MANDERSON, S.D. — The local phase of a sainthood campaign for Nicholas Black Elk concluded with a mass that united different races, cultures and traditions, just like the Lakota holy man did in life.
The mass on June 25 was celebrated in a small country church that houses the St. Agnes Catholic parish, in the village of Manderson on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. English-language recitation, songs and Bible readings were alternated with Lakota songs, drumming and sage-burning. Behind the altar, a sculpture of Christ on the cross was affixed to a wall-painting of a tepee.
Several Catholic officials, including Robert Gruss, the bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City, concluded the mass by signing and sealing documents that will be taken to the Vatican in Rome for further consideration of Black Elk’s case for sainthood.
Afterward, Cleo Gates, a 72-year-old Native American woman who said she is a great-granddaughter of Black Elk, admitted she did not know how to feel when she heard of Black Elk's nomination for sainthood more than a year ago. But she has since come to view it positively.
“It’s OK. It’s the 'wasicu' man’s way of honoring our grandpa," she said, using a Lakota Sioux word for white people.
About 75 people, perhaps half of them Native American and the other half white, crowded into the church and sat on well-worn wooden pews for the roughly hour-long mass. Afterward, a brief ceremony was held across the highway and up a hill at the parish cemetery where Black Elk is buried, among a beautifully stark and sweeping vista of grasslands and badlands.
An Argentinian priest, Luis Escalante, attended the festivities and will personally deliver the locally compiled Black Elk documents to the Vatican. Those documents include archival materials, investigative reports and testimonials of Black Elk’s worthiness for sainthood.
Officials at the Vatican will spend the next year or so reviewing the materials before making a recommendation to Pope Francis, who will decide whether to declare Black Elk venerable.
“Then,” said Joseph Daoust, a Jesuit superior on the reservation, “we wait for a miracle.”
If prayers for intercession to Black Elk produce a miracle, he could then be beatified. Finally, a second miracle would be required for the pope to declare Black Elk a saint.
“That could take a couple of years,” Daoust said, “With Kateri, it took over 100 years. We don’t know how long it’s going to take. That’s in God’s hands.”
“Kateri” is Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin-Mohawk woman who lived during the 1600s. Her canonization in 2012 made her the Catholic Church’s first Native American saint.
Daoust predicted Pope Francis will view Black Elk’s case favorably.
“I think Francis will be eagerly waiting to get it, because he loves this idea of doing more with indigenous people,” Daoust said.
The life of Black Elk ("Hehaka Sapa" in Lakota) spanned the transition of the Lakota Sioux people from nomadic warriors and bison hunters to reservation dwellers.
Black Elk was born in the 1860s in what would become Wyoming. During childhood, he became gravely ill and experienced a spiritual vision in which he saw himself transported to the top of a mountain that white people called Harney Peak (the mountain, which is the highest in South Dakota, was renamed Black Elk Peak in Black Elk's honor by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 2016).
As a boy, Black Elk witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn — the 143rd anniversary of which was Tuesday — and as an adult, he saw the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre. He served his people as a medicine man during his early adulthood, and he participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Beginning in 1931, Black Elk related the details of his boyhood vision and other details of his life and spirituality to the white author and poet John Neihardt, of Nebraska, who parlayed their talks into the book "Black Elk Speaks," which eventually gained a global readership.
After settling on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Black Elk was baptized into the Catholic faith in 1904 and became a catechist who taught others about Christianity. He has been credited with converting 400 people.
In his later years, Black Elk became known to tourists and Rapid City residents because of his participation in the Duhamel family’s Sioux Indian Pageant at Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns. Black Elk died in 1950.
During Tuesday’s mass, Bishop Gruss called Black Elk a missionary disciple who led a life of heroic virtue.
“He sought to confront the troubles and the anxiety of his age with the spirit and the love of Jesus,” Gruss said.