Nicholas Black Elk
Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic
Published by: University of Oklahoma Press
Imprint: University of Oklahoma Press
296 Pages | 6 x 9 | 24 b&w illus., 2 maps
Since its publication in 1932, Black Elk Speaks has moved countless readers to appreciate the American Indian world that it described. John Neihardt’s popular narrative addressed the youth and early adulthood of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux religious elder. Michael F. Steltenkamp now provides the first full interpretive biography of Black Elk, distilling in one volume what is known of this American Indian wisdom keeper whose life has helped guide others.
Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic shows that the holy-man was not the dispirited traditionalist commonly depicted in literature, but a religious thinker whose outlook was positive and whose spirituality was not limited solely to traditional Lakota precepts. Combining in-depth biography with its cultural context, the author depicts a more complex Black Elk than has previously been known: a world traveler who participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn yet lived through the beginning of the atomic age.
Steltenkamp draws on published and unpublished material to examine closely the last fifty years of Black Elk’s life—the period often overlooked by those who write and think of him only as a nineteenth-century figure. In the process, the author details not just Black Elk’s life but also the creation of his life story by earlier writers, and its influence on the Indian revitalization movement of the late twentieth century.
Nicholas Black Elk explores how a holy-man’s diverse life experiences led to his synthesis of Native and Christian religious practice. The first book to follow Black Elk’s lifelong spiritual journey—from medicine man to missionary and mystic—Steltenkamp’s work provides a much-needed corrective to previous interpretations of this special man’s life story. This biography will lead general readers and researchers alike to rediscover both the man and the rich cultural tradition of his people.
"A valuable contribution...that is both accessible to general readers and offers a consistent and insightful interpretation of [Black Elk’s] religious life."—Raymond J. DeMallie, Indiana University, Western Historical Quarterly
"An excellent and detailed biography of Nicholas Black Elk, the famous Lakota Sioux visionary...a tremendous scholarly contribution that reveals a great deal that hitherto had not been known about the life of Nicholas Black Elk and the subtlety of his thought."—Ross Enochs, Marist College, American Catholic Studies
"Accessible and should be enjoyed by specialists and non-specialists alike...easily the best reference work on Black Elk’s life to date."—Seth Schermerhorn, Arizona State University, Montana: The Magazine of Western History
"A significant contribution...The author is to be commended for the broad reach of history and his willingness to engage the complex conversation that unfolds between traditional spirituality and Christian theology."—Wendy L. Fletcher, Dean, Vancouver School of Theology, British Columbia
This is the first book-length biography to cover the life history of the famous Lakota holy man. It is based on published primary source material, interviews with Black Elk’s family and friends, as well as Roman Catholic Church records from the
period when he was a lay catechist. The book brings together the extant historical record and tells Black Elk’s story in an accessible narrative. Scholars and the general public alike will find this volume appealing. This is Michael Steltenkamp’s second book on Black Elk, the first being Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). Indeed, Steltenkamp, who himself is a Jesuit priest, has contributed greatly to our understanding of Black Elk’s role as a catechist. Some have questioned the sincerity of Black Elk’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, but not Steltenkamp, who believes firmly the sincerity of his subject’s faith. So much ink has been spilt about Black Elk that it begs the question of whether another book is really necessary. However, Steltenkamp’s contribution fills a niche not yet occupied. It is a well-written, critical, and scholarly work, yet eminently readable. I recommend it for all tribal colleges and universities. —Herman A. Peterson, D.Min., is the Diné College librarian in Tsaile, Arizona.