- Historic Sites
O-Kee-Pa -- American Heritage Book Selection
In words and pictures, George Catlin recorded the secret ceremony, a blend of mysticism and horrific cruelty, by which the Mandans initiated their braves and conjured the life-sustaining buffalo.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
All eyes were at this time directed to the prairie, where, at the distance of a mile or so from the village, a solitary human figure was seen descending the prairie hills and approaching the village in a straight line, until he reached the picket, where a formidable array of shields and spears was ready to receive him. A large body of warriors was drawn up in battle-array, when their leader advanced and called out to the stranger to make his errand known, and to tell from whence he came. He replied that he had come from the high mountains in the west, where lie resided—that he had come for the purpose of opening the Medicine Lodge of the Mandans, and that he must have uninterrupted access to it, or certain destruction would be the fate of the whole tribe.
The head chief and the council of chiefs, who were at that moment assembled in the council-house, with their faces painted black, were sent for, and soon made their appearance in a body at the picket, and recognized the visitor as an old acquaintance, whom they addressed as “ Nu-mohk-mùck-a-nah ” (the first or only man). All shook hands with him, and invited him within the picket. He then harangued them for a few minutes, reminding them that every human being on the surface of the earth had been destroyed by the water excepting himself, who had landed on a high mountain in the West, in his canoe, where he still resided, and from whence he had come to open the Medicine Lodge, that the Mandans might celebrate the subsiding of the waters and make the proper sacrifices to the water, lest the same calamity should again happen to them.
The next moment he was seen entering the village under the escort of the chiefs, when the cries and alarms of the villagers instantly ceased, and orders were given by the chiefs that the women and children should all be silent and retire within their wigwams, and their dogs all to be muzzled during the whole of that day, which belonged to the Great Spirit.
… I had a fair view of the reception of this strange visitor from the West; in appearance a very aged man, whose body was naked, with the exception of a robe made of four white wolves’ skins. His body and face and hair were entirely covered with white clay, and he closely resembled, at a little distance, a centenarian white man. In his left hand he extended, as he walked, a large pipe, which seemed to be borne as a very sacred thing. The procession moved to the Medicine Lodge, which this personage seemed to have the only means of opening. He opened it, and entered it alone, it having been (as I was assured) superstitiously closed during the past year, and never used since the last annual ceremony.
The chiefs then retired to the council-house, leaving this strange visitor sole tenant of this sacred edifice; soon after which he placed himself at its door, and called out to the chiefs to furnish him “four men,— one from the North, one from the South, one from the East, and one from the West, whose hands and feet were clean and would not profane the sacred temple while labouring within it during that day.”
These four men were soon produced, and they were employed during the day in sweeping and cleaning every part of the temple, and strewing the floor, which was a concrete of gravel and clay, and ornamenting the sides of it, with willow boughs and aromatic herbs which they gathered in the prairies, and otherwise preparing it for the “Ceremonies,” to commence on the next morning.
During the remainder of that day, while all the Mandans were shut up in their wigwams, and not allowed to go out, Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah (the first or only man) visited alone each wigwam, and, while crying in front of it, the owner appeared and asked, “Who’s there?” and “What was wanting?” To this Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah replied by relating the destruction of all the human family by the Flood, excepting himself, who had been saved in his “Big Canoe,” and now dwelt in the West; that he had come to open the Medicine Lodge, that the Mandans might make the necessary sacrifices to the water, and for this purpose it was requisite that he should receive at the door of every Mandan’s wigwam some edged tool to be given to the water as a sacrifice, as it was with such tools that the “Big Canoe” was built.
He then demanded and received at the door of every Mandan wigwam, some edged or pointed tool or instrument made of iron or steel, which seemed to have been procured and held in readiness for the occasion; with these he returned to the Medicine Lodge at evening, where lie deposited them, and where they remained during the four days of the ceremony. …
Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah rested alone in the Medicine Lodge during that night, and at sunrise the next morning, in front of the lodge, called out for all the young men who were candidates for the O-kee-pa graduation as warriors, to come forward—the rest of the villagers still enclosed in their wigwams.