Essential facts about BLACK ELK,
as well as a very extensive reading list!

Born ‘Winter the four Crows were killed’ in ‘month of ripe cherries’ (possibly July 1864), on Little Powder River (in present-day Wyoming), an Oglala Lakota in Big Road’s Band. Second cousin to Crazy Horse. One brother, five sisters. Father: warrior/medicine man. At five, had his first vision. At nine, experienced long, complex vision. 1876, at 12 participated in legendary Battle of the Little Big Horn. 1877 devastated by murder of Crazy Horse, fled with Big Road band to Canada. 1880 Returned to Lakota reservation in America. 1881 revealed boyhood vision in the 'horse dance', became accomplished medicine man. 1886 disgusted with reservation life, went with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New York City, then Europe. 1888 left show to drift in England, Germany and France. 1889 Buffalo Bill paid his return to reservation. 1890 embraced ghost dance as fulfillment of vision, but dance resulted in murder of Sitting Bull and later at Wounded Knee the massacre of 300 Lakotas. 1892 still medicine man at 29, he married Katie War Bonnet who became Catholic. Three sons William 1893, John 1895 and Benjamin 1899 were baptized as Catholics. 1903 Katie died. 1904 became Catholic as ‘Nicholas Black Elk’. 1906 married Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. With Anna he had Lucy, Henry and Nick, Jr. 1907 became Catholic catechist, instructed others as far away as Nebraska and Wyoming. 1913 virtually ran mission at Yankton reservation. 1916 catechist on Pine Ridge reservation. 1926 manned special catechist's house near Holy Rosary Mission. 1930 ‘discovered’ by poet John Neihardt, who crafted story of Nick as defeated old Lakota holy man. 1932 Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks appeared without acclaim. 1933 badly injured by buckwagon. 1936 for next 10 years performed rituals for tourists. 1941 Anna died. 1947 to 1949 detailed sacred rites of Lakotas to Joseph Epes Brown. 1948 fall made him an invalid. August 19, 1950, died a practicing Christian. Buried at St. Agnes Mission Chapel, near Manderson, South Dakota. 1953 Joseph Epes Brown published The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. 1961 Black Elk Speaks was reprinted, this time receiving enormous acclaim. 1993 Michael Steltenkamp’s Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala revealed in book-length Black Elk’s 43 years as a Christian catechist.

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Black Elk had one of the most controversial lives of the 20th Century.

                  Why all the controversy?
Didn’t the book
Black Elk Speaks explain everything?
                  Go HERE for a discussion.

Go to anecdotes on Black Elk's...
Wart (or flaw)
Defining Moment

Go to this page to learn five values that made him a hero of history.

Go here to find links to other websites about this hero.

Go to this page to give your opinion of this hero.

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Black Elk, Wallace H. and William S. Lyon,
Black Elk: The Sacred Ways of a Lakota, 1990. PB

Brown, Joseph E.,
The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, 1971. PB

Bourke, John G.,
On the Border with Crook, 1891. HC     PB

Buechel, Eugene, A
Dictionary of the Teton Dakota Sioux Language: Lakota-English, English-Lakota with Considerations Given to Yankton and Santee, Edited by Paul Manhart, S.J., 1970.

Clark, William P.,
The Indian Sign Language, 1885. PB

DeMallie, Raymond J.,
The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, 1st ed. 1984. PB

DeMallie, Raymond J. and Douglas R. Parks,
Sioux Indian Religion: Tradition and Innovation, 1987. PB

Densmore, Frances,
Teton Sioux Music, 1918. PB

Desersa, Esther Black Elk,
Conversations with the Black Elk Family, 2000. HC

Eastman, Charles A.,
Indian Boyhood, 1902. PB

Eastman, Charles A.,
The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation, 1911. PB

De Barthe, Joe,
The Life and Adventures of Frank Grouard, 1894. PB

Hassrick, Royal B.,
The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society, 1964. PB

Holler, Clyde, editor,
The Black Elk Reader, 2000. HC       PB

Holler, Clyde,
Black Elk's Religion: the Sun Dance and Lakota Catholicism, 1995. HC     PB

Hyde, George E.,
Red Cloud's Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians, 1937. PB

Hyde, George E.,
Spotted Tail's Folk: A History of the Brule Sioux, 1961. PB

Kadlecek, E.K. and Mabell,
To kill an Eagle: Indian views on the last days of Crazy Horse, 1981. PB

Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Richard Erdoes,
Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, 1972. PB

McGillycuddy, Julia B.,
McGillycuddy Agent: A Biography of Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy, 1941.

