Posted by: hansgustafson | February 5, 2013

Reflections on Nicholas Black Elk: Constructive Convergence, Appropriation, Inculturation, Syncretism, and Multiple Religious Belonging

Nicholas Black Elk (1866-1950), the Oglala Lakota visionary and son of Crazy Horse’s cousin, has been the subject of both debate and inspiration. Inspiration comes from his alleged appropriation of his Lakota tradition via Catholicism, his commitment to interreligious dialogue, and courageous pursuit for religious truth. Debate continues to churn around both the sincerity and circumstances of his alleged “conversion.” I will not dwell on the latter. Instead, I will respect his right to label himself a committed Catholic and Lakota holy man. I focus here on the convergence of the Christian and the Lakota traditions in the life of Black Elk.

Black Elk reports that he had set out with “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show in order to examine the “white man’s ways [to determine whether they] were better [than the Lakota ways].”[1]  Though unimpressed with most customs, he was impressed with their faith: “I know the white man’s customs well.  One custom is very good.  Whoever believes in God will find good ways…Of the white man’s many customs, only his faith…I wanted to understand.”[2]

After his “conversion” in 1904, Black Elk sought to understand the faith of the Wasichu.[3]  The late Franciscan Sr. Marie Therese Archambault, a Hunkpapa Lakota thinker, speculates that “perhaps his gift of immense spiritual sensitivity opened a way for him to recognize the wakan (the sacred) when it was manifested within another, very different socio-religious context.”[4]

Black Elk is often portrayed as a natural interfaith learner open to new paths and new ways present in other traditions.  Even John Niehardt’s controversial Black Elk Speaks reflects this. Upon joining the Wild West Show, Black Elk reflects, “They told us this show would go across the big water to strange lands, and I thought I ought to go, because I might learn some secret of the Wasichu that would help my people somehow.”[5]

Phillip Arnold suggests that Native Christians, such as Rigoberta Menchú and Black Elk, “consistently express a sense of religion that is indigenous in spite of its being Catholic. Their sense of the sacred was/is actively opposed to an understanding of religion as abstract, transcendent, or Utopian.”[6]

By “Utopian,” he is referring to the Christianity of the white European American immigrants who were “placeless,”[7]and distinct from the “indigenous Christianity” of the inculturated natives who were connected to the materiality of the land and place.[8]  Although Arnold is right to point out that Natives have contributed “creative religious innovations”[9] to Christianity, it is not the case that the inclinations to relate religion to land, place, and materiality were absent to Christianity prior to Native encounter.

Rather, this aspect of sacramentally relating to material, place, and land may have been repressed in the type of Christianity that was impressed upon the Natives and still endures in many places today.  Arnold is insightful in his recognition that these innovations “can help non-Natives to critically re-evaluate the material dimensions of American religious life.”[10]

This is the case when combined with the retrieval of the sacramental tradition in Christianity. These Native innovations can assist the Christian in retrieving this aspect of her faith while broadening the understanding of sacramentality at work in traditions other than her own.

Although Black Elk appeared to be, by all accounts, extraordinarily open to spiritual experience, it is likely that the inherent openness of the two traditions for finding the sacred in all things also contributed to his syncretic spirituality. Without this openness, compatibility, and complementarity decreases. The openness of Black Elk and his Lakota heritage combined with the retrieval of the sacramentality of the Ignatian principle of “finding God in all things” as stressed by the Jesuits he encountered, perhaps created the fertile conditions for his multiple religious belonging.

Appropriation through the symbolic frameworks of traditions can allow for the possibility of becoming open to inculturation, syncretism, and multiple religious belonging, without scandal. This path might entail appropriating the Christian faith to accommodate the symbolic framework of another.

For instance, this is evident in Black Elk’s hermeneutical exploration of his childhood vision in light of the Christian tradition and message. This can be understood as a complex form of inculturation, a process in which “the Christian faith has been reformulated in philosophical categories belonging to non-Western traditions.”[11]

Some speculate that Black Elk understood the sun dance and sacred pipe to be Lakota expressions of the Christian gospel message, which would not necessarily entail multiple religious belonging, but is rather the incluturation of the Christian message into the Lakota culture. For instance, Michael Steltenkamp documents an excerpt from a letter written by Joseph Epes Brown to Father Gall which attempts to articulate a “Metaphysics of the Pipe.”

Brown writes, “to smoke the Pipe is the same as taking the Holy Christian communion.  The form of the pipe is the same as the Xian Cathedral, & it too represents the Universe, with God at the Center.” Steltenkamp concludes that “given Brown’s understanding, and given Black Elk’s innate tendency to see sacred connectedness everywhere, the two men no doubt helped one another find parallels where others might not” [12]

Ultimately this would still be a case in which the Christian religion is framed by the Lakota culture. It is not clear that Black Elk understood it this way, but rather he may have understood the two traditions as authentically different yet compatible and complementary. Here Clyde Holler’s suggestion is valuable, “it is important to note that Black Elk’s commitment to Christ-ianity does not necessarily imply any lessening of his commitment to traditional Lakota religion. This is clearly the understanding of conversion assumed by the missionaries, but it was not necessarily that of the Indians themselves.”[13]

This article was previously published at StateofFormation.com on 11/3/2012


[1] Raymond DeMallie, The Sixth Grandfather (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 245.

[2] ibid., 8.

[3] wasicu [wah shi chu], stranger, white person (Archambault, 10, see note 4).

[4] Marie Therese Archambault, O.S.F, A Retreat with Black Elk: Living in the Sacred Hoop (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1998), 26.

[5] John Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks, Chapter 19

[6] Philip P. Arnold, “Black Elk and Book Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67, no. 1 (1999): 107.

[7] ibid., 88.

[8] ibid., 87.

[9] ibid., 108.

[10] ibid.

[11] Catherine Cornille, “Introduction” in Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity, Catherine Cornille, Ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 5.

[12] (sic) Joseph Epes Brown, Letter to Father Gall, November 12, Scourmont Abbey, France, 1947 in Steltenkamp, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic, 225.

[13] Clyde Holler, “Black Elk’s Relationship to Christianity,” American Indian Quarterly 8, no. 1 (winter 1984): 39.

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