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Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala Paperback – September 15, 1997
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From Publishers Weekly
In Black Elk Speaks (1932) and The Sacred Pipe (1953), John Neihardt portrayed the Lakota Sioux elder Black Elk as a 19th-century figure, steeped in memories of pre-reservation life. In this scholarly study, Steltenkamp revises these nostalgic portraits of the Sioux spiritual leader as a victim of Western subjugation, showing that he preached Christianity to his people in his later life and used this consciousness to push them to renewal. The author, professor of anthropology at Bay Mills Community College in Mich., bases much of his study on the recollections of Black Elk's daughter, Lucy Looks Twice, whom he met while teaching on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. "After he became a convert to Catholicism, in 1904 and started working for the missionaries," Lucy, who died in 1978, remembers, "he put all his medicine practice away. He never took it up again." Steltenkamp's prose is pedestrian ("Here was an amazing story and a humorous tale being told . . . "), but his book should spur re-evaluation of views "concerning the adaptation of Lakota people to changing times." Illustrations not seen by PW .
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
Based on conversations with Black Elk's surviving friends and relatives, especially his daughter Lucy Looks Twice: a reassessment of the Lakota holy man's religious vocation. Although Black Elk (1863-1950) is usually ranked as the most important Native American religious figure of the past two centuries, almost nothing is known of his life beyond the age of 28, the year that concludes his classic autobiography, Black Elk Speaks (1932; coauthored with John Neihardt). Here, Steltenkamp (Anthropology/Bay Mills Community College) fills in the blanks. Scholars have long been aware that Black Elk converted to Catholicism in 1904--an event often covered up by radical Indian activists--but Steltenkamp makes it clear that this turn to Christianity was neither halfhearted nor coerced but, rather, the culmination of Black Elk's religious search. Lakota religious expression, he finds, is more flexible than previously believed; Black Elk's Catholicism was another way of maintaining his Indian identity. Taking issue with Neihardt's portrait of a pessimistic ex-warrior, Steltenkamp paints the mature Black Elk--whether reciting his rosary, building a chapel, or exhorting other Indians to convert--as patient, kind, hard-working, and happy. While interviewing Black Elk's associates, Steltenkamp hears repeated complaints about how the holy man has been misrepresented by the media, and a second issue emerges: the right of Indians to choose their own way of life, be it Catholic or otherwise, free from pressures by those who wish to freeze their history in 1890, at the massacre at Wounded Knee. A real step forward in American Indian religious studies. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Steltenkamp shows that the studies of Neihardt and Brown helped to perpetuate a false view of the former Indian Holy Man as a prototypical example of the happy "noble savage" defeated and depressed (after Wounded Knee in 1890) by the brutal incursions of the White Man's destructive, unwelcome religion/civilization. Black Elk's life is an example, rather, of how he and an entire group contended with the Change challenges to Native Tradition so as to welcome and converge their own religion with Christian themes--and they did so with satisfaction.
Anyone who reads Steltenkamp's book carefully will understand that Neihardt and Brown themselves didn't mean to deliberately create the specifically "New Age" attitudes that some religionists criticize them for fostering. Although Steltenkamp points to "unjust" attitudes that were created, he credits N's and B's books as being valuable for having captured and represented some of the remarkable aspects of Black Elk's character. Quoting a letter from J. E. Brown, who was his colleague in anthropological scholarship, he shows how Brown encouraged him and gave him greater incentive in his undertaking to present the post-conversion years of BEs life, which Lucy and other Indians felt was MOST important. Brown wrote: "I have felt it improper that this phase of his life was never presented by Neihardt or indeed by myself. I suppose somehow it was thought this Christian participation compromised his 'Indianness,' but I do not see it this way and think it time that the record was set straight."
As anthropologist, Steltenkamp sets the stage for BEs life story with two chapters about Lakota Culture and Genealogy. (I found the information a bit difficult to fully comprehend because so unusual.) He then provides eight more chapters where he deals with collected testimonies and memories in the categories of Conversion, Catechist, Missionary, Life Story, Sacred Visions, Elder, Farewell, and Evaluations. The greatest part of the story account is mostly repeated verbatim from recorded conversations with Lucy, other Indian people, or taken from the diaries of priests with whom Black Elk worked. One is able to get a real, in-depth sense of the man and the all-pervasive VALUES that he held and lived in service to Catholic religion. There are lots of photographs; one of the nicest, taken in 1937, is of Black Elk and his wife and family with neighbors. He was fond of children and liked to work with them, and the book jacket photo appropriately shows him down on the floor with some children whom he's teaching by means of a large scroll that was his cachechist's "Map."
