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Historia Ecclesiastica

Dancing His Way Home

One-line description.


Dancing His Way Home

This is the way Old Nick danced his way home.

It happened seventy years ago at Saint Agnes Cemetery. The cemetery sits on the east-facing side of a hill in Manderson, South Dakota. The treeless expanse provides an open view in three directions. In late summer, the grass, like almost all grass on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is dried out and crunches underfoot. Below, a few houses and the small white church sit next to B.I.A. 28, the road that snakes through the valley.

It is the rock buttes on the opposite ridge that stand out. They rise out of the ground at eye level and stand sentinel-like over the valley. Seeing them, the famous question an anthropologist posed to a native elder comes to mind: “Are all rocks alive?” The elder thought for a few moments, then pointed. “No,” he replied, “But that one is.” If that elder were in Manderson, he’d be pointing at that ridge.

But in late summer, even the ridge is dwarfed by the sun. At midday, there is no shade of any kind, only the small patch created by a replica burial scaffold, a raised platform where the dead were placed in the old days. Sun Dance season is over, the great Lakota ceremony of Wiwanyag Wacipi, the “Dance Looking at the Sun.” If possible, the sun shines even stronger in the aftermath, enlivened by the prayers of the thousands of dancers that made offerings of themselves across Pine Ridge.

O Wakan-Tanka, be merciful to me! I am doing this that the people may live!

The sun was strong too when Old Nick died in 1950, right after Sun Dance season. Nicholas Black Elk, the medicine man and Catholic catechist declared a Servant of God in late 2017, had an undeniable spiritual presence, the “aura of wonders.” Countless visions and healings in his early life. The storm his daughter Lucy remembered him turning back with prayer. The regular three o’clock visitations with his son, the cloistered priest in Belgium whom Old Nick had adopted, while he lay dying. Those who knew Old Nick best remembered him saying about his coming death “Maybe God will show something . . . which will tell of His Mercy.”

God did. The night of Old Nick’s the northern lights were visible. They shone through the night, dancing above the stone ridges. Lakota and Jesuit alike took this as the promised sign. John Lone Goose, a fellow catechist, believed that “God sent those beautiful objects to shine on that old missionary.” To tell of His Mercy, Old Nick would have added.

The sun wasn’t there the morning of Black Elk’s funeral; mercy rained down from the heavens. Such late summer moisture is rare on the Northern Great Plains. The closest large town, Chadron, Nebrasks, averages more than one and a half inches of precipitation during the whole month of August. A day of soaking rain resurrects the dried-out grass, a priceless gift of life for the buffalo and horse nations.

The rain didn’t stop the crowd of mourners. The families of Manderson hitched up their horses and wagons and journeyed to Saint Agnes. A few cars parked next to the church. Usually only a solitary Jesuit made it out to remote communities such as Manderson; that day there was a group. Saint Agnes is a small church without much room by the altar, so Old Nick lay in state near the entrance, greeting the people as they arrived for his last Mass, one last chance to echo the prayer:

Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis!

The casket was loaded on a wagon. Old Nick led the procession across the street and up the dirt road to the cemetery. The rain continued and the feet of mourners became heavier as the mud — locally called “gumbo”  — caked their feet.

When Old Nick got to the cemetery, the people placed him on logs next to the gravesite. Holy water and incense sanctified the earth. Just as the Rite of Committal began, the rain ceased. The sun came out. From this high point, the mourners could see that it was happening nowhere else, only in this small circle above the cemetery.

As they moved to lower the casket, the Lakota hymns started. The most prominent was “Mita Wakan Tanka,” the Lakota translation of the famous nineteenth-century hymn “Nearer My God To Thee.” Translated into Dakota in 1869 at Santee Mission in Nebraska, the account of the soul’s journey back to God using the imagery of Jacob’s Ladder quickly spread throughout the different dialects and denominations of Sioux throughout the Great Plains. The song spoke directly to the suffering of native peoples during the reservation era and their changing attitudes toward death.

Mourners may not have known it, but “Mita Wakan Tanka” was a fitting capstone to Black Elk’s spiritual journey. Old Nick encountered the Christian religion in Europe during his sojourn with the Wild West Shows, half a world away from Indian Country, and wrote back approvingly about its core teachings. While he was there, forty Lakota performers visited Westminster Abbey and shocked the congregation by singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in Lakota. While it is not known for certain that Black Elk was one of the group, it seems not unlikely given what he referred to as the investigation into the world of the white man he was undertaking at the time.

So it was this song that the muddy crowd sang on that rainy August day, with the women adding a keening falsetto, reminiscent of the traditional mourning songs. To the Lakota, a song isn’t just “pretty” or “fitting.” Its vibrations reach into the whole dancing universe.

And the universe responded. Shafts of light streamed down from the one open patch in the sky overhead, something with deep resonance to Lakota Catholics. They called this phenomenon “Jesus rays” or “Mary rays” and associated them with apparitions of Our Lady. At Fatima too the sun had danced for all to see. Black Elk had recorded something strangely consonant in his account of Lakota rituals: that just as “the flames of sun come to us in the morning, so comes the grace of Wakan-Tanka, by which all creatures are enlightened.” Now such flames streamed down only on Old Nick, an apparition of God’s mercy.

To this day, people still ask “What was Black Elk?” and “What did he really believe?”, as if his spiritual journey had been about ideas. Those who witnessed it know that it was first and foremost about walking in a good way. It may look confusing at times to observers, but that’s because he was dancing.

The patch of blue sky closed up and it started to rain again. The mourners ran to drop their crepe paper flowers over the casket and headed to the feast. A boy who was there remembered being amazed by the sun and talked with his family on their way home. “Yes, that’s the way it is made known that the dead are going home,” his grandmother told him.

Damian Costello is the author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism.

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