RAPID CITY, S.D.-South Dakota's West RIver Catholics expect a priest from Rome to arrive this week in Rapid City and begin gathering stories and information about the late Lakota leader Nicholas Black Elk as a beginning of the process to determine if he should be declared a saint.
Black Elk was born in 1863 and though only 13, fought 7th Cavalry troops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, taking scalps, he said. He became a spiritual leader for the Lakota and converted to Catholicism in his 40s and lived until 1950. His holy life and example brought hundreds into the church, say diocesan leaders.
A year ago, about 1,500 people signed a petition in the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City asking church leaders to examine Black Elk's life to see if he should be "canonized," or officially declared a saint.
Which means, rather simply, that it can be said, officially, that he's in heaven, said the Rev. Michel Mulloy, who as vicar general of the diocese is sort of the chief deputy to Bishop Robert Gruss.
In other words, the church doesn't "make" someone a saint, it determines through a sometimes long process of research, that the person is to be declared a saint. "That he's enjoying eternal union with God in heaven," Mulloy said. "The process can be lengthy and can take many years."
The Rev. Louis Escalante from the diocese of Rome is expected to arrive in Rapid City this week, Mulloy said.
Mulloy isn't sure how long Escalante will stay or exactly what the process will entail.
Deacon Marlon Leneaugh, director of Native ministries for the diocese, will be involved.
"We are running an ad right now in a lot of Native American papers and those close to the reservation,asking for relatives, acquaintances, people who knew him, for stories of his work. His healings, his life," said Leneaugh, who grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Black Elk's grandson, George Looks Twice, lives in the diocese, and is expected to share what he knows, Leneaugh said.
The process is a search for truth, not a public relations campaign, Mulloy said.
"Black Elk is a saint or he's not. What we are trying to do is discover, or uncover, the truth of that."
The beginning of the process a year ago with the petitions led to Black Elk being referred to as a servant of God.
If the process continues, he may be considered "venerable," and perhaps then "beatified," and given a title of "blessed," Leneaugh said. If the process goes further, to canonization, he could be declared a saint.
A lot will depend on what Escalante learns after he gets to Rapid City and what he writes, as a postulator, in an official paper about Black Elk for church leaders in Rome, Leneaugh and Mulloy said.
Part of the study will be to determine if there are at least two miracles attributed to Black Elk.
There is great interest, of course, across the diocese, which includes St. John the Evangelist parish in Fort Pierre.
Not least, of course, because a full 27 percent of the 32,000 Catholics in the diocese, are Native American, or about 8,700, Leneaugh said.
Looks Twice, Black Elk's grandson, was in Rome in 2012 for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman from the 17th century, who was the first American Indian declared a Catholic saint
It took more than three decades for the church's process to determine that it could be declared she is with God in heaven.
Because Black Elk died only 68 years ago, Leneaugh is hoping to hear many stories of his life from people who knew him, including of miracles, he said.
The diocese has distributed a poster with photos of Black Elk. It includes a request that people pray about this whole process and ask Black Elk himself to intercede with God so that the truth will be revealed, Mulloy said.