Nicholas Black Elk’s gift of sweetgrass


Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, like all saintly people, gives gifts. Among the most important is a life well-lived. He was many things: second cousin of Crazy Horse, veteran of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, and a Lakota holy man made famous by the book “Black Elk Speaks.” He was also a Catholic for almost a half-century, dedicated to telling the world about Waníkiya, the Lakota name for Jesus meaning “He Who Makes Live.”

Black Elk’s life well-lived, at once deeply Catholic and completely indigenous, is a gift of healing for those still scarred by the false choice lurking in many missionary perspectives: to follow Christ you cannot be Indian. What many don’t see is the gift that Black Elk offers to those of us raised furthest from indigenous traditions. Our modern, urban ways have incredible benefits but carry unseen cultural loss. Centuries of industrialization, modern science, secularization, and migration have stripped us of traditions that connect us to the land. This is not just a cultural issue but also a source of profound spiritual alienation. How many of us have the faith of Saint Francis to know the sun as brother and moon as sister? Who among us could comfortably sojourn in the wilderness for a couple of days, let alone 40 like Christ?

Black Elk could and he brings that witness to the church. During his decades of preaching the Gospel, he was also examining Lakota tradition. A couple of years before his death, he recorded his thoughts in the book “The Sacred Pipe.” Like Saint Thomas Aquinas with Aristotle, Black Elk re-read an ancient tradition in light of Christ. The result was a type of “Lakota Thomism,” a new way of understanding God, our faith and creation.

Take sweetgrass, a plant native to North America long used as incense. For Black Elk, sweetgrass is an offering to God whose fragrance “will spread throughout heaven and earth” and make “all things as relatives.” This may seem foreign to many of us, but not to 99.9 percent of our ancestors. This very same species is native to Europe and was once strewn on church doorsteps on saints’ days. The holiness of sweetgrass was such an accepted fact that even modern science records it: its scientific name, Hierochloë odorata, means “fragrant holy grass.” This small practice that we didn’t even know we’ve lost is the tip of a great cultural iceberg that once connected us to God through his creation.

Make no mistake, Black Elk’s cause for canonization is not a politically correct baptism of cheap grace. Black Elk has the church stats to satisfy the most traditional among us: he was a dedicated preacher, long-term missionary to other tribes, and credited with bringing more than 400 people into the church. Black Elk saw the power in praying in the Catholic Way and did so until the end, whether saying the rosary as he walked to church or singing his grandchildren to sleep with Latin chants from the high Mass. But Black Elk wanted to save the beauty of the old ways of praying as well. Lakota elder Basil Brave Heart told me, “Indigenous principles are a part of Black Elk’s sainthood.” And that’s a gift that we all need.

Damian Costello of Montpelier, Vermont, holds a doctorate in theological studies from the University of Dayton.