God’s presence is written in the land and sky of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where the vast prairie and ancient hills testify to why the Lakota Sioux people called God the Creator Wakan Tanka — the “Great Spirit.”
This is where Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk served for decades as a catechist, witnessing to the harmony between Lakota belief in the Creator and the Creator’s own revelation about himself in the Catholic faith. And it is where nearly two dozen Knights of Columbus from across the state traveled July 23 to visit Black Elk’s grave and pray for his canonization and intercession. The following day, the pilgrims hiked to the highest point in the Black Hills — Black Elk Peak — named for the Lakota holy man in 2016.
Black Elk, in Lakota Heháka Sápa, died in 1950 and his cause for sainthood opened in 2017. The pilgrimage was the first organized by Knights of Columbus to honor him, but the Order’s connection to the Lakota catechist is not new.
“Nicholas Black Elk and the Knights of Columbus go back almost 100 years,” said Supreme Director Paul Lambert, who helped to plan the trip and was among the pilgrims. Alex Duhamel, a Knight from Rapid City, S.D., was Black Elk’s friend and collaborator in efforts to preserve the Lakota way of life and affirm its goodness at a time when the U.S. government was intent on wiping out Native American culture and language (see sidebar). The current efforts to build on this legacy of solidarity and to promote Black Elk’s cause coincide with the Knights’ major initiative, launched in 2019, to support Catholic Native American and First Nation communities.
“Native Americans have a very strong Catholic faith and have endured a lot of hardships,” Lambert said. “And the Knights want to bring light to that and do whatever we can to help expand the understanding of the whole Church. So we’re really excited about Black Elk’s cause for sainthood moving forward.”
On July 23, a caravan of vehicles followed a silver pickup with a large wooden cross strapped to the back into the Pine Ridge Reservation, a 3,500-square-mile area that is home to some 20,000 Native Americans. The K of C pilgrims first stopped at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Manderson, one of the churches where Nicholas Black Elk ministered for 40 years as a catechist.
After meeting with Lakota Catholics, the Knights took the well-worn road up to St. Agnes’ cemetery and Black Elk’s gravesite, located just 10 miles from the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Jesuit Father Joseph Daoust, who ministers to parishes on the reservation, led the pilgrims in prayer by the black stone that reads “Chief Black Elk 1858-1950.”
“We ask 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,” the pilgrims prayed, reading from prayer cards printed with support from the Supreme Council.
“Open our hearts to also recognize the Risen Christ in other cultures and peoples, to your glory and honor, through Christ our Lord.”
Afterward, the group listened to stories about Black Elk’s life recounted by Lakota Catholics. Among them was Black Elk’s grandson George Looks Twice, 86, who initiated the cause for his grandfather’s canonization after atending the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in 2012.
Black Elk was renowned as a holy man, and people would “come after him [to pray] when somebody was sick, or was sick for a long time,” Looks Twice said.
“He’d work for the Church everywhere,” he added, speaking of his grandfather’s ministry as a catechist. “He was always filling in [for priests].”
Black Elk’s granddaughter, Penny Wolters, cited one occasion when he led a eucharistic procession of 1,000 Lakota Catholics at St. Agnes Church.
The K of C pilgrims followed Lakota tradition and left the ground at the gravesite undisturbed rather than taking some earth as a relic. South Dakota State Chaplain Father DeWayne Kayser noted that the “stories are the relic,” for by telling the stories, a person brings the spirit of that person with them.
Lakota people have been coming on pilgrimage to the catechist’s grave and to Black Elk Peak for years, noted Deacon Bill White, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the diocesan postulator of his cause. But the K of C pilgrimage was a strong affirmation of the reach of Black Elk’s holy witness.
“A person with faith like Nicholas is a magnet, even in his death,” White said.
Deacon White said that the Vatican has deemed the positio, the documented case for Nicholas Black Elk’s holiness, complete. If the historical and theological commissions affirm Black Elk’s heroic virtues, Pope Francis could declare him “Venerable.”
Knights and their families left Rapid City early the next morning to enter the Black Hills — a name translated from the Lakota Pahá Sápa, and a sacred region to the Lakota people. Traveling past the giant granite “Needles” or “Cathedral Spires” of the ancient mountain range, the group gathered near the glass-like Sylvan Lake before hiking to the peak that bears Black Elk’s name. It was there, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains, that Nicholas Black Elk is said to have received visions from the Creator, and where he would return throughout his life to pray.
The Knights began the 7.5-mile trail loop for Black Elk Peak carrying the 12-foot cross fashioned by Phil Carlson, a K of C field agent and member of St. Joseph Council 17728 in Rosholt, S.D. Inspired by the documentary Walking the Good Red Road: Nicholas Black Elk’s Journey to Sainthood, produced in 2020 by the Diocese of Rapid City, it was Carlson who initially proposed the pilgrimage to his fellow Knights.
“I want to help people understand that he’s up for sainthood,” Carlson said. “He really is a saint for our time.”
During the pilgrimage, the Knights ascended the woodland trail with its breathtaking vistas, each taking a turn with the cross. They made 14 stops — seven up to the peak and seven back to the base — to pray the Stations of the Cross.
