The importance of indigenous heroes like Black Elk

The importance of indigenous heroes like Black Elk

Today a central theme in reading the “signs of our times” is the increased attention paid to inculturation, the planting of Christianity in soil beyond the Mediterranean world where it first flowered, and allowing it to grow anew by authentically dialoguing with a pre-existing culture. This process is a key element in what Karl Rahner once famously called the “inauguration of a truly world-church,” instead of a mere exportation firm of European ideals, and transplantation of cookie-cutter Catholicism.

This has all kinds of interesting resonances across the world from Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence” in Japan to Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro’s cinematic portrayals in “The Mission” in Paraguay to Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator’s “Theology Brewed in an African Pot.”

In our North American context, the prevailing narrative that “civilization” arrived on the East Coast and moved southward and westward is utter fiction from a variety of angles. Even when read through the most generous possible interpretation of European evangelization to the “New World,” the Spanish were elsewhere on the continent working with the indigenous peoples long before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.

Recently, that fascinating dialogue between Native/First peoples and the arriving Christian message was highlighted when a Mass was offered in South Dakota for the opening of the cause of canonization for Nicholas Black Elk, a spiritual leader of the Sioux people who lived from roughly 1866-1950, although his exact birth year is unclear because those dates are according to the Christian Gregorian calendar.

The Plains people of his time saw their way of life forever altered in this period, especially by the Reconstruction-era resettlement of natives onto reservations. A medicine man for his kinsman, Black Elk, who was a second cousin to Crazy Horse, joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and toured Europe with the troupe.

He eventually was baptized and took the name of Saint Nicholas because of his noted generosity, returning to South Dakota to serve as a catechist for his people. He famously told his story to John Niehart, who published the autobiographical account as “Black Elk Speaks” in 1932.

The Jesuits still work at Red Cloud Indian School, the ecclesial descendant of Holy Rosary Mission, in one of the poorest areas of the Western Hemisphere. Damien Costello recently visited Pine Ridge, S.D., and wrote about his experiences, both for America magazine and in a book published by Orbis Press. “For some there is a feeling that the canonization of Black Elk would be a continuation of the church’s role in colonialism. … 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.”

Yet local Bishop Robert Gruss is supportive of raising Black Elk to the altars of the saints because of the latter’s profound sanctity and the impact it could have on his flock today.

Since both Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia and Cardinal Cupich of Chicago have spent time leading that Rapid City diocese, he will likely have national support in petitioning for a greater awareness of the unique gifts Native Americans in general and Black Elk in particular bring to the worldwide church. Kateri Tekakwitha has already done this in many ways, and Black Elk’s canonization is believed to be strengthened by the widespread devotion that has arisen toward the “Lily of the Mohowks.”

As Pope Francis continues to remind the church and world of the importance of respecting our common home, the earth, in writings like Laudato Si’, indigenous heroes like Black Elk remain important witnesses to God’s presence in lands and traditions that serve as counter-balancing testimonies marbled throughout more dominant and prevailing cultural tendencies.


Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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