Black Elk

Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism

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Damian Costello
Faith and Culture Series
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , March
     193 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In November 2017, Catholic Bishops unanimously voted to examine Nicholas Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux as a candidate for sainthood after a petition with over 1,600 signatures was presented to the diocese in Rapid City, South Dakota. National media coverage speculated on whether canonization was a continuation of the church’s role in colonialism and an attempt to hide its sins of cultural persecution. These themes are the topic of Damian Costello’s book, Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism. He argues that Jesuit missionaries defied stereotypes of destructive players in the economic and political domination of indigenous tribes, and Black Elk was a sincere Christian convert who creatively adapted traditional ceremonies to a new context. His argument is compelling, carefully researched, well argued, and easy to read.

The book begins with the question: “who was Black Elk?” Costello offers two contradictory representations. The first is “the literary creation of the essentialist Black Elk: the proud, defiant, yet vanquished warrior embodying the Lakota defeat” to enemies in pursuit of gains in territory, minerals, furs, and farming; the second is “the Black Elk described by the Lakota community and historical record: the Catholic agent actively and successfully participating in the new reservation economy” (13). The former is a romanticized fiction depicted in the popular book Black Elk Speaks, while the latter is the accurate legacy of an exemplary man now promoted for sainthood. Costello analyzes both perspectives in two chapters on “Traditionals and Christian Conversion” and “Misinterpreting the Vision.”

Costello specifically uses American Indian Movement activist and Hollywood actor Russell Means as the dissenting voice that sees Christianity as a disrupting force in Native American life. He effectively silences the protest by explaining how “Lakota raised in a traditional environment and speaking the Lakota language (like Black Elk) have a very different understanding of Christianity” (53). He suggests that Means’s aggressive stance is based on an identity formed in secular urban America and relies on selective religious symbolism for a constructed ethnicity divorced from complex communal practices. The traditionalist view is that Lakota identity is compromised not through Christianity but through alcohol consumption (58). 

Moreover, Costello shows how John G. Neihardt, author of Black Elk Speaks, interviewed Black Elk with an agenda and cultural bias in the context of extreme Lakota poverty. Neihardt paid Black Elk enough to support six or seven Lakota families and promised him half the profits of the book and a possible movie deal. Black Elk understood from his years in a touring Wild West show that an audience expects an authentic experience of an exotic other and imagined world. Costello writes, “Black Elk used the situation sincerely and creatively for the survival of his family and people” (157). However, when Neihardt omitted Black Elk’s Catholicism and broke his promise to pay, Black Elk disavowed the book and declared it “null and void” (153).

Costello refutes the image of the rampaging missionary by adopting the perspective of the Lakota in the early reservation period. Instead of perpetrating cultural genocide through domination, manipulation, exploitation, suppression, and annihilation, the early Jesuits learned the Lakota language, participated in Lakota ceremonies (including the use of the Sacred Pipe and adoption by the tribe), and promoted aspects of Lakota tradition as superior to Anglo-American culture. The Jesuit vows of poverty, obedience, and nonviolence set them apart from other white men, and the Lakota who themselves made the distinction requested a Jesuit presence on the reservation. Two chapters entitled “Redescribing the Lakota World” and “The Incarnation of the Lakota Christ” show how Lakota tradition was explicitly connected to Catholicism. Costello includes excerpts of the White Buffalo prophecy, including three references identifying the White Buffalo Calf Woman as the Virgin Mary, and compares Black Elk’s vision to biblical imagery and passages.

This is a provocative book of interest to undergraduates and also seasoned academics in a wide range of fields from theology to social science to literature and history. The inquiry challenges assumptions about Black Elk in the popular imagination and redeems Catholicism from accusations of land conquest and violence against colonized people. Costello inspires the reader to rethink the acceptance of Christianity by Lakota traditionalists and persuasively shows how Black Elk was misrepresented in his so-called autobiography. Costello’s work is an important contribution to the scholarly conversation about religious identity and representation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Damian Costello is a doctoral student at the University of Dayton, Ohio.


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