Northern Plains Reservation Aid (formerly American Indian Relief Council)
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Biographies of Plains Indians

Black Elk — 1863-1950

One of the most studied and written about Native Americans, Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota holy man. His story was first told in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, a book-length poem published in 1932. Neihardt tells Black Elk’s story from his childhood through the 1890s.

Black Elk claims to have been at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. His story tells of the time after the battle when his people were forced to live on reservations, the impoverishment and what it was like living as prisoners on their own land. He describes the brief period of hope when the Ghost Dance religion emerged before the massacre at Wounded Knee.

In 1886 Black Elk joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and toured eastern cities and even Europe.

His life after 1900 is recounted by Michael Steltenkamp’s Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala. Steltenkamp, a Jesuit, says that Black Elk became a Catholic missionary. He says that Lucy Looks Twice, Black Elk’s daughter, told him of the conversion. She says that her father traveled with the Jesuits and helped convert Arapahoes, Winnebagos, Omahas and others. He even went on fundraising trips to eastern cities.

In later years he combined his missionary work with showmanship at various tourist attractions in South Dakota, using his reputation as a Lakota holy man to draw visitors. Steltenkamp says Black Elk found no contradiction in his traditional Lakota religion and Catholicism. Black Elk died in 1950 on a night when the Pine Ridge area experienced a meteor shower. Black Elk made a prediction earlier in his life that lights in the sky would accompany his death.

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