Black Elk's Religion: The Sun Dance and Lakota Catholicism

By M, David | Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Black Elk's Religion: The Sun Dance and Lakota Catholicism


M, David, Ethnic Studies Review


Clyde Holler. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995). xxxi, 246 pp. $39.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Few, if any, American Indian individuals are more widely known in the United States than the Lakota holy man, Black Elk (1863-1950). His story, particularly as presented by John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks, has been required reading for legions of students taking classes in literature, religion, anthropology, and American Indian Studies. Scholars in those fields have generated a body of critical literature which has taken on a life of its own as Neihardt's book, originally published in 1931, has been reprinted in paperback editions many times since 1960. During the 1970s, Neihardt appeared on the Dick Cavett show and, along with Black Elk, became something of a cult hero. Meanwhile, heated debates have arisen as to whether Neihardt's book is ethnographically or historically accurate and whether it is a faithful as-told-to autobiography or a novel.

Clyde Holler's book is the most recent major work in this controversy. It deals with the question of Catholicism in Black Elk's life and the role of Christianity in contemporary Lakota culture, specifically regarding the Sun Dance. Holier came to this particular arena as a professor of religion teaching a class that employed Neihardt's book as a text. In 1983 he attended most of the final two days of a Sun Dance near Kyle, South Dakota. In order to understand the subject better, Holier perused numerous sources in anthropology, history, philosophy, and literary criticism. In the candid, almost defensive, introduction to his book, Holier admits that he may be trespassing into those areas from his base in classical philosophy and religious studies.

Holler fist summarizes the classic Sun Dance as observed between 1866 and 1882 by S.R. Curtis, Alice Fletcher and others. He then outlines the Sun Dance as remembered by informants for the period 1887-1911 and reported to James Dorsey, J.R. Walker, and Frances Densmore. The Sun Dance was officially banned by the U.S. government between 1883 and 1934, but Holier reviews evidence that the ritual continued as an underground observance in outlying areas. …

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