by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.
Black Elk was born around December 1863 to an Olgala Lakota (Sioux) Native American family somewhere along the Little Powder River in present day Wyoming or Montana. He became a famous Lakota Medicine or Holy Man, was the cousin of the famous War Chief Crazy Horse, he participated in the Battle at Little Bighorn (aka Custer's Last Stand), and he fought at the Wounded Knee Massacre. After the Indian Wars, Black Elk went on to tour throughout America and Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and another lesser known western show; at one point he even performed for Queen Victoria herself.
In this award winning Biography of Black Elk, Joe Jackson recounts in great detail the life of this legendary Native American and the clash of cultures between the modern European Americans and the hunter-gatherer Native Americans of the Great Plains during the 19th century. Like Helen Hunt Jackson's 1881 book A Century of Dishonor, and Dee Brown's 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Jackson's 2016 Biography Black Elk puts a face to a name in this gut wrenching story of the sufferings of the Native Americans of the Great Plains. He recounts the systematic genocidal actions of the U.S. federal government and their agents to eradicate the Native American people and destroy their culture, way of life, and their spirituality through total warfare, the decimation of the North American buffalo, a string of broken promises and treaties, forced relocations, the denial of citizenship and constitutional rights, negligence, starvation, fraud, waste, abuse, and numerous other injustices perpetrated on the Native Americans.
With 20/20 hindsight we can look back and condemn that generation of Americans who perpetrated these grave injustices on the Native Americans in the name of Manifest Destiny and social Darwinism (the hidden agenda being power, greed, and racism). In the white man's eyes these aboriginal people were stone-age Neanderthals who needed to be brought into the modern age. The most notable of all these injustices was the Wounded Knee Massacre where around 300 men, women, children, and infants were slaughtered by the U.S. Army. Even after a formal investigation, shockingly no one was ever held accountable and over twenty men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor! (Their standards for awarding the Medal of Honor were quite low back then.)
However, we must temper our condemnation of that generation by taking into account the misguided culture of their times, and we need to admit that the Native Americans themselves were not innocent bystanders in all these disputes either. The various aboriginal tribes warred amongst themselves for centuries, and the Lakota especially were a dominate warlike people pushing the less powerful tribes like the Crow out. The Crow, as longtime enemies of the Lakota, worked as scouts for the U.S. Army.
At what percentage you place the blame is debatable, but it's safe to say that hatred and prejudice ran high on both sides of the dispute. Like all human beings, there were good and bad actors on both sides. For the Native Americans, it was a losing battle to continue fighting the overwhelming numbers of whites with their superior weaponry; their pride simply got in the way of their common sense. For the whites, it was an immoral war, and they proved time and time again that they couldn't be trusted to keep their promises as treaties were torn up at a whim, and like the Native Americans, their pride got in the way of their common sense, but more importantly, their basic humanity. Like most wars, this conflict was just senseless. But to the victor go the spoils and to the vanquished goes ignominy.
Black Elk was a mystic who felt a deep calling since childhood to save his people. Maybe that was why he became a Medicine Man who administered herbal medicine along with a little hocus pocus to heal people. Black Elk's first wife, Katie War Bonnet, converted to Catholicism and raised all her children in the Catholic faith. After Katie's death in 1903, Black Elk converted to Catholicism too and took on the name Nicholas Black Elk at his baptism. He subsequently spent the rest of his life as a Catholic lay minister, teacher, and evangelist trying to heal men's souls. He also continued to practice herbal medicine and many times he was more successful than the physicians of his time. (Only in the last several decades has the west embraced traditional herbal medicinal cures as a viable alternative or adjunct to modern pharmaceuticals; in fact, many of the most successful drugs we have today were synthesized from herbs.)
I'd like to believe that Black Elk somehow found peace and hope in the midst of all of his sufferings through his faith in Jesus Christ who, like Black Elk, also suffered at the hands of evil men. Black Elk was truly a great American. He died at the age of 86 at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on August 19th, 1950.