Black Elk

Black Elk’s grave in South Dakota.

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DOVER — Inspiration for interacting with the world and reckoning with a not-so nice past can be found in the teachings of Black Elk, who lived from 1863 to 1950 and helped heal his native community.

“Black Elk’s story is very similar to a lot of broad contours in the Abenaki story, the way Abenakis engaged with and survived their encounter with the new world that they faced,” said Damian Costello, author of “’Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism” and international expert on the subject.

Costello will present Re-Indigenizing our Relationship with Nature: The Legacy of Nicholas Black Elk, Holy Man of the Lakota, at Dover Free Library’s Dessert Social fundraiser at 7 p.m. Aug. 12 at Dover Town Hall. Donations of desserts and pastries are being requested for the event.

At the fundraiser last year, Costello focused on Black Elk’s biography and what it means to inhabit the land as settlers. The second part of his presentation will zoom in on the man’s philosophies.

“Black Elk’s Great Vision at the age of 9 was the basis for his whole life,” states a description of the presentation. “He lived it out in three seemingly contradictory yet overlapping roles: as a traditional healer, a Catholic teacher, and a revivalist of Indigenous traditions. Black Elk passed on his vision in the famous book ‘Black Elk Speaks’ and it is now becoming an important vehicle for modern people to begin re-indigenizing our relationship with the natural world.”

Costello plans to explore how Black Elk’s understanding of Lakota spirituality philosophy can help people “see the natural world as a unified whole of which we are a small part, the different species as spiritual beings with whom we form ongoing relationships, and how the life of hope Black Elk lived in the midst of great tragedy can inform how we approach the crises of our age,” states the description. His talk will touch on how people can engage in native issues, particularly in the context of what happened in Canada recently with the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children.

“That’s been huge, huge in its effect in Indian country, bringing up these issues of historical trauma,” he said.

Costello said people have been thinking about what reconciliation looks like in the United States, particularly in the Brattleboro area. He noted last year’s renaming ceremony at Retreat Farm, where the entrance at Retreat Meadows on Route 30 now has a sign bearing the original name of the area: Wantastegok, which Sokoki Abenaki called home for 12,000 years.

Black Elk is “a good model” for thinking through things and looking beyond differences but not ignoring them, Costello said. Costello sees a need for healing for both Native people and ancestors of settlers.

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Environmental and local food movements were cited by Costello as ways of expressing “a deep yearning to become indigenous to where we are, that we haven’t accomplished that yet.” Philosophies and traditions held by Black Elk are aimed at deeply connecting to the place where one lives, he said.

At last year’s event, Costello fielded some of the questions involving how community members can engage in related issues and become allies to native people. He notices the native way of life appeals to people across the political spectrum.

“Whether you’re an organic farmer or an old school hunter, you know the native people did that better than you did and you’re attracted to that sort of deep connection,” he said.

Costello suggests people develop patterns of life that honor who they are in a “holistic, respectful way.”

In May, Costello became director of post-graduate studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community (formerly known as the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies). He said it is the first accredited school with no physical footprint — classes are held remotely and there’s an annual symposium.

Trauma-informed education is provided to pastors and community workers in native communities.

“They’re people who are responding directly to the fallout,” Costello said.

In his experience, interest in Black Elk continues to grow as people reckon with the darker parts of history. He actively addressed harms in residential schools his children attended and created a space in which all people could inhabit in moving forward, Costello said.

Costello grew up in Vermont and lives in Montpelier. He has lived on reservations and regularly gives presentations.


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