Nicholas Black Elk

A short biographical sketch of the life of Nicholas Black Elk, for whom our school is named.


Part I: Early Years

Black Elk was born in December of 1863 on the Little Powder River, probably in what is now Wyoming. His father and his father's father were medicine men who held special healing powers and respect among their tribe. They were Oglala Lakotas who camped and hunted in the most western part of Lakota country, beyond the Black Hills. When the Bozeman Trail came through this territory in 1864, the Lakota tribe came into open conflict with the white men and finally into war. In 1877, the western Oglala bands returned to the Great Sioux Reservation east of the Black Hills in South Dakota.

Black Elk was born into the Old Lakota world, before the arrival of the white men. This was a sacred world in which the people lived in daily communication with the spirit forces who ruled their lives. When he was only nine years old, Black Elk received a great vision that foretold the special powers he would have to use later in life to cure his people from illness and to help them in war. The vision gave him prophetic powers, but he did not yet understand what the spirits wanted him to do or how he was to use his powers. Black Elk was too young to take part in the fighting with the white men in the 1860's and 1870's, but after his cousin Crazy Horse was killed in 1877 at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, his people fled to Canada to get away from the soldiers. They stayed there about three years.

During his sixteenth year, Black Elk was overcome by a terrible fear of the Thunder-beings. He heard them, but he did not understand what they wanted him to do. Finally, when he was seventeen Black Elk revealed his great vision to a wise medicine man who helped him understand his fears, and explained what the Thunder-spirits wanted him to do. In the spring of 1881, Black Elk enacted the horse dance, a public demonstration of the first portion of his vision. This was the beginning of his career as a medicine man; he publicly announced his spiritual calling to his people. He soon became an important and sought after medicine man of the Oglalas.

Reservation life held many hard challenges for the Lakotas: buffalo were no longer abundant to support the people; the tribe was forced to depend on government rations; war between tribes stopped; many of the men turned to ranching and farming to support their families. The traditional ways and roles of the Lakota men were quickly being eliminated. Black Elk began to feel that it would be better for his people to take up the ways of the white man. In 1886, in order to learn more about the ways of the white men, Black Elk signed two contracts with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show for twenty-five dollars a month plus all expenses (food, travel, clothing, medicine, etc., for four years.) The show took him to Madison Square Garden in New York, and to England for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign. When the show closed in England, Black Elk became separated from the group, and Buffalo Bill sailed for America without him. Black Elk and two other Lakotas joined another wild west show and traveled through Germany, France, and Italy. This gave him a great opportunity to study the white man's way of life. He learned to speak some of the white man's language, and learned about Christianity, the white men's religion. He wrote to his people to tell them that he was favorably impressed by the Christian beliefs and practices he saw on his travel. When Buffalo Bill returned the next year to open his show in Paris, Black Elk met him and received a ticket home. He returned to Pine Ridge in 1889. He later told John Neihardt that when he was in Europe his own spiritual power disappeared; but when he returned to Pine Ridge, his power came back to him. Now Black Elk understood some English and had a realistic perspective of the new world he and his people would live in.

Part II: Young Adult Years

When Black Elk returned to Pine Ridge, an Indian religious movement, the Ghost Dance, was spreading through all of the Sioux reservations. Black Elk at first stayed away from he movement, but finally went to investigate this new religion for himself. He saw a great parallel between the ghost dance image of a sacred tree surrounded by the hoop of the people and his own great vision. He also saw it as a strong reminder to bring his people back to the sacred hoop of their traditional Indian ways.

Instead of bringing renewal, however, the Ghost Dance brought death to over three hundred innocent Lakota people at Wounded Knee. After the massacre, Black Elk turned his back on the white man's ways and helped his people as a medicine man and healer. By this time a group of Jesuits had established a mission called Holy Rosary on the Pine Ridge reservation. Black Elk's practice of traditional healing ceremonies brought him into direct conflict with the missionaries. Black Elk had married Katie War Bonnet and they had three sons who were all baptized in the church. Black Elk continued to be successful as a healer, but shortly after 1900, he turned away from his traditional healing, was baptized and received the Christian name of Nicholas. Black Elk never practiced the Lakota religious ceremonies again.

Black Elk became a strong member of the church, and because of his strong commitment and his excellent memory of the Scriptures, he was soon appointed to the position of catechist, an office that usually paid about $25 per month. At this time missionaries were beginning to experiment with the idea of appointing native catechists to help speed up the conversion of native tribes and maintain the faith. The catechists held religious services, led prayers and hymns, and instructed the people---all in the Lakota language. Black Elk was sent to the Arapahoe tribe in Wyoming, and to the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. The catechists gained prestige by earning the people's respect.

In 1903 Katie War Bonnet died, leaving Black Elk with two young sons. In 1906 he married Anna Brings White, a widow with a five-year old daughter. Two more children were born to them: Lucy Black Elk and Nick, Jr. In 1912, Black Elk was forced to go to the Hot Springs for treatment for tuberculosis. Unfortunately, he suffered from the disease for the rest of his life. It was a continuous drain on his strength, but Black Elk accepted it as part of the cost of reservation life. By now tuberculosis had reached epidemic proportions on Pine Ridge.

Part III: The Meetings with John G. Neihardt

In 1930 another critical event that would have importance in Black Elk's life occurred. John Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, visited the Sioux country to prepare to write the final volume of his poem, A Cycle of the West. He wanted it to include the story of the ghost dance and to end with the massacre at Wounded Knee which would symbolize the fulfillment of the white man's conquest of the New World. Neihardt wanted to speak to someone who had lived through these times, to try to understand its deeper spiritual significance. He was warned that the old man (Black Elk) would probably refuse to talk to him. But when he arrived at the foot of the hill by Black Elk's house, Black Elk seemed to sense a powerful presence and announced to all those near him that "I can feel in this man...a strong desire to know the things of the other world. He has been sent to learn and I will teach him."

