Just a Thought - The Saintly Lakota Medicine Man.


From those long ago days when I paid nine pence or two jam jars to gain entrance to the local village cinema, I loved 'westerns'. And I haven't really changed! And that is why I was attracted to SBS's presentation of Robert Redford's 'The West'. He describes this as the 'authentic history'.


It is the story, in the aftermath of the Civil War, of the railroads, the infamous outlaws, the Indian wars. This is a story somewhat different from what was portrayed in those early western movies, where the pioneers, assisted by the army, were the really good guys and the outlaws and Indians, especially, were the problem. The battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 featured prominently.


As a twelve year old, Black Elk fought in that battle alongside the great Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse. He became a 'ghost dancer'/ 'medicine man' and continued in his fighting ways. Then when the Indian wars finished, treaties (often never honoured) were signed and the tribes settled, often forcibly, into reservations, Black Elk went on tour of Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody. There he became a teacher of what was lost - an alternative and oppositional voice to the forces of colonialism.


In 1904, at the age of 40, influenced by Jesuit missionaries, he converted to Catholicism and gave up his medicine practice. He spent decades as a catechist, making numerous missionary trips to other reservations in what he called 'spiritual scalping-tours'.  To-day in the parish of Pine Ridge where Black Elk did so much of his pastoral work, his name is spoken with great reverence. He lived a life of unquestioned holiness and, at times, great suffering. He lived with tuberculosis from 1912 always proclaiming his Catholic faith until the end.  In 1948 he wrote 'Ever since Wakan Tanka ( the Lakota name for God) gave light to my heart, it stands in light without end'.


Why this recent interest in Black Elk?  Because  about one year ago his grandchildren presented the bishop in South Dakota with a petition of nearly 2000 names requesting that the diocese formally nominate their ancestor for canonisation. And this has highlighted the involvement of significant cultural issues.  The conflicts of the Indian wars and the reservation system, easily filed away as history elsewhere, remains palpable and unresolved in other places. And it cannot be forgotten that with the western expansion that delivered Christianity to the Lakota - spearheaded by the Jesuits - many missionaries, well-intentioned and respected, were willing participants in the federal government's program of cultural persecution. History has scarred many, and the desire to escape anything related to the colonial past is strong.


An understandable consequence of that for some, is the feeling that the canonisation of Black Elk would be a continuation of the church's role in colonialism. They don't deny that the Catholic way has so much good to offer; it teaches the spirituality and goodness of Jesus of Nazareth that is so desperately needed. But the official church has never owned up to what happened in the past. Until they fully admit that and take steps to make reparations, the wounds won't heal.    Uncertainty and pain are real. But now healing is a real possibility and Black Elk can be part of that process. To-day, most of the ministry in pine Ridge is in the hands of the Lakota - as it is in other communities and parishes. They have their own radio station where Lakota traditions are honoured.  And Black Elk's ministry among his own people serves as an example of someone who could be deeply committed to his Catholic faith and to his Lakota identity. The witness of Black Elk, as both an indigenous and potential saint has to be a powerful resource in the process of decolonisation and healing. being indigenous is not limited. And we in Australia should be part of that conversation to sort out what of pre-Christian culture should be retained. It was an important aspect, mission and message of Black Elk's life and legacy.