O-Kee-Pa -- American Heritage Book Selection

The degree of physical torture to which some American Indians voluntarily submitted as part of their religious tradition appeared cruel and sanguinary to the few white men who witnessed such rites. An outstanding example, unknown to most readers of history because of the white man’s general neglect of Indian customs and folklore, was the O-kee-pa ceremony by which the Mandans initiated fledgling warriors and summoned the all-important buffaloes. The tribe was very nearly exterminated in 1837 by one item for which white traders did not charge: smallpox. Fortunately, from a historical standpoint, the famous artist George Catlin visited the Mandans in their earth-lodge villages in what is now North Dakota before the disease decimated them; he left a record, in words and on canvas, of this remarkable ceremony. Catlin spent most of the summer of 1832 with the Mandans and, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, became the first white man to view the secret rites in their entirety. While the experience was fresh in his mind, Catlin wrote a description of it for a New York newspaper. Nine years later he included an expanded, illustrated version in his impressive survey of North American Indians. Then, in 1856, there appeared a scholarly tome, printed with congressional funds and edited by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, in which a former Indian trader, Colonel David D. Mitchell, accused Catlin of having imagined the whole ceremony. Catlin, in France at the time trying to recoup his sagging personal fortune, immediately began to accumulate corroborating testimony, including a letter from Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, who had spent some time with the Mandans shortly after Catlin’s visit (see “Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West” in the April, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Catlin published O-kee-pa, complete with these testimonials, thirteen chromolithographs, and a fuller text, in 1867. But the rehabilitation of his reputation did not really begin until a few months after his death in 1872, when Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, included a strong defense of Catlin in his annual report. Since then, in the words of the Smithsonian’s senior ethnologist, John C. Ewers, “Catlin’s O-kee-pa has ripened into a nineteenth-century classic in the ethnology of western North America.” His evaluation introduces the centennial republication of O-kee-pa by the Yale University Press. Excerpts begin overleaf. For another view of Indian spirituality, see “Reading, Writing, and History” in this issue. — The Editors

During the summer of 1832 I made two visits to the tribe of Mantlan Indians, all living in one village of earth-covered wigwams, on the west bank of the Missouri River, eighteen hundred miles above the town of St. Louis.

Their numbers at that time were between two and three thousand, and they were living entirely according to their native modes, having had no other civilized people residing amongst them or in their vicinity, that we know of, than the few individuals conducting the Missouri Fur Company’s business with them, and living in a trading-house by the side of them. …

The Mandans, in their personal appearance, as well as in their modes, had many peculiarities different from the other tribes around them. In stature they were about the ordinary size; they were comfortably, and in many instances very beautifully clad with dresses of skins. Both women and men wore leggings and moccasins made of skins, and neatly embroidered with dyed porcupine quills. Every man had his “tunique and manteau” of skins, which he wore or not as the temperature prompted; and every woman wore a dress of deer or antelope skins, covering the arms to the elbows, and the person from the throat nearly to the feet.

In complexion, colour of hair, and eyes, they generally bore a family resemblance to the rest of the American tribes, but there were exceptions, constituting perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth part of the tribe, whose complexions were nearly white, with hair of a silvery-grey from childhood to old age, their eyes light blue, their faces oval, devoid of the salient angles so strongly characterizing all the other American tribes and owing, unquestionably, to the infusion of some foreign stock.

Amongst the men, practised by a considerable portion of them, was a mode peculiar to the tribe, and exceedingly curious—that of cultivating the hair to fall, spreading over their backs, to their haunches, and oftentimes as low as the calves of their legs; divided into flattened masses of an inch or more in breadth, and filled at intervals of two or three inches with hardened glue and red or yellow ochre. …

The Mandans (Nu-mah-ká-kee, pheasants, as they called themselves) have been known from the time of the first visits made to them to the day of their destruction, as one of the most friendly and hospitable tribes on the United States frontier; and it had become a proverb in those regions, and much to their credit … “that no Mandan ever killed a white man.”