Black Elk for Sainthood—Who’s Colonizing Whom?

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].

Black Elk: making Indians Catholic since 1904.
Black Elk: making Indians Catholic since 1904.

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?


14 Responses to Black Elk for Sainthood—Who’s Colonizing Whom?

  1. Joe Nelson

    Resident Catholic here,
    To put it all into context, here is what the Church teaches on canonization:

    Catechism of the Catholic Church 828: By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors. “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Indeed, “holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal.”

    As for the miracles, for full canonization, two miracles need to be vetted (and since 1983, have to occur after the person’s death as proof they are intercedeing from Heaven). (also interesting note, the canonization process is the only time that the Catholic Church officially affirms the whereabouts of a person post mortum, i.e. they never declare such-and-such individual is in Hell).

    I think it would be great if the Church recognized Black Elk as a Saint, for the Lakota, Catholics, and for the state. More people would read “Black Elk Speaks”. And I also think he would be the first Saint from South Dakota, and certainly from the Lakota people.

  2. I think the Catholic church should just leave the Native Americans alone. As a recovering Catholic, the audacity to canonize a Native American after decades of raping and terrorizing young Native children just makes me all the more want to spit on that Church and its hypocrisy.

  3. According to the Bible, anyone who enters into a loving relationship with God becomes a saint (Greek άγιος) at that time. Protestant Christians have traditionally argued that Roman Catholic canonization is outside Christ’s teachings and that trying to communicate with Mary or other deceased saints can result in communication with demons.

    Protestants generally acknowledge that many true Christians through the centuries have regarded themselves as Catholic—even Martin Luther himself didn’t immediately renounce Catholicism when he first converted to Protestant beliefs—and my impression is that Black Elk’s conversion to Christianity in 1904 was probably genuine.

    The above post links to this:

    There are a number of authors and armchair speculators who refuse to believe Black Elk’s conversion … was motivated by faith, and not self-preservation… And though Nicholas Black Elk’s own family tells a story of a man on fire for the Faith, their voices are discounted and ignored to fit outsiders’ narratives.

    http://catholicexchange.com/nicholas-black-elk-american-catechist

    I’ve noticed that in my own studies of Black Elk, and it seems really unfortunate.

  4. No saints from South Dakota yet, no Presidents… we really need to pick up the pace. ;-)

    Miracles as affirmation of intercession from Heaven—that’s a really interesting concept, Joe… and of course, one that I must reject as vigorously as I reject the idea that Black Elk exercised any supernatural powers as a medicine man. Still, if they canonize Black Elk, I’ll be glad to come cover whatever sort of ceremony the Church conducts for Black Elk. (Do they do that at the Vatican, or is there some show here?)

  5. If the weather and the pope’s health are good enough, the Roman Catholic canonization rite takes place during an outdoor papal mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Otherwise they move it to the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.

  6. I expect if Mr. Black Elk, and I mean Nicholas not Benjamin, exercised any supernatural powers they were more of the type I prefer. The heathen type, not the ones purported by the thumpers of any book.

  7. I’d enjoy blogging from the Vatican.

    Miracles—if Black Elk is in any position to intercede in human affairs, I suggest he recruit the rest of his spiritual neighbors and get them to convince the VP an Cabinet t invoke the 25th Amendment.

  8. It’s my understanding that Vice President Pence was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Protestant Christian beliefs as a young adult, so it seems unlikely to me that he’d trust a message supposedly delivered by Black Elk or Mary or any combination of deceased saints.

  9. I’d think that, as a Christian, Pence would be open to any message from the Great Christian Beyond.

  10. Protestant Christians have traditionally argued that most messages supposedly delivered by Mary or other deceased saints are delusions induced by demons.

  11. Joe Nelson

    Kurt,
    I try not to lump all Protestants together when it comes to belief. After Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”, your lot runs the spectrum on beliefs. Additionally, since many P. Christians are now attending non-denominational worship centers, theology is pretty much ignored outside of “Jesus loves you” and “try not to sin so much (if sin even exists)”.

    There is also a distinction with in R. Catholicism between private revelation and public revelation, which are different then miracles (such as a boy miraculously recovering from a flesh-eating bacteria after his parents and others prayed to God, via Saint Kateri). If the invisible Church includes those who have dies and gone to Heaven, asking them to pray for us is just as valid as asking the living to pray for us (although more efficacious, since they are in Heaven). Then again, some P. Christians never ask others to pray for them. Again, the spectrum.

  12. Worship centers—for some reason, that sounds like the parochial version of Walmart. I think one of the worship centers in Aberdeen is in an old department store or strip mall or some such ugly building whose lack of architectural principle may represent metaphorically the lack of theological rigor Joe mentions.

    I wonder how rigorous Black Elk’s theology was.

  13. Even an atheist like I should think to cast doubt on the self-expressed beliefs of Mr. Black Elk by saying he really didn’t mean it is downright rude. If a fellow changes his name to “Nicholas”, a fine name by the way, and lives that way for half of his life, others like we should not besmirch his justifications by slapping our own reasons on it to justify our own positions.

  14. I’d written:

    Protestant Christians have traditionally argued that most messages supposedly delivered by Mary or other deceased saints are delusions induced by demons.

    Joe Nelson replies:

    After Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”, your lot runs the spectrum on beliefs.

    The Protestant Christian lot is stationed on the small part of the spectrum that affirms the primacy of the Bible, the priesthood of all believers, and justification by faith in Christ alone.

    Additionally, since many [Protestant] Christians are now attending non-denominational worship centers, theology is pretty much ignored outside of “Jesus loves you” and “try not to sin so much (if sin even exists)”.

    Your conclusion is barely related to the premise and definitely doesn’t follow from it.

    If the invisible Church includes those who have dies and gone to Heaven, asking them to pray for us is just as valid as asking the living to pray for us (although more efficacious, since they are in Heaven).

    Even the Protestant denominations that most closely resemble Catholicism have always held that the “Romish Doctrine concerning … Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God”:
    http://thehackneyhub.blogspot.com/2013/04/anglican-myths-12-invocation-of-saints.html

    My impression is that Black Elk’s theology was fairly rigorous, but that Black Elk Speaks inaccurately attributes many of author John Neihardt’s views to Black Elk. This biography by Michael Steltenkamp is probably a good place to go for more of the story:
    https://www.amazon.com/Nicholas-Black-Elk-Medicine-Missionary/dp/0806140631/