By Alli Bobzien
I stand in the seasonal aisle of our grocery store staring at the beautiful Thanksgiving décor: cornucopias, gilded leaves, round gourds and festive warm colors. I’m completely torn in two. One part of me loves this time of year: the beautiful leaves, the cozy blankets and sweaters, the desire to cook meals full of hearty stews and sit around the table for hours. The other part of me notes the cutesy cutouts of pilgrims and Indians embracing and visibly winces.
I feel tender about where we stand today in our treatment of Indigenous peoples, particularly Native Americans. The care of Native Americans by history books, land right laws and even the Church, grieves me and causes me to take a step back from Thanksgiving.
In the past at this time of year, my family invited friends over to enjoy a traditional Native American meal. We served bison, dried sweet corn, hominy and of course fry bread. This provided a natural opportunity to discuss the various heritages around our table, finding common ground and rich traditions in each. There was a sacred beauty in taking the time to appreciate both our similarities and differences, to acknowledge where we came from and what brought us together.
My family are proud members of the Quapaw Tribe, or O-Gah-Pah in the native tongue. Originally from Arkansas, we were relocated to Northeastern Oklahoma around the time of the Trail of Tears. My knowledge of tribal history and traditions comes more from instruction than experience, as I was raised in Texas, but the threads of Native knowledge and appreciation ran deeply in our family.
As I have grown, the pain of this split identity and the concerns for my Native American brothers and sisters have intensified. How do I worship in a church that I know committed such atrocities against Indigenous peoples, specifically against children? How do I reconcile what I know to be good and true with what was so twisted and ugly at various points in history? After years of searching, there is no easy answer. But there are wise voices who have traveled this path before me.
Nicholas Black Elk captivated attention in his youth as Crazy Horse’s cousin and a member of Buffalo Bill’s traveling show, but his early years defined only one aspect of his identity. A passionate member of the Lakota Tribe and an ardent believer in the conservation and preservation of Indigenous ways and wisdom, Nicholas Black Elk also became a devout and active Catholic.
As a catechist for his parish, Black Elk was known for intertwining the beauty of Native American spirituality with the Ignatian practices of the Jesuits. Black Elk worked closely with the Jesuits “who served as spiritual leaders on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota” and with whom he traveled on mission trips to other tribes’ lands. Black Elk brought many souls to the faith and paved the way for uniting Catholicism with Native American wisdom.
Revering life by recognizing and honoring the Spirit within others is a tenant of both Ignatian and Native American spirituality. The contemplation of and appreciation for God’s creation in nature creates an additional meeting point of Native American and Ignatian practices. I believe Black Elk saw the truth and beauty of God within the Jesuit practices of meditation, contemplation, and seeing God in both nature and all people.
Fr. Joseph Daoust, SJ, a head of the Holy Rosary Jesuit community which was established alongside the Lakota nearly 130 years ago, calls Black Elk’s faithful work “a gift of Native American spirituality to the church.” Black Elk understood that his Indigenous spirituality enhanced the church and that a full understanding of a loving Creator fulfilled the vision of the Lakota tradition. He acknowledged and knew firsthand the atrocities committed against his people, but he did not let hate or violence fester. Instead, Black Elk saw Catholic teaching and his faith as a new standard of justice not only for his people, but also in a way that formed empathy for those invading his peoples’ lands. He came to view the Lakota peoples’ adversaries as brothers and sisters in Christ and instructed those whom he led to recognize the pain and suffering of all people.
Known for memorizing Scripture voraciously and weaving it within his speeches, Black Elk is credited for bringing over 400 souls to Christ alongside Jesuit missionaries. Through building bridges between his Catholic faith and his Native spirituality, Black Elk gently but firmly pushed back on the growing ideology of the time concerning assimilation that to save the man, one must kill the Indian in him. Black Elk and the Jesuits with whom he worked, preached the richness of traditions fulfilled and spirituality enhanced by one another’s faith and knowledge.
Black Elk’s legacy continues today in many ways, one of which is through the ongoing conversation around his sainthood in the Catholic Church. Fr. Daoust spoke on the potential canonization with passion stating that, “Putting Black Elk forward is an example of Native [Americans] not just receiving gifts in their conversion but bringing gifts and in turn enriching the church and how we understand God working in our world.”
With a better understanding for the mutual enrichment Black Elk inspired, I too feel a greater sense of calm about Thanksgiving. I recall what Black Elk wrote in his book “The Sacred Pipe” concerning his hope “to help in bringing peace upon the earth, not only among men, but within men and between the whole of creation.” As I read these words, I recognize the need to usher this peace into myself, my relationships and my love of God’s natural world. I hope and pray to follow Black Elk’s example in pursuing peace through practices of contemplation and seeing God in all people, which honors my Catholic faith, Ignatian spirituality and my Indigenous heritage.
Alli Bobzien is a full-time mom and a nap-time graduate student of theology at Fuller Seminary. When she isn’t playing outdoors with her two spunky daughters, she writes about nature, family, spirituality and women in Scripture. You can find more of Alli’s writing in her monthly newsletter The Pondering Heart and on Instagram @bobz.alli. Her writing has been featured in Grotto Network, Live Today Well Collective, Wallflower Journal and Wisdom’s Dwelling.