Born to the Oglala Lakota Community in the decade of the 1860s, Nicholas Black Elk is undeniably among the best known of Native American Indian spiritual leaders (Wenger 734; DeMallie 595).
His fame, however, was scantly known to the outside world until 1932, when John Neihardt published an interpretive description of the holy man’s life in his book Black Elk Speaks. The flood of critical literature on Black Elk makes reference to the powerful vision this icon of native spirituality experienced at age nine, popularly known as the vision of two horses.
Although Black Elk, in old age, was portrayed as a frustrated man mourning the failure to realize the great vision given in his youth, hence the loss of his people’s way of life (Wenger 735), this paper purposes to argue from the perspective that Black Elk did indeed fulfill his childhood dream in totality through solidifying his Lakota religious tradition with Catholicism.
Various scholarly works demonstrate that Black Elk’s initial vision is rich in context and covers many pages, but can be summarized as a vision of togetherness, holiness and love of one another in a world that had already began to loose faith through pestilences, disease and wars, such as the 1891 massacre of the Wounded Knee (Copeland 161).
At the center of his vision, Black Elk stood on the peak of the highest mountain of them all and “…saw that the sacred hoop of [his] people was one of the many hoops that made one circle wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And [he] saw that was holy” (Copeland 161).
This great tree at the center of the mountains, according to scholars, symbolized fulfillment and the powerful web of life of the earth and of the Indian people (Copeland 159; Cajete 262).
In old age, Black Elk lamented that the center where the tree grew is no longer there, and the sacred tree is dead. However, various accounts of the holy man portray him both as a Lakota traditionalist and Catholic catechist. Indeed, the Jesuits of the Holy Rosary Mission portrayed him as one of their most faithful catechists, having converted to Catholicism in 1904 (Wenger 735).
Other subsequent accounts demonstrate that Black Elk either “…understood Catholicism as a fulfillment of the Lakota tradition – a view consistent with the Catholic idea of enculturation but controversial elsewhere – or else that he interpreted each tradition through the lens of the other and saw no contradiction between them” (Wenger 735).
Either way, it can be argued that through his religious beliefs, both tradition and modern, the Oglala Lakota community came to enjoy oneness and togetherness in Christ and their traditional beliefs as they joined other communities to enjoy relative peace and tranquility through incorporating some elements of Christianity into their traditional belief systems (Hopfe 32).
Consequently, it can be concluded that Black Elk’s vision of “…seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in spirit, and the shape of all things as they must live together as one…” (Copeland 161) was fulfilled.
Another symbolic portion of Black Elk’s vision was when he and another character named Tayo were carried on their horse carriers through worlds inhabited by horses of every imaginable color.
While Black Elk came to perceive that the visions and ceremonies had only made him a fissure through which power could be accessed by the two-legged, Tayo, on his part, learnt that the full vision can only come “…through the combined wisdom of birds, the creatures of the water, insects and reptiles, the very rocks of the earth as well as through the noble four-legged horse” (Copeland 162).
The above symbolic vision signified that human power could only function when employed in synchronization with both friend and enemy forces.
Although this synchronization may not have happened during Black Elk’s sunset years mainly due to the fact that many Native Americans still practiced traditionalist religions (Hopfe 32), his conversion to Catholicism in 1904, though still shrouded in controversy, may have set a precedence where the natives started perceiving the converts not as their enemies but as their brothers and sisters (Copeland 165).
Indeed, it has been suggested by some scholars that not only did Catholicism and Lakota tradition became united under Black Elk’s religious life (Wenger 736), but the Christian doctrine in Catholicism added new revelation and dynamism to what the local natives already believed (DeMallie 598). However, it should be noted that the Native Americans still maintained their way of perceiving things in the natural environment, such as rocks, streams, and trees, and relating them to their religious beliefs and deities.
For instance, though they may believe that there is only one supreme God as Christians do, most Native Americans still hold the view that rocks or trees are intelligent beings capable of not only communicating with humans but also guiding their daily lives (Hopfe 35). Consequently, this arrangement brought to fruition one of Black Elk’s symbolic aspects in his vision – that real human fulfillment can only function when employed in harmony with these other enemies of the witchery (Copeland 165).
Another captivating and symbolic portion of Black Elk’s vision was when he met the six Grandfathers, who ostensibly represented the powers of all corners of the world, in addition to the Sky and Earth. It is told in the scholarly works that Black Elk not only saw himself in the vision as representing the sixth Grandfather, hence the spirit of mankind, but was also bestowed great power to heal, destroy the enemy, and lead his people (Wenger 736).
This symbolic portion signifies the power that Black Elk assumed his vision would grant his people (Copeland 162), in addition to celebrating a warrior’s solution of using the powers of the unknown (spirits) to tackle the many challenges facing the Native American Indians, such as colonization by the white man, destruction of the Lakota territory, battles with intruders, and other social upheavals.
It is worthwhile to note that many Native Americans still believe in contacts with the spirit world (Hopfe 35), hence Black Elk’s vision came to fruition.
In his sunset years, Black Elk lamented that he was unable to prevent the massacre of his countrymen, women and children in the famous massacre of the Wounded Knee even after experiencing the vision (Wenger 735). Nonetheless, it can be argued that his vision came to pass in totality because many of these atrocities were stopped by the conversion of the Native Americans to Christianity – an action that was viewed to be of primary importance to the whites.
However, the power these native societies longed for still remained because research demonstrates that “…while none of the Native American religions have survived unchanged, many have incorporated elements of European culture and religion into native belief systems rather than giving up traditional ways entirely ( Hopfe 32). Indeed, Black Elk still enjoyed his pipe in the mornings and evenings while still being a catholic catechist (DeMallie 597).
To conclude, therefore, it can be argued that Black Elk did fulfill his vision in its entirety, though he may have suffered a great deal of anguish in his old age when he perceived that he bore the largest portion of the blame for not helping his people to realize the full human power and fulfillment of his vision (Copeland 163). He may have perceived this anguish either actively or passively, but it came to pass that “…the witchery cannot be conquered by those who use its weapons, for they become instead its allies” (Copeland 162).
Through the religious efforts of Black Elk, a community was born where native traditionalists existed hand in hand with Christianity. At the end, Lakota religious traditions, thought to be polytheistic in nature but with a belief in one super deity (Hopfe 32), were solidified with Catholicism.
Cajete, Gregory A. “Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.” American Indian Quarterly 34.2 (2010): 262-262.
Copeland, Marion W. “Black Elk Speaks and Leslie Silko’s Ceremony: Two Visions of Horses.” Critique 24.3 (1983): 158-172
DeMallie, Raymond J. “Black Elk in the Twenty-First Century.” Ethnohistory 53.3 (2006): 595-601.
Hopfe, Lewis M. Religions of the world. 9th ed. Ed. Mark R. Woodward. New York, NY: Vargo Books. (n.d.).
Wenger, Tisa. “Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic.” Church History 79.3 (2010): 734-736.