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The gift of Indigenous saints

Damian Costello  |  28 October 2020

The stories of people such as Nicholas Black Elk help us better understand the universal call to holiness and the diversity of our faith.

When Australians think of Native Americans, vivid images come to mind thanks to popular culture. However, Catholic saints probably are not among those images.

That may soon change. Nicholas Black Elk (c.1866-1950), a cousin of Crazy Horse, veteran of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, is on the path to sainthood.

Black Elk grew up in the old days, following the buffalo in the traditional way of his Lakota people. At the age of nine, he had a great vision calling him to lead his people down the Sacred Red Road to the Flowering Tree.


For the rest of his life, Black Elk struggled to live up to that calling. He became a medicine man at the age of 16, healing the sick with herbs and sacred songs. Black Elk was shot in the stomach defending his people at Wounded Knee, the tragic massacre of 250 refugees in 1890.

There is one way that Black Elk lived out his vision that the world is only now discovering: In 1904, Black Elk became Catholic and remained so until his death in 1950. He embraced this new life with the same fervour he engaged all the ways he sought to live up to his vision’s calling.


Black Elk’s love of Scripture and talent for preaching led the Jesuits to ask him to serve as a catechist, which functioned much as a permanent deacon does in today’s church. He continued his ministry to the sick, served as a long-term missionary, and is attributed with bringing 400 people into the Church.

Black Elk is remembered as a fervent disciple of Christ, but it was his humble, merciful presence that those who know him remember most. Frank Fools Crow, Black Elk’s nephew and the last ceremonial chief of the entire Lakota nation, said it was not his great vision or teachings that made him the greatest Lakota holy man but love. ‘I have never heard a bad word about him, and he never said a bad word about anyone’, Fools Crow remembered. ‘All he wanted to do was love and serve his fellow man.’

The process of canonisation began with a petition by Black Elk’s grandson, George Looks Twice. The local bishop brought it to the USA Catholic Bishops Conference, who unanimously approved the cause. Local investigation of Black Elk’s life and teaching was finished in June 2019 and is now being examined in by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.


Black Elk’s possible canonisation brings something important to the Church. As Fr. Joe Daoust SJ, the head of the Jesuit community on Pine Ridge, explains, ‘Putting Black Elk forward is an example of Natives not just receiving gifts in their conversion but bringing gifts and in turn enriching the Church and how we understand God working in our world.’

The gifts of Black Elk’s sainthood are relevant to every Catholic, but especially in places such as the US and Australia.

Our societies continue to be fractured by the unhealed wounds of our complicated origins. Black Elk’s cause is an invitation to Indigenous peoples to bring their wisdom to the centre of the Church. And an invitation for settlers to listen to Indigenous peoples and the message of Christ with new ears and a new heart.  

> Damian Costello is author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism and served as vice-postulator for Black Elks’ cause for canonisation.


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