Mails, Thomas E.,
Fools Crow: Wisdom and Power, 1991. PB

Neihardt, Hilda.
Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow: Personal Memories of the Lakota Holy Man and John Neihardt, 1995. PB

Neihardt, John G.,
Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, 1932. HC     PB

Olson, James C.,
Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem, 1965. PB

Powers, William K.,
Oglala Religion, 1977. PB

Powers, William K.,
Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual, 1982. PB

Rice, Julian,
Black Elk's Story: Distinguishing Its Lakota Purpose, 1991. PB

Riggs, Stephen Return,
Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux, 1880. HC     PB

Sandoz, Mari,
Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas, 1942. HC     PB

Sandoz, Mari,
Battle of the Little Big Horn, 1966. HC     PB

Sandoz, Mari,
These were the Sioux, 1961. PB

Standing Bear, Luther,
Land of the Spotted Eagle, 1933. PB

Steinmetz, Paul B.,
The Sacred pipe: An Archetypal Theology, 1998. PB

Steinmetz, Paul B.,
Meditations with Native Americans: Lakota Spirituality, 1984. PB

Steinmetz, Paul B.,
Pipe, Bible, and Peyote among the Oglala Lakota: A Study in Religious Identity, Revised. ed., 1990. PB

Steltenkamp, Michael F.,
The Sacred Vision: Native American Religion and Its Practice Today, 1982. PB

Steltenkamp, Michael F.,
Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, 1993. HC     PB

Utley, Robert M.,
The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, 1963. PB

Vestal, Stanley,
Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux: A Biography, 1957. PB

Vestal, Stanley, 
Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull, 1934. PB

Note this reading list is very comprehensive for the life of Black Elk but not exhaustive on the subject of the Lakota, which has a voluminous literature.

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         Perhaps because he had seen so much death and bloodshed Black Elk developed a grim sense of humor. Two of his stories illustrate this. One story involved a Lakota man named Watanye, who was known for his severely chapped lips. Watanye was determined not to laugh because it was so painful. So the roughneck Lakota boys, including Black Elk, tried all the more to make Watanye laugh. But without success. One day Watanye let young Black Elk go spear-fishing with him. In his boyish enthusiasm Black Elk launched his spear—and himself!—into the stream. When he surfaced he saw Watanye doubled over in laughter but also grunting in pain. Watanye had to avoid Black Elk after that.
         ‘Because every time Watanye saw me he had to laugh,’ recalled Black Elk with some satisfaction.
         Another grimly humorous story Black Elk told involved a prolonged skirmish with white soldiers. It was not unheard of for a Lakota, if he had battled for many hours or even days, to just sit down and eat right in the middle of the fight. This time Black Elk sat down with fellow warrior Red Crow to eat dried meat or jerky. A bullet struck between them, kicking dirt over their food. They calmly continued to eat their fill.
         ‘If I had been killed there that moment I would have at least died with food in my mouth,’ Black Elk joked later.

[source: Raymond DeMallie,
The Sixth Grandfather, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984]

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         It is hard to criticize one who suffered as much death and sorrow as Black Elk. Besides, Black Elk left little evidence that he was irritable or petty, as some of the greatest heroes were at weak moments. And he had no notion that he would become an icon for the Native American, however false an icon crafted by the poet John Neihardt. For Black Elk was not a defeated Lakota without hope. In fact, after the Wounded Knee massacre he struggled the remaining 60 years of his life—staying active even semi-blind and crippled—to help his Lakotas, first as a medicine man and then as a Christian catechist. Yet he was flawed.
         At 12 he had a very great vision that obligated him to help the Lakotas preserve their old ways. Black Elk admitted later, “I had been appointed by my vision to be intercessor for my people with the spirit powers...if I had done this probably we would have been as we were before [the white men came]. At this time, when I had these things in my mind, I was abroad with strange people...”
         Abroad? Yes, Black Elk in 1886, although an accepted holy man of great promise among the Lakota, chose to leave the Lakota and travel with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. He went to New York City, then Europe, to see the ways of the world. He did not return to his people until 1889.
         “Before I went, he said, “some of my people were looking well, but when I got back they all looked pitiful.”
         Had he missed his appointed moment to help his people? Black Elk agonized over that question the rest of his life...

