Based on conversations with Black Elk's surviving friends and relatives, especially his daughter Lucy Looks Twice: a reassessment of the Lakota holy man's religious vocation. Although Black Elk (1863-1950) is usually ranked as the most important Native American religious figure of the past two centuries, almost nothing is known of his life beyond the age of 28, the year that concludes his classic autobiography, Black Elk Speaks (1932; coauthored with John Neihardt). Here, Steltenkamp (Anthropology/Bay Mills Community College) fills in the blanks. Scholars have long been aware that Black Elk converted to Catholicism in 1904—an event often covered up by radical Indian activists—but Steltenkamp makes it clear that this turn to Christianity was neither halfhearted nor coerced but, rather, the culmination of Black Elk's religious search. Lakota religious expression, he finds, is more flexible than previously believed; Black Elk's Catholicism was another way of maintaining his Indian identity. Taking issue with Neihardt's portrait of a pessimistic ex-warrior, Steltenkamp paints the mature Black Elk—whether reciting his rosary, building a chapel, or exhorting other Indians to convert—as patient, kind, hard-working, and happy. While interviewing Black Elk's associates, Steltenkamp hears repeated complaints about how the holy man has been misrepresented by the media, and a second issue emerges: the right of Indians to choose their own way of life, be it Catholic or otherwise, free from pressures by those who wish to freeze their history in 1890, at the massacre at Wounded Knee. A real step forward in American Indian religious studies.
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