Finding Sainthood: An Academic Contribution to Nicholas Black Elk’s Cause for Canonization

  Rev. Michael Steltenkamp, S.J.
  Friday, December 8, 2017 8:37 AM
  Academics, WJU News

Wheeling, WV

This article written for the Daily Theology Blog by Rev. Michael Steltenkamp, S.J., professor of Religious Studies at Wheeling Jesuit.

A well-known passage in the New Testament reports an incident that took place after the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:13-36).  The scene depicts two of his disciples walking on a road to the town of Emmaus.  On that road, they encounter their Risen Lord but do not recognize him until later on.  That passage came to mind when thinking of an event that took place last week in South Dakota where an American Indian’s cause for sainthood was

Other than fraternizing with Father Jim O’Brien at Wheeling Jesuit University, the closest I might ever come to sainthood is writing about it in the local newspaper, The Intelligencer.  There I recounted the interesting story of an 18th century Mohawk woman, Kateri Tekakwitha who was canonized a saint by the Catholic Church in 2012—the first American Indian to receive this honor.  At the time, based on my experience with different tribes, I mused that other Native people should also be so recognized.  This October has seen that reflection become reality.

The “Child Martyrs of Tlaxcala” (Cristobalito, Antonio, and Juan) — martyred between 1527 and 1529—were canonized October 15, 2017.  Many hope that these Mexican exemplars of faith will be joined by what are known as the “Martyrs of La Florida Missions.”  This latter cause will include a number of priests (one a fellow Jesuit) and 59 Apalachee Indians who were killed by Anglo American colonists and slavers who sought to destroy Florida’s Catholic missions in the early 18th century.

My more personal connection with this saint-making world of Catholic culture is an event that took place October 21, 2017, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  On that day, Bishop Robert Gruss of Rapid City, South Dakota opened the cause of Nicholas Black Elk, a catechist (teacher of religion) of the Oglala Lakota who lived from 1865 to 1950.  It was his life that I described in two biographies, Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic.  Since I am a Jesuit priest, it is natural that people assume my depiction of Black Elk as a saintly Catholic was what motivated me to write the two books. As the following will indicate, my motivation had entirely different roots.

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