Black Elk Documentary

This retelling of Black Elk’s life and legacy relies heavily on archival photographs and publications, expert interviews, and historical reenactments on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In so doing, it goes beyond the book, Black Elk Speaks, and encompasses his entire life and legacy culminating with his family’s request that the Catholic Church declare him a saint.

According to records from the Diocese of Rapid City, Black Elk was born around 1865. He came from a family of medicine men and he carried on their work. He was at the Battle of Little Big Horn close to the Montana-Wyoming border in 1876. Around 1877, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and toured in Europe. He returned to the United States in 1889.

Through his interaction with Jesuit priests, he converted to the Catholic faith and was baptized on December 6, 1904, the feast of St. Nicholas. One biographer said he took the name Nicholas because he was inspired by the saint’s generosity.

For more information contact Becky Berreth at the Diocese of Rapid City, 605-343-3541 ext. 2225.

Servant of God, Nicholas Black Elk pray for us!



NewGroup Media films Black Elk documentary utilizing local talent

By Laurie Hallstrom
West River Catholic, June 2019

A film crew from NewGroup Media, South Bend, Indiana, worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation in late May making a documentary on Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk. Using the working title “Walking the Red Road: Black Elk’s Journey Toward Sainthood,” the company is tracing Black Elk’s life from his Lakota culture to his 1904 baptism and tireless work evangelizing others.

Bishop Robert Gruss is the executive director for the project and the Diocese of Rapid City will hold the copyright. The documentary received major funding from the Catholic Communications Campaign. a division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops The film is also funded by two grants to cover completion expenses.

Sr. Judy Zielinski, OSF, from Sylvania, Ohio, is working with the company from South Bend. She has worked on several religious documentaries. “This is my sixth or seventh documentary. We produced one in eastern Europe about religious sisters who lived under Stalin. That was called “Interrupted Lives,” we travelled to six different Eastern European Countries and we interviewed senior sisters in their 80s and 90s who had been in their 20s and 30s when WWII ended and Stalin took over. They had unbelievable experiences — they were sent to Concentration Camps, prisons, and forced to work in factories, because Communism suppressed religion.”

Included in her work is a documentary done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It focused on six different orders of sisters, five years after the hurricane, and how they rebuilt their ministries.

“They made a very courageous choice staying in New Orleans. Like all religious orders their members were aging and numbers diminishing. They rebuilt high schools, a nursing home, and a daycare for children,” she said.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned her to do a video in response to Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code.”

“We did a program called ‘Jesus Decoded.’ In a nice way, we basically pointed out all the errors in the book. It’s a very fascinating read — a page turner; but he takes great liberties with what happened in history,” she said.

Someone contacted her about doing a short 20-minute piece on Nicholas Black Elk. As they talked she said this is a subject that needs a longer forum — an hour at least.That is when she submitted a proposal to the U. S. bishops.

If he is canonized, Black Elk would be the first male Native American saint from the U.S.
She wears a lot of hats on this project including writer and producer. In addition, she is responsible for the script, recruiting people to help with the project and getting props.
She read eight books on Black Elk. “I really had to steep myself in the story of who he was, why he is up for canonization, and what distinguished him,” she said. She found experts, scholars and other people to interview for the script.

She had wigs cut to resemble photographs from various life stages. “We are trying to avoid doing full frontal face shots. We can’t duplicate his face perfectly, so we are just trying to suggest it is him in the film. The costumes had to be period appropriate because he was baptized in 1904 and died in 1950. We had to tell the actors not bring anything modern — digital watches or glasses.”

The documentary is 95 percent about Black Elk; however, it doesn’t end there. The filmmakers took a look at Lakota Catholicism today and they interviewed Bishop Gruss for his perspective. Viewers will see footage from S.D. including Red Cloud Indian School, Manderson and Custer.

The crew is working to make the documentary authentically Lakota. Actors, singers and drummers are all from Pine Ridge. If viewers are looking for familiar faces they might spot James Lays Bad, network administrator at Red Cloud Indian School, who played the adult Black Elk; Ryen Dwyer, a Jesuit Scholastic from Red Cloud who played two different catechists; and Aaron Pierre, also a Jesuit Scholastic at Red Cloud, portraying an early Jesuit.

Christopher Salvador is a partner in NewGroup Media and the director. He said, “It is wonderful to bring this to life. It’s fun to see behind the scenes — the artistic and dramatic look of the show. What is the look we are going for? I have to be able to translate that to all the actors and crew.”

His job was to keep everything and everyone moving — mostly during inclement weather.

They hope to have the finished project on a major television network in spring 2020. “We work with the Interfaith Broadcast Coalition. It is an interfaith umbrella group that manages to get religious programing on the air eight hours every spring and fall,” said Sr. Judy.