Published on August 14, 2014 by Amy
Black Elk was a Lakota Sioux Native American who gained notoriety through his Wild West Show performances and literature. In his lifetime, Black Elk witnessed the decline of his people from wars with the United States, traveled the world and was a medicine man for the Lakota Sioux. Black Elk lived to be 87 years old and passed away in 1950.
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Black Elk was born in 1863 as part of the Oglala Band, a subtribe of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. The birthplace of Black Elk was Little Powder Creek, a Sioux settlement in modern-day Wyoming. Black Elk’s father and grandfather were both medicine men for their tribe. The famous Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse, was Black Elk’s second cousin. In 1866, Black Elk’s father was killed by U.S. forces in the Fetterman Massacre, leaving Black Elk to be the primary hunter for his family. Black Elk’s tribe followed the lead of Crazy Horse, who led a rebellion against the United States during the 1870s.
Many of the Indian Wars battles between the Sioux and U.S. forces occurred in the 1860s and ’70s, when Black Elk was too young to fight. However, Black Elk was an active participant in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. This fight was known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” due to the Sioux’s rout of the U.S. forces, led by General William Custer. In this fight, Black Elk claimed to scalp two U.S. soldiers. The Battle of Little Big Horn was Black Elk’s last battle, although he witnessed the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. At this battle, Black Elk was only able to rescue some of the Sioux from the U.S. forces.
At the age of 11, Black Elk had a vision that he was appointed by the Six Grandfathers — the highest order of deities in Sioux religious beliefs — to be a leader for his people. Throughout the 1880s, Black Elk was a medicine man for the Lakota Sioux at the Pine Ridge Reservation in modern-day South Dakota. During this stint, Black Elk joined the Ghost Dance Movement, which stated spiritual rituals would force the U.S. settlers to leave and reestablish Native American culture. However, Black Elk’s wife — Katie War Bonnet — and children became Catholics in 1903. Black Elk converted to Catholic Christianity the following year and changed his name to Nicholas Black Elk. Black Elk converted approximately 400 Lakota Sioux to Christianity.
Black Elk’s first encounter with fame among the United States citizens was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This show exposed Midwest and east coast U.S. citizens to the American West’s culture. Black Elk toured on the Wild West Show in the late 1880s. On the tour, Black Elk traveled to cities such as Chicago, New York and Manchester, England. Most of Black Elk’s fame resulted from John Neihardt’s novel, “Black Elk Speaks.” This book was a biographical account of Black Elk’s childhood and his years as a medicine man. “Black Elk Speaks” also provided insight into the Lakota Sioux history and traditions.