Vatican considers sainthood for Lakota Sioux medicine man

 Nicholas Black Elk, left, with daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife, Anna Brings White, photographed in their home in Manderson, S.D., circa 1910. Black Elk wears a suit, his wife wears a long dress decorated with elk's teeth and a hair pipe necklace. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The Catholic Church could get its second Native American saint if a Vatican research trip to South Dakota this month leads to confirmation of two miracles performed by Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux medicine man born in the Civil War era.

The Rev. Luis Escalante, a Vatican postulator, or researcher for sainthood candidates, recently spent several days in western South Dakota gathering information about Black Elk’s life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Escalante spoke with local advocates for the cause, including some who testified to the reportedly miraculous powers of a man who practiced traditional Lakota rituals and also baptized more than 400 Native Americans.

“It would be a big deal for the native people here: one of their own being recognized as a saint in the church,” said Deacon Marlon Leneaugh, a Lakota tribesman who oversees native ministries for the Diocese of Rapid City. “The church has been here over 100 years, and this is an experience that they’ve never had before.”

If canonized, Black Elk would become only the second Native American Catholic saint. Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Algonquin-Mohawk, was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Last year, Bishop Robert Gruss of the Diocese of Rapid City secured the unanimous consent of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin the canonization cause for Black Elk. With phase one in a four-phase process completed, his candidacy is now overseen by the Vatican. Canonization requires that two miracles be attributed to his intercession. Observers say the process for Black Elk could take more than 10 years.

The fact that he’s even being considered, despite having openly maintained his Lakota traditions alongside his Catholicism, suggests his contributions — and his identity as both Native American and Catholic — are more appreciated in the church now than they might have been in decades and centuries past.

Black Elk lived in a time when the federal government contracted with churches, including the Catholic Church, to operate Indian boarding schools with a goal to “kill the Indian in him and save the man” by teaching kids to renounce indigenous languages, dress, customs and other aspects of cultural heritage.

But today, Black Elk’s ties to his Lakota Sioux traditions are part of the case for his sainthood. In a 2016 petition asking Gruss to pursue sainthood for Black Elk, grandson George Looks Twice said Black Elk did not reject his culture after he married a Catholic, was baptized in 1904 and took the name Nicholas.

He “practiced his Lakota ways as well as the Catholic religion,” Looks Twice said. “He was comfortable praying with this pipe and his rosary, and participated in Mass and Lakota ceremonies on a regular basis.”

That Lakota Sioux ceremonial pipe, called a “chanupa,” now figures prominently in the case for making him a saint.

Aaron Desersa, a 65-year-old great-grandson of Black Elk and co-author of “Black Elk Lives: Conversations with the Black Elk Family,” told Religion News Service his ancestor “believed in the connection of all the religions of this world.” He said he knows firsthand of Black Elk’s miracles, including two involving his wife, his mother and Black Elk’s chanupa.

In 1995, “my wife had cancer real bad, and they gave her six months to live,” he said. As custodian of Black Elk’s chanupa, he decided it was time to use it. They prayed with the pipe at a traditional Lakota sun dance, he said.

“She’s living proof today” of Black Elk’s miraculous powers, he said. A year later, the cancer was gone, he said.

In 1999, Desera’s mother had been told that X-rays showed she needed hip replacement surgery. But after the family prayed with the chanupa, doctors found nothing wrong with her hip, he said.

Bill White, a Lakota lay minister at a Catholic church on the Pine Ridge Reservation and coordinator of local efforts to canonize Black Elk, said he would look into Desersa’s accounts. He cautioned that testimony of a family member might not be enough to validate a miracle, but it has value nonetheless.

“Even if it’s not a bona fide miracle, it just proves that people are praying for his intercession,” White said. “The more people who believe he’s up in heaven, it’s going to support the cause.”

Black Elk was born in December 1863 near Little Powder River in Montana, according to “Black Elk Speaks,” an autobiographical account that Black Elk dictated to writer John G. Neihardt. (Other accounts give 1866 as the year of birth.) At age 9, Black Elk was reportedly standing on a mountain peak when he had a vision that would guide his actions as an adult.

“I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being,” the account reads.

For White, the fact that Black Elk had a vision of everyone living together as one at such a young age is what clinches the case that he should be canonized.

“Hate was pretty rampant back then, so for him to get a message like that, I believe it was from God himself,” White said. “Because that’s the exact message that Jesus brought us.”