The quartz and granite trail sparkled in the sun as the Knights reached the summit, greeted by the sight of colorful Lakota prayer flags. After prayer and a short respite, the Knights picked up the cross once again for the trip down the mountain.
Along the way, they shared the story of Black Elk with other hikers, handing out prayer cards and inviting them to pray for his canonization. Through prayer cards and resources that are now used all over the United States and Canada, the Order’s support has been key to helping the Diocese of Rapid City promote Black Elk’s cause.
“There’s a growing devotion for Black Elk, and I think the Knights can be very helpful in spreading it,” Father Daoust said. “The more the devotion spreads, the more people might pray for Black Elk’s intercession in their need.”
Lyman Mahaffy, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Council 1489 in Rapid City, brought his wife, Amber, and their young daughter on the pilgrimage. They were one of several young families who participated.
“This was extremely fulfilling, physically and spiritually,” said Lyman, who alternately carried the cross and his daughter up and down the peak. “It takes a toll. But think about it: Jesus had to walk a harder road than we did.”
During the trek, Lyman prayed for the relationship between the Church and Native American peoples. “What Black Elk did for his people and the Church is just phenomenal,” he said. “To walk in honor of that relationship and for his canonization is why I’m here.”
For more information, visit blackelkcanonization.com.
PETER JESSERER SMITH writes for EWTN’s National Catholic Register.
ON THEIR RECENT pilgrimage to Nicholas Black Elk’s gravesite and Black Elk Peak, South Dakota Knights were walking in the footsteps of Catholic pioneers — fellow Knights who stood with Black Elk and the Lakota people.
Alex Duhamel and his son Francis “Bud” Duhamel were both members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Council 1489 in Rapid City. Alex joined the council shortly after it was chartered in 1910, and Bud later served as grand knight, as well as a district deputy. The Duhamels were close friends with Nicholas Black Elk and his family; in addition to sharing his Catholic faith,they spoke the Lakota language, and they worked with him for many years to support Lakota culture and identity against policies of assimilation aimed at diminishing Native American life.
“My dad, speaking of Nicholas Black Elk, said he was a great man,” recalled Bud’s son, Bill, who is also a member of Council 1489. “I never heard my dad say that about anybody else.”
Beginning in 1927, Alex Duhamel and Black Elk together developed the Duhamel Sioux Indian Pageant, which took advantage of the surge of tourists drawn to the sculpting of Mount Rushmore and also created a way for Lakota to share their culture in the sacred Black Hills. The pageant had 12 parts, showcasing traditional dances, songs and prayer ceremonies of the Lakota. The Duhamels, who ran Rapid City’s largest department store, served as producers and emcees; Black Elk, who knew all the traditional ways and had prior experience from his days in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, acted as a creative consultant. He also demonstrated Lakota rituals in the pageants.
“They were just trying to preserve their stories and culture, because they didn’t write a lot down, other than the winter count on the buffalo hides,” Bill Duhamel said.
The pageants gave Lakota a legal outlet to exercise their language, customs and culture, which would otherwise have been illegal. At the same time, they provided many of Black Elk’s Oglala friends with gainful employment during the Great Depression.
This was also the time when many Church leaders had compromised their longstanding solidarity with Indigenous peoples, and were actively cooperating with the government’s policy of eradicating Native American and First Nation language, culture and identity through residential schools.
According to Damian Costello, an expert on the life and legacy of Nicholas Black Elk and the author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism, Alex and Bud Duhamel were part of a sizeable minority of Catholics who knew deep down this was something the Church could not be part of. They did their best to support the culture of their Native American neighbors, and they did it as “Knights, prominent members in the Church who were publicly going against the grain,” Costello said.
The Duhamels, Costello explained, had a deeply imbued Catholic vision from their French Canadian heritage that saw Native and European peoples as equals, able to live in communion with each other and to form new families together. In many ways, they bore witness to the words S t. John Paul II addressed to the First Nation peoples during his visit to Ontario in 1984: “Not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian people, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian. And the revival of Indian culture will be a revival of those true values which they have inherited and which are purified and ennobled by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
When Alex Duhamel died in 1941 and Bud began running the pageant,Nicholas Black Elk gave an important affirmation of their families’ relationship. In a private Lakota ceremony, Black Elk inducted Bud Duhamel into the tribe and gave him the name “High Hawk.” Jesuit Father Michael Steltenkamp notes in the biography Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic: “Bud recalled Black Elk saying that as their wrists bled and the blood joined together, they became ‘blood brothers.’” Black Elk also bestowed Bud with an eagle feather, symbolizing his pattern of humility and obedience to the Creator.
Supreme Director Paul Lambert explained that South Dakota Knights are taking up the Duhamel legacy of Catholic witness and solidarity through the Order’s Native American Initiative. For example, they have worked with the Lakota community at the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations to distribute wheelchairs and provide children with winter coats. The Order has also given support to a Native American school exchange program, so Native and non-Native children can come to know each other better, and to the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which others the Church a model for re-immersing Native American youth in their language and culture.
Lambert hopes that a Lakota-speaking council will one day be established.
“We’re just going to continue to build with those relationships that we started,” he said. “With patience and the grace of God, amazing things happen.”
— Reported by Peter Jesserer Smith
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