Last updated: August 31, 2020
Black Elk was likely born in December 1863 along the Little Powder River in what later became Wyoming. He had five sisters and one brother and was a second cousin to respected war leader Crazy Horse. He was the fourth man in his family to go by the name Black Elk.
Throughout his childhood, he witnessed a changing landscape in his homeland. He began having visions at only five years old but became very sick during the summer of his ninth year and saw the vision that would set him on his path to becoming a holy man. In this vision, he met with a council of the Six Grand-fathers representing the four cardinal directions as well as the earth and sky. They each offered him gifts that bestowed power, including a pipestone pipe. Through a series of events, Black Elk believed he gained not only power, but also the ability to heal. At the end of the vision he returned to his body and recovered. He kept his vision secret for several years, allowing its meaning to reveal itself as he matured into a young man.
The Battle of the Greasy Grass (The Battle of the Little Bighorn)
On June 25, 1876, when Black Elk was 12 years old, the stage was set for one of the most notable battles in U.S. history. Two years prior, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer (known to the Lakota as Pahuska, or Long Hair) led an Army expedition through the Black Hills of South Dakota to scout a location for a military post. This violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which designated the Black Hills as Lakota land. To make matters worse, Custer’s expedition reported the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and the following year more than 800 miners illegally prospected in the area.
The Lakota were not willing to lose even more land to Euro-Americans and refused to surrender the land to the U.S. Government. As tensions rose, Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands gathered and united under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry attacked late on that June afternoon, initiating a battle of intense shooting and close combat. Black Elk sensed something terrible was coming prior to the battle. Though he was too young and too small to partake in much of the fighting, he did perform his first scalping and collected guns, ammunition, and clothing from dead and dying soldiers. He did not see Custer’s body, but remembered the songs his people sang following their victory over him.
The Horse Dance
The triumph did not last. In just over a year, the hero Crazy Horse would be killed at Fort Robinson, and for the next decade Black Elk’s people and other tribes continued to be persecuted and driven from their lands. Black Elk’s spiritual powers grew during this time, and he eventually revealed his vision to a medicine man named Black Road. Black Road instructed him to reenact his vision before his people in a ceremony Black Elk referred to as “the Horse Dance.” Upon completing the cere-mony, Black Elk’s fear and hesitation about the vision disappeared. Another vision and ceremony soon followed, and Black Elk became established among his people as a holy man and healer.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
In 1886, men sent by Buffalo Bill Cody (who, like Custer, the Lakota called Pahuska) arrived to recruit members of the Oglala to participate in Cody’s growing Wild West show. Black Elk saw this as a promising opportunity and hoped that by better under-standing the world of the white man he could better help his own people, now suffering and oppressed. Black Elk and the other recruits travelled by train to New York and performed at Madison Square Garden with other Plains Indians, as well as white cowboys and military men.
The following year the troupe travelled to England via steamship. They arrived in London and performed in the American Exposition, part of the Golden Jubilee cele-bration for Queen Victoria. When scheduled to return to the U.S., Black Elk and a few other men got lost and missed their ship. Stranded in a strange land, Black Elk joined a rival wild west show and travelled across Europe, developing a relationship with a French woman before reuniting with Buffalo Bill and returning home.
The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre
Black Elk returned to Pine Ridge in 1889, the same year Congress passed an act further reducing the land of the Great Sioux Reservation by about half. He found his people worse off than when he left: short on food and ravaged by disease. Black Elk resumed his position healing the sick but watched many members of his tribe die. He heard that hope for a better future may lie in the Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, who prophesied the coming of a new world made accessible only by performing a Ghost Dance. Black Elk participated in a Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee Creek near his home and experienced more visions.
Congress had outlawed the practice of American Indian religions and public ceremonies in 1883, and the spread of the Ghost Dance across the West drew concern from agents on the reservations. The conflict culminated at Wounded Knee late in 1890 when U.S. soldiers slaughtered hundreds of largely unarmed Lakota men, women, and children. Black Elk was not present at the start of the onslaught but arrived to counter the attack after hearing cannon fire and gun shots. He helped survivors and wept for the dead, wishing he had died, too. Embittered by a desire for revenge, Black Elk took part in other skirmishes over the next few days before he and his people eventually surrendered under the advice of Chief Red Cloud.
Family and Later Life
The surrender marked the end of an era. The remaining Lakota were forced to adapt to a new way of life or die. Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She was a converted Catholic, and all three of their children were baptized. Katie died in 1903, and Black Elk converted to Catholicism the following year, christened under the Christian name Nicholas. He became an educator in the faith while remaining a spiritual leader among the Lakota. He remarried in 1905 to Anna Brings White, also a Catholic. Their family grew, and they remained together until Anna’s death in 1941.
Much of Black Elk’s fame today stems from his autobiographical interviews with poet John G. Neihardt in 1930. Neihardt’s book, Black Elk Speaks, was published in 1932 but grew in popularity in the 1970s. It has been widely read and studied across the globe. In 1947, Black Elk met with anthropologist Joseph Epes Brown and dictated to him several rites of the Oglala Lakota, describing seven traditional ceremonies that involve the sacred red pipe (The Sacred Pipe). Just before his death in August 1950, Black Elk told his daughter Lucy, “The only thing I really believe is the pipe religion.”
Honoring Black Elk’s Lasting Influence
Black Elk symbolizes courage and wisdom for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. His ability to embrace Christianity while adhering to tribal customs allowed him to bridge a gap and survive troubled times. His teachings spread far beyond his own people, and an impressive amount of literature details his life and beliefs. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rapid City, SD, recently nominated Black Elk for sainthood (2017), and some believe miracles are still being performed using Black Elk’s pipe.
A monumental tribute to Black Elk’s legacy lies in his sacred Black Hills (Pahá Sápa). On August 11, 2016, officials renamed South Dakota’s highest peak after Black Elk to honor the mountain’s role in Black Elk’s vision and respect its spiritual significance to the Lakota people. The peak formerly honored General William S. Harney, and many people found the name offensive due to Harney’s role in a Lakota massacre in 1855. Black Elk Peak stands 7,242 feet above sea level, and each year tribal members make pilgrimages there to welcome the Thunder-Beings during the spring equinox.