- Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism
Damian Costello's monograph on Black Elk, the Oglala holy man, is the latest in a growing number of scholarly contributions to the controversial topic of Black Elk's religious identity. Was Black Elk truly a wicasta wakan, a holy man, who only became a Catholic convert as a result of the colonial pressures endemic to the reservation system? Or was Black Elk actually a devout catechist, whose "Great Vision" was unnecessarily bereft of its Christian message because John G. Neihardt desired a romanticized and non-Christian Indian narrative? While taking on these questions, Costello places his analysis in the recent tradition of Black Elk scholarship that includes the work of Raymond DeMallie, Julian Rice, and Clyde Holler, on the one hand, representing the non-Christian interpretation of Black Elk, and on the other, portraying Black Elk as a Lakota Catholic, are Michael Steltenkamp and Paul Steinmetz. Costello for his part does not hesitate at aligning himself with the Lakota Catholic camp. Indeed, he even asserts that regarding Black Elk as primarily Catholic is truer to the way in which other Lakotas think of him, as emphasized by Frank Fools Crow (Black Elk's nephew) and Lucy Looks Twice (his daughter).
What ensues is a work that so thoroughly disparages Neihardt and everyone else Costello regards as promoting an "essentialized" and non-Christian image of Black Elk that it is difficult to tell what is left other than a heavily syncretized thesis about Black Elk, which may only exist in the pages of Costello's book. What Costello forgets—and this is crucial—is that no one would be interested in [End Page 1014] any aspect of Black Elk's life (outside of his own family and community) if not for Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. In other words, what Costello does is similar to what other scholars have done to uncover the historical Jesus at the expense of the New Testament. In turn, what Costello also overlooks, which he is not alone in doing, is that the debate over Black Elk's religious identity is largely a debate between white male scholars, including Costello (a doctoral student at the University of Dayton), rather than being an urgent concern for the Oglala Lakota community. In fact, it is rather obvious from the tone and direction that Costello takes in his analysis that he neither spoke personally with any Lakota about his project nor bothered to learn much about Lakota culture or the Lakota/Dakota intellectual tradition.
Costello, instead, is more concerned with subsuming Black Elk into the postcolonial discourse initiated by Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian scholar, whose work on non-Western Christianity is having a significant influence on how the gospel and missionizing are being rethought in light of religious trends in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. More specifically, Sanneh's discourse operates under the idea that non-Western Christianity has played a major role in liberating non-Western nations from their colonial oppressors and is currently playing a major role in their postcolonial development. Although one should not underestimate the meaning of this global movement in the Christian community, unfortunately, there are two major problems with applying this analysis to Indian communities, particularly in the United States. First, tribal nations such as the Lakota are still under the yoke of colonialism and, as such, are engaged in a process of decolonization rather than postcolonialism. Second, taking Sanneh's perspective and arbitrarily applying it to early twentieth-century Lakota history only serves as a way of making excuses for historic wrongs that both Protestant and Catholic churches committed against the Lakota people. For some of the most egregious actions were not limited to what church officials did do (such as take advantage of American westward expansionism) but what they did not do, such as advocate for the restoration of Lakota land and sovereignty, let alone promote the desettlement of Indian lands. For example, Costello never mentions a Catholic priest in Chapter 2 "Missionaries, Colonialism, and the Internal Dynamic" as defending the Lakota interests...