O-Kee-Pa -- American Heritage Book Selection


I was received with great kindness by their chiefs and by the people, and afforded every facility for making my portraits and other designs and notes on their customs; and from Mr. [James] Kipp, the conductor of the Fur Company’s affairs at that post, and his interpreter, I was enabled to obtain the most complete interpretation of chiefly all that I witnessed.

I had heard, long before I reached their village, of their “annual religious ceremony,” which the Mandans call “O-kee-pa.” … I resolved to await its approach, and in the meantime, while inquiring of one of the chiefs whose portrait I was painting, when this ceremony was to begin, he replied that “it would commence as soon as the willow-leaves were full grown under the bank of the river.”…

As I have before said, these people all lived in one village, and their wigwams were covered with earth--they were all of one form; the frames or shells constructed of timbers, and covered with a thatching of willow-boughs, and over and on that, with a foot or two in thickness, of a concrete of tough clay and gravel, which became so hard as to admit the whole group of inmates, with their dogs, to recline upon their tops. These wigwams varied in size from thirty to sixty feet in diameter, were perfectly round, and often contained from twenty to thirty persons within.

The village was well protected in front by a high and precipitous rocky bank of the river; and, in the rear, by a stockade of timbers firmly set in the ground, with a ditch inside, not for water, but for the protection of the warriors who occupied it when firing their arrows between the pickets. …

The “Medicine Lodge,” the largest in the village and seventy-five feet in diameter, with four images (sacrifices of different-coloured and costly cloths) suspended on poles above it, was considered by these people as a sort of temple, held as strictly sacred, being built and used solely for these four days’ ceremonies, and closed during the rest of the year.

In an open area in the centre of the village stands the Ark (or “Big Canoe”), around which a great proportion of their ceremonies was performed. This rude symbol, of eight or ten feet in height, was constructed of planks and hoops, having somewhat the appearance of a large hogshead standing on its end, and containing some mysterious things which none but the medicine men were allowed to examine. An evidence of the sacredness of this object was the fact that though it had stood, no doubt for many years, in the midst and very centre of the village population, there was not the slightest discoverable bruise or scratch upon it! …

The O-kee-pa, though in many respects apparently so unlike it, was strictly a religions ceremony, it having been conducted in most of its parts with the solemnity of religious worship, with abstinence, with sacrifices, and with prayer, whilst there were three other distinct and ostensible objects for which it was held.

1st. As an annual celebration of the event of the “subsiding of the waters” of the Deluge, of which they had a distinct tradition, and which in their language they called “Mee-ne-ró-ka-há-sha” (the settling down of the waters).

2nd. For the purpose of dancing what they called “Bel-lohk-na-pick” (the bull dance), to the strict performance of which they attributed the coming of buffaloes to supply them with food during the year.

3rd. For the purpose of conducting the young men who had arrived at the age of manhood during the past year, through an ordeal of privation and bodily torture, which, while it was supposed to harden their muscles and prepare them for extreme endurance, enabled their chiefs, who were spectators of the scene, to decide upon their comparative bodily strength and ability to endure the privations and sufferings that often fall to the lot of Indian warriors, and that they might decide who amongst the young men was the best able to lead a war party in an extreme exigency.

The season having arrived for the holding of these ceremonies, the leading medicine (mystery) man of the tribe presented himself on the top of a wigwam one morning before sunrise, and haranguing the people told them that “he discovered something very strange in the western horizon, and he believed that at the rising of the sun a great white man would enter the village from the west and open the Medicine Lodge.”

In a few moments the tops of the wigwams, and all other elevations, were covered with men, women, and children on the look-out; and at the moment the rays of the sun shed their first light over the prairies and back of the village, a simultaneous shout was raised, and in a few minutes all voices were united in yells and mournful cries. …