“And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” – Black Elk
Black Elk was born in December 1863 along the Little Powder River (thought to be in the present-day state of Wyoming). According to the Lakota way of measuring time, (referred to as Winter counts) Black Elk was born “the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed on Tongue River“.
When Black Elk was nine years old, he was suddenly taken ill and left prone and unresponsive for several days. During this time he had a great vision in which he was visited by the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan), and taken to the Grandfathers — spiritual representatives of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above, and below. These “…spirits were represented as kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers.” When he was seventeen, Black Elk told a medicine man, Black Road, about the vision in detail. Black Road and the other medicine men of the village were “astonished by the greatness of the vision”
Black Elk had learned many things in his vision to help heal his people. He had come from a line long of medicine men and healers in his family; his father was a medicine man as were his paternal uncles. Late in his life as an elder, he related to John Neihardt the vision that occurred to him in which among other things he saw a great tree that symbolized the life of the earth and all people. Neihardt recorded all of it in minute detail, and consequently it is preserved in various books today.
In his vision, Black Elk is taken to the center of the earth, and to the central mountain of the world. What mythologist Joseph Campbell explained as “the axis mundi, the central point, the pole around which all revolves…the point where stillness and movement are together…” Black Elk was residing at the axis of the six sacred directions. Campbell viewed Black Elk’s statement as key to understanding myth and symbols.
As Black Elk related:
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
Black Elk had many visions throughout his life which reinforced what he had experienced as a boy, and he worked among his people as a healer and medicine man.
Black Elk was widely praised by many European authors, including Clyde Holler who referred to Black Elk as “the greatest religious thinker yet produced by Native North America.”  He is credited with creating an authentic Lakota Christianity as well as revitalizing the traditional Lakota religion. Black Elk managed to identify numerous similarities between Christianity and the Lakota religion, he believed that Christianity could be embraced without needing to sacrifice the Lakota identity. One of his greatest achievements was being a key figure in the revival of the Sun Dance (an important religious ceremony among several tribes) and its reinstatement in Lakota life. Lakota traditionalists now follow his version of the dance.
Since the 1970’s Black Elk Speaks has become one of the most commonly read texts amongst those who study American history. It is believed to have played a crucial role in the renewal of interest in Native religions, as well as contributing to the United States’ efforts towards environmental issues. Black Elk worked with John Neihardt to give a first hand account of the mistreatment of Native Americans and the Lakota people by the United States government. His son Ben would translate Black Elk’s stories, which were then recorded by Neihardt’s daughter Emid, who would then put them in chronological order for Neihardt’s use.
The American Indian Movement are thought to have been greatly influenced by Black Elk – referring to Black Elk Speaks as well as his nephew and student Frank Fools Crow for information on Native traditions. Most members of AIM knew very little about past traditions – a result of many having been brought up in Urban settings. Black Elk Speaks became an icon for those seeking religious and spiritual inspiration, with the concept of pan-Indian spirituality growing support from young people throughout the nation.
Black Elk was involved in several battles with the U.S. cavalry. He participated, at about the age of twelve, in the Battle of Little Big Horn of 1876, known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Lakota; and was injured in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
In 1887, Black Elk traveled to England with Buffalo Bill‘s Wild West Show, an experience he described in chapter 20 of Black Elk Speaks . On May 11, 1887, the troop put on a command performance for Queen Victoria, whom they called “Grandmother England.” He also described being in the crowd at her Golden Jubilee. (He and Red Shirt officiated Surrounded By the Enemy’s funeral in London. The interment was at Brompton Cemetery).
In spring 1888, the Wild West Show set sail for the United States. Black Elk became separated somehow and the ship left without him, stranding him with three other Lakota. They subsequently joined another wild west show and he spent the next year in Germany, France, and Italy. When Buffalo Bill arrived in Paris in May 1889, Black Elk obtained a ticket to return home to Pine Ridge, arriving in autumn of 1889. During his sojourn in Europe, Black Elk was given an “abundant opportunity to study the white man’s way of life,” and he learned to speak rudimentary English.
For at least a decade, beginning in 1934, Black Elk returned to the work that he had done earlier in life with Buffalo Bill – organizing an Indian Show in the Black Hills. Unlike the Wild West shows which were used to glorify Indian warfare, Black Elk’s show was used primarily to teach tourists about Lakota culture and traditional sacred rituals – including the Sun Dance.
Black Elk married his first wife, Katie War Bonnet, in 1892. She became a Catholic, and all three of their children were baptized as Catholic. After her death in 1903, he became a Catholic in 1904, when he was christened with the name of Nicholas and later served as a catechist. He continued to serve as a spiritual leader among his people, seeing no contradiction in embracing what he found valid in both his tribal traditions concerning Wakan Tanka and those of Christianity. He remarried in 1905 to Anna Brings White, a widow with two daughters. Together they had three more children and remained together until her death in 1941.
Toward the end of his life, Black Elk revealed the story of his life, and a number of sacred Sioux rituals to John Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown for publication, and his accounts have won wide interest and acclaim. He died August 19, 1950 at the age of 87″ (Wikipedia).