Add this to the discussion of Nicholas Black Elk at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre this evening: A proposal to make Lakota holy man Nicholas Black Elk a saint is working its way up the chain of command in the Catholic Church.
But does canonization merely culminate colonization?
Some voice no resentment. “It wasn’t so bad,” one Lakota-speaking elder says in passing about Red Cloud School, where children are enrolled from kindergarten through high school. “I learned religion there.” But history has scarred many, and the desire to escape anything related to the colonial past is strong. For some, there is the feeling that the canonization of Black Elk would be a continuation of the church’s role in colonialism. This makes them wary of the process, as if the church is appropriating something that is not hers to take. Once a participant in the cultural persecution of the Lakota, this thinking goes, the church is now using what is left to cover its sins in Native garb [Damian Costello and Jon M. Sweeney, “Black Elk, the Lakota Medicine Man Turned Catholic Teacher, Is Promoted for Sainthood,” America: The Jesuit Review, 2017.10.01].
Maka Clifford, educator and descendant of Black Elk, says making Black Elk a saint would help both whites and Lakota better understand the complicated indigenous identity:
The most important issue at the moment for Maka Clifford and his students is to figure out how to be indigenous in modern society: “History has produced a society that feels the need to authenticate itself.” He says that participating in activities deemed nontraditional leaves people open to the criticism that they are “not Indian enough.” The witness of Black Elk, as both indigenous and a potential Catholic saint, is a resource in the process of decolonization and healing, he says. “My hope is that we can learn that we can be indigenous and all these other things: Catholic, worldly, a diplomat, a scientist, etc. My hope is that being indigenous is not limited. And Black Elk is part of that conversation” [Costello and Sweeney, 2017.10.01].
Father Joe Daoust, leader of the Jesuit community on Pine Ridge, explains how Black Elk fits a history of other cultures changing Catholicism:
The analogy of St. Thomas Aquinas and his use of Aristotle comes to mind. It is easy to forget how innovative it was for the Catholic theologian to draw upon the work of the Greek philosopher, but this method gave the church a new and deeper understanding of God and God’s work in the world. What was once controversial is now seen as one of the most traditional sources of Catholic theology. In a similar way, indigenous thought has the potential to give the church a new method for understanding and interacting with God’s creation, what Father Daoust calls “a gift of Native American spirituality to the church.”
Ultimately, Father Daoust is hopeful about Black Elk’s cause. “Pope Francis has spoken of indigenous spirituality in “Laudato Si’,” and I think he will be particularly receptive to the cause” [Costello and Sweeney, 2017.10.01].
Besides the thorny business of colonization, the Catholic Church needs to address whether Black Elk meets the basic criteria for sainthood. I’ll defer to communicant readers on Church law, but saints need to be martyrs or miracle workers. Black Elk spent the last half of his long life following Catholic ways and bringing hundreds of his people to the Church. But he died peacefully, and the evidence of miracles by Black Elk seems thin.
Black Elk’s own interest in Catholicism began when a Catholic priest interrupted him in performing what a Lakota medicine ritual. I’ll not stamp my approval on any culture’s claims of magic, but Black Elk’s entrance into the church hinges on his being told by a white priest, “Don’t practice Lakota miracle-making; practice the Catholic brand instead!”
The Catholics have one American Indian saint, Kateri Tekewitha of the Mohawk people. Maybe another Indian saint would be good for the Catholic Church… but would canonizing Black Elk be good for the Lakota people?