[sources: Raymond DeMallie,
The Sixth Grandfather, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984; Michael Steltenkamp, Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1993]

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Black Elk had a colossal vision in 1872 at the age of nine. He was unconscious for 12 days. The Thunder-beings in his vision seemed to entrust him with no less a task than saving the Lakota nation. But it was not solely a peaceful mission (as falsely depicted by poet John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks). By the year 1900 Black Elk was supposed to have used the ‘soldier weed’ to exterminate all enemies. A touch of the rare herb, whose identity the Thunder-beings revealed to Black Elk in his vision, caused instant death. In a later vision he was told ‘all enemies should be killed without pity like dogs’.
         But by 1900 Black Elk had resisted the temptation to use the soldier weed against the whites. Wholesale destruction, even of the whites, was unthinkable. He simply could not fulfill the vision. For this he felt great guilt. He consoled himself by practicing native healing, called ‘yuwipi’ but he was more and more disillusioned and dejected. Much of yuwipi, though often effective in healing, was made theatrical through tricks.
         ‘Yuwipi is just like a magician trying to fool people,’ Black Elk admitted to daughter Lucy later.
         Besides that, he had nearly blinded himself experimenting with gunpowder for his yuwipi. Moreover, his yuwipi had not saved his father in 1889, his son William in 1897 or his wife Katie. When she died in 1903 Black Elk was about 40, a Lakota medicine man of some repute. But in his heart he was a miserable failure. He couldn’t save the helpless ones in his own family, let alone the Lakota nation...

[sources: Raymond DeMallie,
The Sixth Grandfather, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984; Michael Steltenkamp, Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1993]

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         In November 1904 Black Elk was about 40 years old. He was a medicine man practicing ‘yuwipi’ on the Lakota reservation. He was respected but his heart was heavy. His father, brother, son William and wife Katie were dead. He had been unable to help them. He had experienced a great vision in his boyhood but had been unable to fulfill it. Yet he plodded on. When Lakota asked him for help he performed his yuwipi. Some of the Lakota had become Christians. Sam Kills Brave, the leader of the Manderson community in which Black Elk lived, was a Christian.
         Sam gently chided Black Elk, ‘Become a Christian and give up the yuwipi. It is not right to do yuwipi.’
         One day Black Elk was called to perform yuwipi for a dying boy in Payabya. He had scarcely started in the tipi when he heard a horse and wagon rumble up and the Black Robe they called Ate Ptecela (‘Short Father’) rushed in.
         ‘This boy is baptized,’ grumbled the tiny Black Robe. ‘Get out!’
         Black Elk—who fought at the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee—was no one to trifle with. And he knew how to use spiritual power. But this time he felt utterly powerless. He left the tipi and sat down completely sapped. His power had been useless against the Black Robe. Nonexistent. He looked up as the Black Robe came out of the tipi.
         ‘You come with me,’ said the Black Robe in Lakota.
         Short Father had unerringly assessed Black Elk’s spiritual vacuum. At the Holy Rosary mission priests instructed Black Elk. Just as he once absorbed the complex details of a vision with the Thunder-beings he now absorbed the complex theology of Christianity. On December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, he was baptized Nicholas Black Elk. Although for the rest of his life he would demonstrate certain sacred rituals of the Lakota he felt were fundamentally true he would never again practice yuwipi under any conditions.

[sources: Raymond DeMallie,
The Sixth Grandfather, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984; Michael Steltenkamp, Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1993]

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         The undeniable facts are that from 1881 to 1904 Black Elk was an active, respected medicine man among the Lakota and that from 1904 to 1950 he was an active, respected catechist (or instructor) for Christianity among the Lakota. However, interpretations of his life vary widely. Here are several that have been proposed by scholars:
         1. Black Elk believed only in his native Lakota religion; he practiced Christianity only to make money.
         2. Black Elk totally rejected his native religion for Christianity.
         3. Black Elk accepted the truths of both the Lakota religion and Christianity but regarded them separately.
         4. Black Elk accepted the truths of both religions and developed a sophisticated framework in which Christianity became the fulfillment of his Lakota religion.

In recent years the last hypothesis is gaining some acceptance. Black Elk was a profound religious thinker (far more profound than his elitist biographer John Neihardt). In spite of being nearly blind Black Elk had taught himself the written Lakota language. He not only read the Bible but felt obligated to have scholars (John Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown) record the ancient, sacred beliefs of the Lakota. To learn Black Elk’s actual testimony, avoid the doctored book
Black Elk Speaks in favor of the more accurate The Sixth Grandfather. To get the flavor of the raging controversy, sample The Black Elk Reader (2000)—as supposed scholars fling misinformation, distorted facts and self-serving interpretations at each other.

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The very summer (1930) John Neihardt discovered his supposedly defeated old man named Black Elk the author Mari Sandoz's friend Eleanor Hinman also met Black Elk and was stunned by what she called one of the most expressive faces she ever saw on any man: "For just that fraction of a second I saw 'Tashunkeh Witco,' [Crazy Horse] reflected in his cousin's face as in a mirror...”

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