There's plenty of information about his "Visions" for any reader who happens to be interested in that aspect of Black Elk's Life. And there's also a good deal of incidental information about the Indian religious culture, some of which BE found to be integrally related to his Christianity: Black Elk was given a vision in his early days which he came to understand more and more over time as a foreshadowing that "came to pass" when he was converted and became a catechist. The vision involved a panoramic view of two roads that stood for Good and Evil passages through life. By coincidence, the "iconography" of the vision turned out to correspond to the map "icon" that was later given him as a tool for catechesis. Further, among the numerous remarkable Black Elk realizations recounted in the "Sacred Visions" chapter is his explanation of how the Sun Dance and other traditional Indian ceremonies were prefigurations of Christianity. He said that the religion of the Indians was very comparable to that of the Israelites in Old Testament times (and this book quotes some of the ways in which he discussed with a priest-friend of his how this was so).
Talking about the history of peace-pipe usage, Lucy told how the pipe was given the Indians by a woman who came to them in the ancient past as a benevolent "mother-with-child" personage whom they called Buffalo Cow Woman. She told them the pipe was to be used as an instrument of PRAYER directed to the Great Spirit: "Just like commandments, [the lady] told [the people] that men should be peaceful men, nice men. There should be no quarrels or arguments, no committing any kind of adultery, and no feelings to criticize. The Great Spirit created all things through his power, so man has to love all the creatures--even the trees. This was what the Pipe Lady instructed. Father Buechel accepted the Blessed Virgin as the same one who brought the pipe, and that was what we always thought." (--There were a few further remarks about the meaningfulness of Trees which I found intriguing from the point of view of religious imagery.)
In the "Farewell" chapter are accounts of the very extraordinary natural phenomena that were visible to everyone in the sky at the time of Black Elk's last illness and particularly surrounding his funeral. (This account was just amazing. A Jesuit Brother's description of the lights and illuminations in the sky that he observed takes up two pages.)
Since Steltenkamp is writing an anthropological study, his evaluations of meaningfulness to be derived from Black Elk's last 45 years of life are related mainly to assessing the effects of change on a traditional past way of religious and ritual life especially with regard to the person who was Black Elk. But, beyond those important considerations, the presentation of Black Elk's life and death as a Christian/Catholic phenomenon is bound to offer certain readers some provocative challenges and/or gratifying considerations regarding Black Elk's view of Christianity, and notably its role in the history of human religions. It seems important (to me) that the contents of this book about Black Elk's later life along with his early history, too, should become much better known than it is. Undoubtedly, many people's ideas, lives, and even their souls would be changed by knowing Black Elk's life experiences more fully than has been possible through the Neihardt and Brown books about him, although those must be useful too. It would be a good thing, for instance, if gnostics and/or neo-pagans were to become aware of this material as a further gloss or "progress beyond" the purity and goodness that they may perceive and cherish with regard to earlier pagan ways of life.
Anyway, this is an interesting and valuable account about an extraordinary life. It seems a bit boggy or hard to concentrate on in spots but I'm not sure why.... I think it's a good thing that he kept to a careful transliteration of conversations even though some of them don't read smoothly. I'm not sure that the memoir contained within the larger framework of a scholarly anthropological study "works" well, but am glad to have the book just as it is in its present form and would hope for another book that's a little more fully developed just as a biography.
You may "think" that you know something about Black Elk (perhaps from "Black Elk Speaks" and other books about him, but Steltenkamp presents "Nicholas Black Elk" as he lived more than two thirds of his life: as a Catholic catechist and Christian community leader.
It is so inspiring to see how this "holy man" (and I believe "Saint" , though not canonized by the Church) interpreted the religion of the native Americans into a proleptic vision of the arrival of Jesus Christ and the christian faith.
and even more inspiring is to read of how this man truly lived that faith day to day himself. i know how impressed i was by one simple photgrpah of Nicholas Black Elk standing with a group and holdong his rosary beads . . .proud but devout.
Some "pseudo-scholars" may try to down-play the true religious piety of this Sioux "holy man" by claiming it was a mere ruse to adapt to the "power" of the occupying white invaders . . . but read the book and see that those who actually knew him knew better.
He walked miles praying his rosary to go and lead funeral services (though only a catechist he served almost in the role of "deacon"). . . He even had the experience of a miracle attributed to the intercession of Saint Therese of Lisieux healing his little "Nicholas" and saving the boys life when he asked that a prayer be said to saint Therese.
And as he predicted there were even signs in the night sky the night he passed away into eternity.
I recommend that you get a copy of this book and read it and then re-read it again and again. You will gain a new spiritual friend and companion on your own pilgrimage journey through this world and through your life. And it sure is nice to have a "holy man' and a kindly man like Nicholas Black Elk praying for you and with you in heaven . . . and to inspire you by his own life story.
Whether the Church he loved ever gets around to enrolling him with the "official saints" or not, he will always be on my own scroll of saints when i pray. And i suspect if you read this book, he will be on yours as well. :)