Black Elk, Nicholas

Black Elk, Nicholas (1863–1950) Also known as Hehaka Sapa. An Oglala Lakota whose childhood visions and training enabled him to work as a holy man or medicine man: a healer, leader, and repository of sacred wisdom. In 1904 he converted to Catholicism and became a catechist among the Lakota. In 1930–31 he began to tell the story of his life and times to John Neihardt, a EuroAmerican poet, who published a version following its translation by Neihardt’s son Benjamin and transcription by his daughters Hilda and Enid.

Considerable controversy continues about the nature of Neihardt’s book, Black Elk Speaks (1961). In addition to the question of whether Black Elk should have told anyone other than another Lakota holy person about his knowledge, it has been debated what role, if any, he had in the selection and presentation of elements of his biography in the book. There are discrepancies between Neihardt’s book and what his daughter transcribed (as published in 1984 by Raymond DeMallie as The Sixth Grandfather). The fact that Neihardt says almost nothing about Black Elk’s Catholicism makes it difficult to know whether the two men ever discussed the possibility that Catholic glosses may have been put on earlier Lakota practices or on Black Elk’s shamanic experiences and work. A similar critique can be leveled at Joseph Epes Brown’s book The Sacred Pipe (1971).

The books of Neihardt and Brown are commonly understood to provide a blueprint for what “traditional” Lakota religion was like. In an introduction added in 1979, Vine Deloria Jr. celebrated Black Elk Speaks as a “great religious classic” and a “North American bible of all tribes” that has greatly aided Native quests for “roots” and affirmation. He wrote, “In Black Elk’s visions we have a natural relationship to the rest of the cosmos devoid of the trial-court paradigm but incorporating the theme of a sacrifice so important to all religions in a consistent and comprehensible way.” Deloria recognized controversies about the relationship between Black Elk and Neihardt, but considered the status of the book as a sacred text to outweigh questions of redaction and production. (Deloria’s own family history may have predisposed him to a more generous reading of the book than that of some critics.)

Black Elk Speaks has continued to be used both by Native Americans seeking to strengthen or return to traditional ways and by New Agers seeking a model of pristine spirituality. Black Elk (as presented in these books) is iconic for those who imagine Native Americans as being “close to nature” and environmentally responsible, and therefore as providing a solution to modernity’s problems. While such an icon is almost “shamanic” in its transformative power, it is Black Elk’s preconversion role as a holy man that contributes to understandings of shamans and their activities. Elements such as his initiatory visions and illnesses perfectly exemplify the kind of shamanic narrative preferred by Mircea Eliade and many neo-shamans. His encounters with otherworld persons, the “six Grandfathers” in particular, and his elaborations of Lakota rituals may be taken to be emblematic of the relational, animist engagements of holy people. Black Elk cannot now be disentangled from Neihardt’s and Brown’s selective presentations and must remain an enigmatic and contested figure. In this, he is also iconic of the treatment of Native Americans and other indigenous people in general and shamans in particular.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007