Black Elk Biography

Black Elk

Oglala Lakota holy man
Born: 1863
Birthplace: Little Powder River, Wyoming

Black Elk's life encompassed the U.S.-Sioux wars, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek. As a young boy he had a vision and later became a medicine man. He left the reservation and toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Europe, returning in 1889. He converted to Catholicism in 1904 and became a catechist on reservations for several decades.

In 1930 Black Elk met the poet John Neihardt, a meeting that resulted in the book Black Elk Speaks (1932). Black Elk dictated his autobiography to Neihardt and recounted Lakota history and traditions in an effort to preserve them. The book received little attention at first, but the 1961 reprint ignited a new interest in Lakota ways and spirituality. Controversy has swirled around the book. How much of the book is Neihardt and how much is Black Elk? Was Black Elk a believing Christian or hiding his true Lakota spirituality under a Christian mantle to appease white culture? Or did Black Elk embrace the Lakota and Christian religions in a blend of both?

During the 1930s and 1940s, Black Elk performed reenactments and was a speaker on Lakota life. He told Joseph Epes Brown the details of several rituals and Brown published The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Oglala Sioux in 1953. A fall in 1948 invalided him and he died in 1950.

Died: 1950