O-Kee-Pa -- American Heritage Book Selection


It was natural for me to inquire, as I did, whether any of these young men ever died in the extreme part of this ceremony, and they could tell me of but one instance within their recollection, in which case the young man was left for three days upon the ground (unapproached by his relatives or by physicians) before they were quite certain that the Great Spirit did not intend to help him away. They all seemed to speak of this, however, as an enviable fate rather than as a misfortune; for “the Great Spirit had so willed it for some especial purpose, and no doubt for the young man’s benefit.”

After the Medicine Lodge had thus been cleared of its tortured inmates, the master or conductor of ceremonies returned to it alone, and, gathering up the edged tools which I have said were deposited there, and to be sacrificed to the water on the last day of the ceremony, he proceeded to the bank of the river, accompanied by all the tribe, in whose presence, and with much form and ceremony, he sacrificed them by throwing them into deep water from the rocks, from which they could never be recovered: and then announced that the Great Spirit must be thanked by all—and that the O-kee-pa was finished.

The end of the ceremony was, in a sense, the beginning of the controversy. For George Catlin had made two errors of fact which, though they do not seriously detract from the historical and ethnological value of his O-kee-pa, did provide Henry Rowe Schoolcraft with a factual basis to attack the artist’s veracity. First, Catlin embraced the theory later thoroughly discredited—that the Mandans were descendants of a Welsh expedition to the New World in the twelfth century. More seriously, Catlin published a secondhand report that the tribe had been totally annihilated by the smallpox epidemic of 1837. As Mr. Ewers points out in his fascinating introduction to the new edition of O-kee-pa, the Mandans were nearly wiped out by the epidemic Catlin heard about, but more than one hundred survived; they continued to perform the O-kee-pa until about 1890.

1 The publishing mores of Catlin’s era would not permit a factual description of the procreative aspects of the bull dance or of the “power” captured from the Evil Spirit by his female pursuers, which was in reality a huge carved phallus. Hence, in the interests of complete accuracy, Catlin wrote a separate detailed account of the fertility rituals, which was inserted in the book as a detachable Folium Reservatum. “Scientific men,” he explained, “who study not the proprieties of man, but Man, will receive this addendum in this form, and, I believe, duly appreciate and protect it.”