Black Elk, left, and Elk of the Oglala Lakota as grass dancers touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, in London, in 1887. Photo courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

But Black Elk was also a fighter. In June 1876, when he was 12 years old, he was present when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led 700 soldiers into battle against a vastly larger force of warriors from the Lakota and other tribes. In Neihardt’s account of one war scene, Black Elk comes off more as warrior than saint.

“There was a soldier on the ground and he was still kicking,” Black Elk says in “Black Elk Speaks.” “A Lakota rode up and said to me, ‘Boy, get off and scalp him.’ I got off and started to do it. He had short hair and my knife was not very sharp. He ground his teeth. Then I shot him in the forehead and got his scalp. … I was not sorry at all. I was a happy boy.”

Not everyone on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where many of Black Elk’s descendants live, support the cause of sainthood for him. Critics include Black Elk’s granddaughter Charlotte Black Elk, an attorney and environmental activist who said she views the Catholic Church as a cult. Becoming a Catholic catechist came with perks for Black Elk, she said, including a car that gave him more freedom than most. When asked if he should be made a saint, she said no, adding that she doubted he ever truly held Catholic beliefs.

“I am opposed to” the sainthood cause, she said, “but I’m not going to throw myself in front of it. It’s important to some members of the family. And it’s obviously important to the mission churches in Indian country, to have another saint.”

Black Elk died in 1950. Nearly seven decades later, advocates say it’s not too late to tap witnesses who remember the man.

“Now it’s our role to find people who knew him,” White said. “Or knew of him.”


  1. When the pews are steadily emptying along with the collection plate – time to ” invent a new saint “.

    This happens country after country.

    Here’s what the new saint-in-waiting’s granddaughter says :

    ” Critics include Black Elk’s granddaughter Charlotte Black Elk, an attorney and environmental activist who said she views THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AS A CULT. Becoming a Catholic catechist came with perks for Black Elk, she said, including a car that gave him more freedom than most.


    Here’s what the RCC (Jesuits esp) hierarchy and priests did to the Indigenous people :

    ” The Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order has agreed to pay $166 million to settle more than 500 child
    sexual abuse claims against priests in five states, attorneys said on Friday.”

    “This settlement recognizes that the Jesuits betrayed the trust of hundreds of young children in their care,” Tamaki said. “These religious
    figures should have been responsible for protecting children, but instead raped and molested them.”

  2. Yep. Did you notice that -as of the time of my writing this – ALL the many comments people posted on the article “Sex scandals foster at unhealthy organizations” have been deleted?

  3. Well, at least RNS recognizes when it has stepped in it and takes corrective action before it comes a cropper.

    RNS is in the process of trying to get long-term funding to stay in business. That may have something to do with it.

  4. “…having openly maintained his Lakota traditions alongside his Catholicism, suggests his contributions — and his identity as both Native American and Catholic — are more appreciated in the church now than they might have been in decades and centuries past.”

    It was his ceremonial pipe, a symbol of his Lakota Sioux heritage, that was used in ceremonies which and may have been an instrument of a miracle. He prayed with both his rosary and his pipe. Both gave him a connection to the divine.

    There is room in Catholicism for different cultures to exist. We are not all the same. The Latin Mass doesn’t mean everything to everyone. The rosary is important to some and not to others. There are different ideas about marriage in different cultures.

    Can we separate Catholic ideology and beliefs and practices from the cultures in which the ideologies, beliefs, and practices were formulated? Can we incorporate new understanding we get from science and new ways of envisioning living in God’s universe that we see practiced by people from different cultures. We need to.

  5. Not sure.

    Eusebius’s Preparatio Evangelica takes the view that non-Christian traditions are preparations for Christianity, in the same way that a bicycle with training wheels is preparation for a regular bicycle. Eusebius intended all cultures should “grow up” from their non-Christian traditions to Christianity, just as children grow up from the training-wheel bicycle to the regular bicycle.

    Swami Dayananda Saraswati proposed replacing the word “tolerance” with the words “mutual respect” in an inter-faith meeting. His proposal caused delays. The words “mutual respect” entail that Christian theologians should respect idol worship; the word “tolerance” does not entail this.

  6. Honestly, these Vatican folks apparently have no idea whether Black Elk was a genuine born-again Catholic Christian or not. Then again, nobody does.

    Was Black Elk personally convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was literally true and soul-saving? Did he ever say so?

    Or did he just sign up for the label “Catholic” to try to get by at a time of very intense hatred & bigotry towards Native Americans? Looking at this RNS article, nobody seems to have an answer.

    Which raises the obvious question. Why make him a Catholic saint if it’s totally murky about what he really believed concerning Catholicism & Christianity?

