Is it possible than an American Indian who was the second cousin of the great war chief Crazy Horse and a veteran of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee could teach the world about the Catholic Faith?

Nicholas Black Elk (left) and Eagle Elk stand in Our Lady of the Sioux Church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, circa 1910s. (Photo courtesy Marquette University Libraries)

While Nicholas Black Elk is known for all these things, it is his Catholic faith that is the highlight of a new documentary to be shown at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 14, on WISN-12. “Walking the Red Road: Nicholas Black Elk’s Journey to Sainthood” was funded by the Catholic Communication Campaign of the USCCB and is a rare opportunity for Catholic programming in a mainstream media outlet.

Dr. Damian Costello, a Catholic theologian specializing in the life and legacy of Nicholas Black Elk, Servant of God, has studied his life for the past 25 years and is trained as an academic.

“After the story of this cause for canonization broke, the television station France 2 contacted me and asked me to help them produce a segment for their national news. I had never thought of doing film work before and after that experience, took an old proposal that no one wanted and revamped it into a documentary proposal,” he said. “I sent it to a few places and a couple responded. One was New Group Media, who had a contact with the Catholic Communication Campaign of the USCCB. They submitted a proposal and the CCC gave them a large grant. I served as an associate producer and academic advisor, and am interviewed for the project.”

The documentary, which took more than a year to produce, involved the collaboration of media, historians and the Lakota tribe. As a young man, Black Elk was a medicine man, also called a holy man, healing people through the power of song and rituals. However, in 1904, Black Elk discovered a different kind of healing and holiness, through the Catholic Church. After converting, he became a missionary disciple, traveling to nearby Indian reservations and speaking to Catholic groups around the country. He was responsible for the conversions of more than 400 people to Catholicism.

“I think Black Elk is important for the Church as a whole because he bucks all the stereotypes that people have of who Catholics are,” said Costello. “He is perhaps one of the most important icons of Native American survival. Many people would see this as opposite of the Catholic Faith. When you examine his life, however, you see that Catholicism was an important, perhaps the most important, factor in his ability to face unprecedented tragedy with hope. His hope was the theological virtue of hope.”

Black Elk’s cause for canonization was opened in August 2017 by the Diocese of Rapid City in South Dakota. Throughout his life, he endured much suffering, including the loss of wives and children, and a complete upending of his way of life as a Native American. Still, his faith never wavered, and he re-examined his Lakota ways of life in light of the truth of the Gospel.

One of the challenges in producing the film was correctly representing Black Elk and the Lakota people, who Costello said are heirs of Black Elk’s legacy.

“My role was to be one of the people who tried to be attentive to doing our work in a way that was culturally sensitive and being respectful of the Lakota way,” he explained.

Fr. Edward Cook, pastor of Congregation of the Great Spirit, said he hopes the film brings awareness to the fact that the Church is not European but worldwide.

“American Indians have always felt like step-children and in many cases, still do,” he said. “There are Indian saints all over the place, but white eyes don’t see it. We prayed through Black Elk for a long time and read about him — he was a hero.”

If Black Elk is canonized, Fr. Cook said it would be a recognition of the sacredness of the people and good to see that he might be recognized for being a saint.

“He was always recognized by Native Americans as a holy person and a saint, so the canonization would reinforce this movement and opening our church to be a worldwide church,” he said. “Catholic Indian American people will be very proud that one of our own will be recognized and it will help the Church among the Indian people greatly.”

Fr. Cook said he was privileged to meet Black Elk’s grandson at a Catholic Indian Conference in Rapid City.

“I was surprised to have found myself talking to Black Elk’s grandson. He was also a very holy man,” said Fr. Cook.