This September 1948 photo shows Nicholas Black Elk at a reunion of the last survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

Outside the Terra Sancta Retreat Center, a valley set beneath pines, all seemed peaceful on Wednesday. A polite sign alerted passersby to possible rattlesnakes. Retreat participants prayed in the chapel. But inside the administrative offices, a deacon waited for a miracle. Maybe two.

And it'll come by phone or maybe email.

"It kind of comes down to how you define 'miracle,'" said Deacon Marlon Leneaugh, director of Native Ministry with the Diocese of Rapid City, who spoke in his office beneath the old St. Martin's Monastery off the road to Black Hawk. "I kind of think this whole thing is a miracle."

Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota Holy Man-turned Catechist, is best known for a book and his appellation on a local mountain, but he also converted more than 400 people to the Catholic faith. Last October, at Holy Rosary Mission in Pine Ridge, the bishop accepted a petition signed by 1,400 people, officially opening his cause for canonization. Now, he's known as "Servant of God." But at month's end, an official with the Vatican in Rome will arrive in Rapid City to write a position paper that, if accepted, will push Black Elk's case forward on a pathway to sainthood. 

"He was like Saint Paul," said Leneaugh, "from Wind River down to Yankton up to Standing Rock. He kind of had a circuit."

Many may know Black Elk as the namesake for the former Harney Peak, his bravery in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, his witness to Wounded Knee, or his spiritual vision cataloged in "Black Elk Speaks." But many don't know he was Catholic, baptized in 1904, and appointed a catechist by Jesuits three years later to evangelize on tribal lands.

In his office, Leneaugh points to a laminated version of Lacombe's Ladder, a pictoral scroll featuring haloed angels aloft on one side and black-winged dragons on the other that Jesuits used on reservations beginning in the 1870s. 

"It's how Black Elk taught catechism," he said. "On the black road, there's evil, and on the other side, you have the church sacraments." 

Leneaugh, who grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and later converted to Catholicism from Methodism, said Black Elk taught, performed marriage ceremonies, and even distributed communion. 

"There was no Lakota way and no Christian way," said Leneaugh. "To him, they were one way to God."

The next steps, however, get increasingly technical. If the postulator from Rome likes what he sees, he'll mark this down in a "positio," or a paper summarizing the life and virtues of Black Elk. This document will be voted on by a theological commission in Rome, whose approval will ultimately be sent on to the pope.

If the pope approves, Black Elk would be "venerable," but not yet a saint.


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Two miracles. The first miracle can get him "blessed" status. The second receives him sainthood. 

"We've heard from friends in Rome that the Pope (Francis) really likes this cause," said Leneaugh.

So far, no miracles have come forward. They usually relate to healing of some kind. But Leneaugh believes he knows of two non-healing miracles. The first, he said, was that a grandson of Black Elk, George Looks Twice, coincidentally sat next to an archivist from Marquette University, Mark Thiel, at the canonization in Rome of the first Native American saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin-Mohawk from the 1600s who is recognized as the first indigenous American Catholic to be canonized.  

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Leneaugh said Looks Twice turned to Thiel, whom he did not know, and said, "I hope one day they do this for my grandpa."

Thiel would prove instrumental in assembling the petition and initial materials submitted to the bishop in Rapid City.

"Of the hundreds of thousands of people (present at mass that day), you pick out the one guy (who could help you)," said Leneaugh.

The second miracle is a little closer to home — and more bureaucratic. 

"The changing of the name (of the mountain) to Black Elk Peak," Leneaugh said, laughing. "That's kind of like a miracle."

Rome is legalistic with the reporting of miracles. But they can — and often do — happen after the individual's death. The miracle must be reported by witnesses or secondhand witnesses, i.e., someone who was told directly by someone who was healed or witnessed the miracle.

Leneaugh said he is prepared to videotape depositions. But first he needs to hear from people. Black Elk died in 1950, and many people still alive knew him.

A document is traveling social media featuring names and phone numbers for Leneaugh and two others looking for descendants and relatives of Black Elk or "anyone who has information, stories, or accounts of his life, holiness, or of his mission work and generosity." Anyone is encouraged to call.

Many, many of the faithful — and at least one excited deacon — are waiting.

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Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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