Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic
Martin, Kathleen J., Plains Anthropologist
Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic by MICHAEL F. STELTENKAMP. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2009, xi +296 pp., 24 B&W illustrations, 2 maps, chronology of events, bibliography. $24.95 (cloth).
A number of years ago Vine Deloria, Jr. noted that the "nature of great religious teachings is that they encompass everyone who understands them and personalities become indistinguishable from transcendent truth." Such is the nature of the life and teachings of Nicholas Black Elk, and his often quoted comment to John Neihardt continues to hold people's attention: "If you think about it, you will know it is true." In Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic, Michael Steltenkamp's argument adheres to both of these propositions, and he uses a variety of techniques to support conclusions and provide readers with information on the spiritual and personal life of Nicholas Black Elk. The text attempts to establish purposes, describe processes, and provide a convincing rationale for knowing, interpreting, and understanding the life of a Lakota holy man who became a Catholic. More specifically, it asserts that Black Elk's life and Christian works can be understood through the notion "that tradition to people in one era was considered innovation to those in an earlier period." Further, the text problematizes the actions of Black Elk in the face of forces and struggles encountered by Lakota People as settlers and U.S. government policies imposed restrictions on a way of life in which survival necessitated accommodation. From this, life's challenges can be actively confronted and cultural adaptations for survival incorporated. The author argues that readers will come to consider transcendent truth and conversion as reflected in and through this "interpretive biography" of Nicholas Black Elk, and will be encouraged to think about it and know it is true.
Largely an overview of what is known of Black Elk's life from the works of authors such as John G Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie, and Joseph Epes Brown, as well as historical accounts, records from Jesuit priests such as Eugene Buechel and Joseph Lindebner, and personal conversations with descendente, most notably Black Elk's daughter Lucy Looks Twice, the text presents interpretations and draws conclusions from this extensive body of material. Of particular interest for those studying the lives of individuals within complex social settings, is the juxtaposition of historical, political and cultural contexts that encompassed the life of Black Elk, and now provides a framework for understanding his work as a "medicine man, missionary, mystic." Much of the text's documentation of sources and references are based on Steltenkamp's earlier work, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, as well as the work of Joseph Epes Brown in The Sacred Pipe. Of some significance, the text includes 24 photographs, a number of which are from university repositories or are part of personal collections, rarely seen in publications. Some of the most interesting are those of Black Elk's mother with him as a child, and Holy Rosary Mission, the Catholic Sioux Congress of 1920, and Lakota catechists. The value of these images to Lakota People, and researchers of history and religious studies is worthy of note, as is much of the anecdotal and conversational material also included in the text. These data may provide starting points for research in a number of fields.
The text's chapters outline the life of Nicholas Black Elk through events and experiences beginning with an introduction to Lakota cultural background and Black Elk's childhood, and ending primarily with a discussion of his legacy and status as medicine man and missionary. Chapters 1 through 7, although sometimes all too limited in scope, present some of the more prominent historical events and background information on Lakota life, as well as situate Black Elk's life within the social and contextual backdrop of the time. …