Black Elk's Pipe and Pipe Bag

    Nicholas Black Elk was a Lakota medicine man from 1863-1950.  Black Elk was a Heyoka or Contrary and his medicine was that of Thunder Beings, called "Wakinyan" in Lakota.  The books: Black Elk Speaks, The Sixth Grandfather, The Sacred Pipe and Spiritual Legacy by John Neihardt and also Joseph Brown describe Black Elk's teachings.


   Black Elk was a fighter in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, along with his cousin Crazy Horse.  He was heavily involved in the Ghost Dance Movement and was wounded during the resulting Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  Later he spent many years traveling in Europe with several Wild West shows.  This travel opened up his world and gave him willingness to be interviewed by John Neihardt and others. 

   Black Elk's Catlinite pipe has four raised rings representing directions sacred to the Sioux.  The bowl has a wavy line of lead inlay, from melted bullets, to signify lightning of Thunder Beings.  Four colors of silk ribbons on the ash stem mouthpiece identify the four directions, with green a color of the Contraries or Heyokas.  Hair on the stem's top and bottom comes from a horse, associated with the Thunder Beings.

Nicholas Black Elk with wife and daughter

Nicholas Black Elk with wife and daughter

   The other side of the sinew-sewn bag has a different design, but both symbolically portray the four directions.  Notable is the middle of this pipe bag has a beaded vertical row to demonstrate a "chief" or person of great importance.  Within the designs on the bag, metal beads were used which represent hail.  The bottom of the pipe bag has a porcupine quill-wrapped panel with three rectangles, rather than two, because the odd number identifies him as a Heyoka, as was his cousin Crazy Horse. Although there is slight damage to the quillwork, the bag has been well-cared-for and is in excellent condition.

   The pipe and beaded bag shown above were acquired from Bertha Brings Three White Horses Black Elk when living at Cedar Butte, South Dakota.  She was the daughter-in-law of Nickolas Black Elk and sold this in 1968 to Eli Peter Thompson.  Eli's son, Harold White Horse Thompson, Sicangu (Brule') Lakota Spiritual Leader,  inherited this set and sold the bag and pipe in 2013.

   This July, 2016, the tallest peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota, east of the Rockies all the way to the Alps, has been changed from Harney Peak to "Black Elk Peak".  This superb pipe and bag connect  Black Elk to his Lakota leadership and spirituality.  Unknown to many, this medicine man served as a catechist in the Catholic church during his later years.  Underway is the process to canonize Nicholas Black Elk because of his spiritual guidance to the Lakota Nation.

Larry Belitz, Plains Indian Material Culture Consultant