Knights of Columbus Lead Pilgrimage to Honor Servant of God Black Elk
The fraternal organization organized its first pilgrimage to honor the Lakota holy man and pray for the continuation of the Catholic catechist’s canonization cause.
RAPID CITY, S.D. — With a wooden cross strapped to the back of a white pick-up truck, a caravan of Knights of Columbus traversed across South Dakota’s wide expanse of prairies and ancient, rock-hewn hills to make a pilgrimage in honor of Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, Catholic catechist and possibly a future Catholic saint.
“I just said, ‘We got to take that [cross] up to Black Elk Peak,’” Phil Carlson, a Knight of Columbus from eastern South Dakota, told the Register. Carlson, who coordinated the hike, said he was inspired to organize the pilgrimage after learning more about Black Elk and his cause for canonization through the documentary Walking the Good Red Road: Nicholas Black Elk’s Journey to Sainthood.
“He’s up for sainthood, so this is a way to increase awareness.”
The first-ever Knights of Columbus pilgrimage took place July 23-24. About two dozen Knights, along with spouses and some of their children, converged on St. Agnes Catholic Church in Manderson, on the Pine Ridge Reservation (approximately an hour and a half drive from Rapid City) and traveled up the dirt road to the hillside St. Agnes Cemetery where Black Elk’s mortal remains rest.
Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) is most widely known thanks to Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt’s interpretive biography that covered Black Elk’s early life and the Lakota way of life that he had lived in his youth. But the famous book left out the vast majority of the life of Black Elk, who embraced the Catholic faith in 1904 and saw the faith as one with his Lakota culture and at unity with the vocation from the Creator he had received through several mystical visions he reported in his lifetime.
Black Elk became an energetic Catholic catechist, retaining Lakota practices that harmonized with his Catholic faith. As a Catholic, he was frequently called upon to pray for the sick and dying, becoming known as a “prayer man.”
He worked closely with the Jesuit priests in sharing the Gospel to Native and non-Native people, often using his “Two Roads” pictorial catechism, and conducted the prayers and led parish life in their absence. By the time he died on Aug. 17, 1950, Black Elk had personally brought 400 people into the Catholic Church.
“Heavenly Father, Great Spirit, behold us who stand before you singing our song of thanksgiving for Nicholas Black Elk,” the group prayed, standing in a circle before Black Elk’s grave and petitioning “Holy Mother Church to recognize his sanctity by acknowledging his presence among the company of saints and as one to imitate in his zeal for the Gospel.”
Lakota Catholics have made pilgrimages to Black Elk’s gravesite before, heading up to Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees in France where Black Elk would often go to pray. It is here that, as a child, Black Elk revealed that he first experienced a series of apocalyptic visions over his lifetime about the Creator’s vision for all beings to live in unity. A complete account of the visions can be found in Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic by Jesuit Michael Steltencamp. This pilgrimage was the first Catholic pilgrimage organized from outside the Lakota nation since Black Elk’s cause for canonization formally began in 2017.
Memories as Pilgrim Relics
Among those present with the Knights at this first stop on the pilgrim’s journey were Penny Wolters, a granddaughter of Black Elk, and Black Elk’s grandson, George Looks Twice, both of whom shared memories and stories of Black Elk.
George Looks Twice, 86, had started the discussion about having the Catholic Church recognize his grandfather as a saint after attending St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization in 2012. The Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, formally opened the cause in 2017, deeming Nicholas Black Elk a “Servant of God.”
From the hillside grave, as the rain began to gently mist, Penny Black Elk pointed toward the little white church below where her great-grandfather had led a Eucharistic procession of more than 1,000 Lakota and told stories she grew up with about how he would cross the hills to visit with family and pray with people, especially the sick and dying.
Deacon Bill White, who is also Lakota and the diocesan postulator for Black Elk’s cause, told the Register that he thought it was a wonderful sign this pilgrimage by the Knights had come from their own initiative. He also shared that the diocese learned this July that Rome had accepted their documentation and declared the positio (the summary of the life, heroic virtues and renown or reputation of the Servant of God) was ready for its review.
Once the historical and theological commissions verify Black Elk’s life of faith and heroic virtues, he will be declared “Venerable.” After that, two undisputed miracles — one to make him a “Blessed” and two to make him a saint — would be required for canonization.
As pilgrims departed, they touched the gravestone of Black Elk but did not take dirt or stones, instead following the Lakota tradition of leaving sacred ground undisturbed.
Father DeWayne Kayser, the South Dakota Knights of Columbus state chaplain, told the Register that the Lakota have a strong tradition that burial places are sacred ground that should remain undisturbed wherever possible. Consequently, the “relics” the pilgrims take with them are the stories they have heard about Nicholas Black Elk.
“And then, after the stories, they take those memories and their stories with them and share them with others,” he said. In that Lakota way, the priest said, the spirit of Nicholas Black Elk goes with them wherever they go and wherever the stories are shared. “So the stories are the ‘relic’ more than the ground or the rocks.”
