “off the reservation” became an idiom to deride those who are supposed to stay put and do what they are told but dare to attempt otherwise.
Early encounters between missionaries and Natives were rarely recorded. One account appears in the diaries left be- hind by a French American fur trader who was active along the Upper Missouri River between the 1830s and early 1870s:
All Indians believe in a Great Spirit, the ruler of all they see and know . . . In conversation with them I found much pleasure in hearing their stories, which they relate with great eloquence, using a great many figurative expressions. I had some books printed in their language, which I brought with me from St. Paul. These were religious books, gotten up by missionaries of Minnesota, containing Noah’s Ark, Jonah swallowed by the whale, and other miracles; at which they would laugh heartily when I read to them, and then say, “Do the whites believe all this rubbish, or are they stories such as we make up to amuse ourselves on long winter nights?” They were very fond of having me read them such stories; that big boat tickled them, and how could Noah get all those animals into it was the question. Then they would say, “The white man can beat us in making up stories.”
The Jesuits came from New France and Belgium. They first arrived on the continent in 1609. Within sixty years, they were approaching the Great Plains, establishing a mission in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and thirty years later, one in Illinois territory. When they were suppressed as a religious order in France in the 1760s, they were expelled from the Louisiana territory. Pope Pius VII, however, restored them to good standing in 1814, and within fifteen years, Jesuits were back establishing missions in the Plains among the Sioux. In fact, it is when the Jesuits came to live among the Oglala that their priests became known as Sina Sapa, “black robes,” for their distinctive outerwear.
At this point, the figure of Red Cloud, one of the most important Oglala leaders from the generation that struggled with President Grant and fought with Custer, reenters the story I tell in greater detail in Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint. Red Cloud was four decades and two decades older than Black Elk and Crazy Horse. Red Cloud did not participate in the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Instead, a year earlier, he led a Native delegation to Washington, DC, to meet with the president, his secretary of the Interior, and minister of Indian Affairs, seeking to convince the government to cease explorations of Indian lands and stem the tide of the gold rush. A treaty was written that offered money to the tribes and a negotiated resettlement. Red Cloud refused to sign it. He did, however, invite the Jesuits to start a school to educate Oglala children.
Black robes were perceived as having more in common with the Oglala than their Protestant counterparts—not because Episcopal missionaries wore white robes instead of black ones but because the ritual and practices of Catholicism seemed closer to those of Native medicine men. Many of the Jesuit priests who served at Pine Ridge Reservation, starting with the teachers invited by Red Cloud, to the Oglala resembled a wicasa wakan, or “holy man.” Jesuits have been living and ministering in Pine Ridge Reservation ever since Red Cloud invited them to start that first school. It was also Jesuits who helped complete the first Bible translation into Lakota, in 1885, picking up on work begun several decades earlier by French fur traders.9
Natives Becoming Christians
It is into this troubled context that Black Elk became Nicholas Black Elk upon being baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church on December 6, 1904. What complicates his conversion is not only his indelible record over the next four decades as an exemplary catechist and evangelist—a missionary in his own right—but a comment he purportedly made to his friend John Neihardt when Neihardt asked what was the motivating factor for him to join a white church. With all the beauty and spiritual meaning already surrounding him and his work as an Oglala holy man, why did he need the white man’s religion? Black Elk is recorded as replying, “Because my children have to live in this world.”
“I could never forget those words,” Neihardt’s daughter later wrote, when she recounted the episode. She was with her father that day in Black Elk’s home:
Previously we had been told about something that happened when he was young and just beginning to use his powers to cure illness. The youthful medicine man was praying for the sick person’s recovery and using his rattle as part of a healing ceremony when a priest burst into the tepee, grabbed young Black Elk and pulled him rudely outside. Then he took Black Elk’s sacred rattle, threw it to the ground, and stamped on it, admonishing the surprised young man that he should never use such “heathen” objects again.
Hilda Neihardt adds: “I have wondered what real difference there could possibly be between a Sioux holy man’s shaking his rattle up and down and a priest’s swinging his golden censer back and forth.” She then explains that her father pushed the matter no further and felt no need to explain himself. But with what we know now about the depths of Black Elk’s faith, it is clear that Neihardt missed a great deal.
Also now, with Nicholas Black Elk being considered for canonization, many who learn about his life might question the idea of honoring a man known to have been one of the Oglala who killed US soldiers at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Custer died. It is not as if Black Elk repudiated his actions at Little Bighorn later in life, after his conversion. Still, one might argue, why would or should he repudiate them? He was defending himself and his people against overpowering aggressors.
Yet another perspective, because of Neihardt’s powerful mythmaking, as well as the complicated witness of the subject himself, is to see Black Elk as a unique mystical visionary, without ties to any religious tradition, let alone the “White man’s” religion. There are some scholars of Native American religion who conclude something along the lines: “The essential religiousness of the man has transcended the problems of translation and cross-cultural communication.”
I think the truth is found in none of these three but in this: He was both a genuine Oglala and a faithful Catholic. When he became Catholic, he decided it was his duty to love and serve his enemies, as Christ taught, and this had an impact on his Oglala worldview. But he still maintained his Native identity. He was able to hold two religious identities together, and his doing so was one of the sources of his profound witness for the Catholic faith among his people.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint. It is reprinted here courtesy of the author the Liturgical Press, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.