Black Elk, also known as Hehaka Sapa and Nicholas Black Elk, was a famous holy man, traditional healer, and visionary of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) of the northern Great Plains.
Birth and youth
Black Elk was born in December 1863 on the Little Powder River in Wyoming, west of present-day South Dakota. He was the son of the elder Black Elk, who supported Chief Crazy Horse, the Lakota resistance leader, and White Cow Sees Woman. He had five sisters and one brother.
A witness to plains history, he was three years old when the Fetterman Battle¹, took place (1866); five years old during the signing of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty ², and about the age of 12 when the Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought, in which George A Custer and his soldiers perished.
Black Elk experienced the end of the Sioux wars and the beginning of aggressive federal "pacification" policies imposed upon his people. He lived during the harsh early reservation period, well before the reform-minded Indian Reorganization Act of 1934³ took effect.
In 1877, the Lakota, including Black Elk and his family, fled north into Canada. They followed Chief Sitting Bull, who had become the Lakota resistance leader after the stabbing death of Crazy Horse. Following Sitting Bull's surrender, Black Elk, his family, and the other Lakota returned and were interned on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
In 1886, Black Elk joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, as Sitting Bull had done a year earlier. He traveled with the show throughout the U.S. and Europe. In 1889, Black Elk was a young man of 27 when he returned from a trip to Europe. He returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where, as a spiritual authority, he supported the Ghost Dance movement, which was based on the belief that the dance would cause the white people to leave and the buffalo to return. In December 1890, he was a witness to the Wounded Knee massacre, which occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Marriages and Roman Catholicism
Black Elk was married twice and outlived both wives. He married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. They produced three children; all three were baptized into the Catholic Church. On December 6, 1904, Black Elk was baptized, took the name Nicholas Black Elk, and continued to serve as a spiritual leader among his people, seeing no contradiction in embracing what he found valid in both his tribal traditions and Christianity. Two years after Katie’s death in 1903, Black Elk married Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters, who bore him three more children, and remained with him until she died in 1941.
During the summer of 1930, Black Elk dictated his life story to John Neihardt, and the resulting book, Black Elk Speaks, was published in 1932. In 1947, at the age of 84, he was one of a few surviving Sioux with firsthand knowledge of ancient tribal customs and teachings. As a result, Black Elk allowed an anthropologist named Joseph E. Brown to translate his memories of Sioux ceremonies and ways. The result became the second Black Elk book, titled The Sacred Pipe, published in 1953.
Black Elk's legacy is one of courage and inspiration to the Lakota Nation. He provided leadership in the acceptance of Christianity for a peaceful coexistence with the dominant society, while simultaneously remaining a Lakota traditionalist.
¹An Indian victory against the U.S. Army in the Powder River country of present-day Wyoming.
² An accord that guaranteed the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory to be part of the new Great Sioux Reservation. They would soon be invaded by gold-hungry miners supported by the U.S. Army.
³ Legislation passed in Congress to establish new freedoms for Native Americans on reservations.