He said that as Catholics on pilgrimage, such stories aid in “telling a story of Jesus Christ as we pilgrim to a great saint or a great holy place or so on and so forth.”
Toward a Place of Visions
The Knights convoyed to Rapid City for an overnight stay, and then early in the morning on July 24, they headed to the Black Hills up to Black Elk Peak. The mountainous area is sacred to the Lakota people, who traditionally would follow and hunt the buffalo on the plains in summer but then return to the Black Hills as a place of refuge against the bitterly cold winters.
Starting the journey by foot at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, the Knights first prayed for Nicholas Black Elk’s intercession and canonization. Then they carried the large wooden cross and began walking together in the footsteps of Nicholas Black Elk up to Black Elk Peak. Jesuit Father Joseph Daoust, superior of Holy Rosary Mission Jesuit Community and a board member of the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, led the prayers at Black Elk’s gravesite. He told the Register that Black Elk’s visions were part of how God appears to have revealed his life’s vocation that would extend into his life as a Catholic and a catechist.
Father Daoust said that when he was not yet a Catholic, Black Elk had prayed for a redeemer during the Ghost Dance, a religious dance and spiritual movement that lasted until the Wounded Knee massacre of Lakota families, a horrific scene that Black Elk witnessed. He saw a vision that he would later recognize as Jesus Christ.
“He saw a man against a tree with his hands up, with holes in his hands, who talked about, ‘All of this is beautiful. And I have come in order to make it again beautiful,’” Father Daoust said.
Taking Trail No. 9, the Knights walked with the wooden cross to the top of the 7,200-feet-above-sea level peak, with its majestic views in all directions — more than 7 miles round trip — making 14 stops to pray each of the 14 Stations of the Cross. At each stop, another knight would take a turn carrying the cross up or down the mountain, and others would share the story of Nicholas Black Elk and the effort to canonize him with curious hikers they met along the trail.
Knights’ Strong Ties to Black Elk
Paul Lambert, supreme director of the local Knights of Columbus, told the Register at Black Elk Peak that the Knights have a strong “bond of unity and fraternity” when it comes to any cause, but they feel it strongly with the cause of Nicholas Black Elk.
The Knights of Columbus have had ties to Nicholas Black Elk through Rapid City’s Duhamel family, who were devout Catholics, Knights of Columbus, business partners and friends with Black Elk and his family. They had opposed the Ku Klux Klan in South Dakota and racism against Native people. One of the Duhamels, according to their family history, was adopted into the Oglala Lakota tribe in a ceremony presided over by Black Elk and given the name “High Hawk.”
Lambert said the Knights have been grateful for “Native people being willing to share openly their story and their history and their strong Catholicism as well.”
And the Knights of Columbus, both at the state and national level, are seeking to build on that earlier legacy from their brother knights. The Knights of Columbus have financially supported Black Elk’s cause, especially since the Rapid City Diocese is a mission diocese, with limited resources to support 81 parishes and missions for 7,500 Catholic households spread across 43,000 square miles. The Knights over the past three years, he said, also did a wheelchair and “coats for kids” distribution to assist the Lakota Nation’s efforts to alleviate poverty on the reservations. They also have an exchange program, where Native and non-Native children can spend some time in each other’s schools to understand each other better.
After the hike to Black Elk Peak, the Knights concluded their pilgrimage at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City for the Saturday vigil Mass and to celebrate a meal of fellowship and thanksgiving.
The Knights are looking at making the Black Elk pilgrimage an annual event. Carlson, who inspired this pilgrimage, said he also hopes that awareness builds around Nicholas Black Elk’s witness of unity and that his cause can help the Church heal “the frictions that we have that revolve around race.”
Black Elk himself wrote pastoral letters to the Lakota people, teaching the Catholic faith, but also encouraging Catholics to walk in the faith, so their actions reflect their words.
“I am working in a difficult area, because of the great love (of people) in times of death. Die to your old self [old sins], and live the new life Jesus gave you,” Black Elk said. “That way you will receive help and there will be love. That is it.”
“When it comes down to it, it’s always Jesus. It’s always Jesus,” Carlson said. “He’s the only one that can transform lives.”
Carlson said he believes more Catholic pilgrimages will be organized to visit Black Elk’s grave and ascend Black Elk Peak.
“I hope that this place becomes known as the place where you join in unity with Nicholas Black Elk and Christ,” he said. “That’s what I hope.”
Peter Jesserer Smith accompanied the Knights of Columbus on their July 23-24 pilgrimage to Black Elk Peak. This story was updated Aug. 4 to correct information in the biography of Father Joseph Daoust. This story was updated after posting to also correct the spelling of Penny Wolters, a granddaughter of Black Elk, and include other clarifications. The Register regrets the errors.