  7. The article presents a confused picture.

    On the positive side his descendant the skeptic sees him as a Catholic, and Catholicism as cult.

    Other sources

    are a bit clearer on his actual beliefs and bona fides.

    Retaining practices from a pre-Christian past and “baptizing” them into Christianity has been going on since the Jewish Apostles debated the necessity of circumcision.

  8. Isn’t it just about always murky about what someone “really believed” and how much they really had Jesus in their hearts? How holy that person really was. As true for St. John Paul II, soon to be Saint Paul VI, as for soon to be Saint Oscar Romero as it was for St. Francis of Assisi. I think we Catholics pick and choose who we hold in our hearts as examples we really can relate to.

    We need heroes and heroines. Native people, people from very different cultures, need to see how holiness exists in their cultural milieu. Euro based cultures are not superior in holiness – just look at their wars and destruction of other cultures to see that. I just wish Pope Francis could see the saintliness of married men and women. Celibacy is not some marker of holiness and there are too few saints named from the laity who can be the examples to them in their living out the life God meant them to live.

    But, something made those who are recognized as saints stand out as examples of what was esteemed at the time as “holy.” At least, according to the all male, clerical, hierarchical and “divine right” of Catholic Church to make such a determination. I am glad to see recognition of outstanding service given to his community.

  9. Thank you. It is funny how words can have different meanings to different people. Some Protestants think Catholics worship idols. I think we Christians/Jews/Muslims have often confused what is cultural to the peoples of Europe/North Africa – what came out of the Greek/Roman/Middle Eastern philosophies and cultures – with some sort of divine revelation of how we should live.

    God comes to us in ways He can be found. We apply it locally in ways that make sense, and then think it is the only possible way. There are many ways God shows us to love our neighbor.

  10. Hmm. That might explain why the comments in the McCarrick thread suddenly vanished (the comments that are there now, are new posts written after the Big Disappearance).

    Like Pink Floyd sang on the radio, “MONEY.” Gotta watch them funding sources. Good post.

  11. Starting in the late 1880’s, the Catholic Church partnered with governments in the U.S., Canada, and Australia to “deal with” the Indigenous populations. The strategy to “kill the Indian/Indigenous, save the man” was universally the same in all three countries; forcibly remove children as young as five from their parents and communities, ship them often hundreds miles away, and systematically strip them of their language, culture, identities, and dignity in order to “assimilate” them into white culture. The Catholic Church continued to run Indigenous Boarding Schools in all three countries until the 1980’s.
    Here are the “fruits” of that effort as seen on three of the poorest reservations in the United States, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, and Rosebud:
    *Unemployment rate of 80-90%
    *per capita income of $4,000
    *8 times the United States rate of diabetes
    *5 Times the United States rate of cervical cancer
    *twice the rate of heart disease
    *8 times the United States rate of Tuberculosis
    *Alcoholism rate estimated as high as 80%
    *1 in 4 infants born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects
    *suicide rate more than twice the national rate
    *teen suicide rate 4 times the national rate
    *infant mortality is three times the national rate.
    **Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere. ONLY HAITI HAS A LOWER RATE.
    *In reservations across this “great” country of ours
    -322,000 Native Americans have no access to running water
    -40% have no access to telephones, electricity, or basic amenities
    *Healthcare?? A quote from a report to a Senate Hearing Feb. 16th, 2016;
    “The state of health care services on Native American reservations was divulged at a senate hearing on Wednesday, where eyewitnesses reported “horrifying” and “unacceptable” conditions. Funded by the government-run Indian Health Service (IHS), the conditions in these hospitals are proof of the racial disparities that exist in the nation’s health care system, according to legislators and rights activists.”
     You can read the entire appalling report here;

    That puts some much needed context to the reference of “kill the Indian, save the man” mentioned in the article, don’t you think?
    As the entire Church reels from stories of unimaginable abuse going back decades, I have to wonder if we will ever have the courage to listen to THEIR stories which go back much further and span the Indigenous populations of three countries and truly enter into a journey of repentance, reparation, healing, and reconciliation for ALL.
    Time (and the Holy Spirit) will tell. Black Elk and St. Tekakwitha pray for us. ALL of us.

  12. Another attempt to diffuse the global sexual abuse scandals!!

    And “miracles”, what a joke!!

    Free Will and Future are inherent to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, miracles are impossible and it is not possible to
    alter life with prayers. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variability/randomness of Nature..

    So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and “saintly” trinkets and stop worshiping/revering cows or bowing to Mecca five times a
    day. Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the
    proper rules of your religion or any good rules of living as gracious and good human beings.

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