Black Elk felt a power in the poet and welcomed him and his two daughters into his home. The next morning they started to work. It was a slow process. Black Elk would make a statement in Lakota, his son Ben then would translate it into "Indian English." Neihardt would repeat Ben's translation, rephrasing it into more standard English. When it was necessary for clarity, the sentence was repeated to Black Elk in Lakota. Neihardts' daughter Enid would take down each word in shorthand. Several other Sioux elders took part in the talks and described the historical events Neihardt needed. Then Black Elk told of his early mystical experiences during his childhood. A few days later over two hundred people from the entire district gathered for a celebration with traditional games, the finest traditional regalia, and food cooked in the old ways.

On that day Black Elk took Neihardt as his son, making the relationship between them public, and prepared him to receive the teachings of his holy vision. Black Elk smoked the pipe, presented it to Neihardt for the ritual four puffs, and passed it around the circle of the elders who witnessed and validated the ceremony. Each of the elders spoke of their battle coups. Then all the people who had gathered at Black Elk's home climbed the hill for the ceremony in which the Neihardts were to be adopted into the tribe and made members of the Oglala tribe. John and his daughters were given names to mark their new identities, each name referring to an aspect of Black Elk's holy vision. Enid was called "She Walks with her Sacred Stick" (which meant she would be prosperous in the future, marry soon and have a large family). Hilda, the younger daughter, was given the name "Daybreak Star Woman" (which meant that Hilda was to have knowledge and wisdom from the star.) John Neihardt himself was given the name "Flaming Rainbow". The name meant that "his thoughts were beautiful, and from his thoughts the rainbow goes out and men get knowledge from it. His world was like a garden, and his words like the drizzly pour of rain falling on the thirsty garden. Afterwards the rainbow stands overhead."

By giving the name Flaming Rainbow to Neihardt, Black Elk was making him share in the vision. As Flaming Rainbow, Neihardt was to take on the role of this power on earth by making the vision "go out", like the flames from the rainbow, so that people would understand it. Neihardt would now serve as Black Elk's spokesman through his writing.

The interviews with Black Elk were not private. The other old men stayed to listen, to eat, and to serve as witnesses to the truthfulness of his story. When they completed the telling of Black Elk's vision, they were amazed, for Black Elk had not revealed any of it before. After the elders left for their own homes, the Neihardts and Black Elk drove to the Wounded Knee battlefield, and to the top of Harney Peak, the center of the world to which Black Elk had been taken in his vision. There Black Elk prayed, "that the sacred tree might bloom again and the people find their way back to the sacred hoop and the good red road...O, make my people live!" In reply a low rumble of thunder sounded, and a drizzle of rain fell from the sky that just before had been cloudless.

Black Elk in the book is left as a tragic figure, seemingly helpless and pitiful, sorrowing over the destruction of his people. But this powerful literary image is far removed from Black Elk's daily life as a rancher, catechist, and community elder---in fact one of the most successful old-time, uneducated Indians in adapting to life on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In reality, far from failing, Black Elk had made a very successful life for himself and his family.

John Neihardts' book, Black Elk Speaks, became an elegy commemorating the man who had failed in his life's work, as well as of a people whose way of life had passed. They book owes a large part of its success to Neihardt's empathy with Black Elk---the mystic in the poet and the mystic in Black Elk were united. Though the motives of both men were different, Neihardt's interpretations of the vision were valid, and he was satisfied that the book preserved "the finest things" in Black Elk's life. The book became Neihardt's best-known work, and one of the most successful books of all time on American Indians.

Part IV: The Last Years

In the spring of 1935 a businessman from Rapid City, SD, invited Black Elk to participate in an Indian pageant as a tourist attraction. With a group of friends and relatives, Black Elk would camp out for the summer in the Black Hills. He continued with this Sioux Indian pageant every season for most of the rest of his life. Black Elk was billed as its medicine man, and became the main attraction of the pageant. He demonstrated traditional religious activities as the offering of the pipe, the burial enactment, and the sun dance. This was a way to make his vision go out beyond himself, to share the traditional ways with the white men. And in his old age, Black Elk turned his attention more and more to Lakota tradition, though never giving up his Christian religion.

Neihardt visited Black Elk several more times and wrote another book entitled When the Tree Flowered. It carries the story of the Lakotas past Wounded Knee and reflects Neihardt's positive outlook on the Lakotas as a people who would survive the dramatic changes to their outward life. By the time When the Tree Flowered, was completed, Black Elk was dead. He passed away at Manderson on August 19, 1950.

As Black Elk grew to old age, the world around him had changed dramatically. His experiences convinced him that at least some white people valued the old Lakota teachings and the old religion. A deep sense of regret, of loss of what had been the Lakotas, most irreplaceable spiritual strength seems to have overcome him. This was probably made worse by the mounting social and economic problems which were occurring on the reservation. In the end, he grieved that it had been a great tragedy for his people to abandon their old religion, but they had done so out of necessity, and they and their children had to live with the new.

Today there is a great interest in the traditional ways and religious beliefs among the Lakotas. The teachings of Black Elk seem to have taken on a new life.

Taken from The Sixth Grandfather, Black Elk's Teachings, Given to John G. Neihardt, edited by Raymond J. DeMille