- 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
In a few minutes about fifty young men, whom I learned were all of those of the tribe who had arrived at maturity during the last year, appeared in a beautiful group, their graceful limbs entirely denuded, but without exception covered with clay of different colours from head to foot—some white, some red, some yellow, and others blue and green, each one carrying his shield of bull’s hide on his left arm, and his bow in his left hand, and his medicine bag in the right.
In this plight they followed Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah into the Medicine Lodge in “Indian file,” and taking their positions around the sides of the lodge, each one hung his bow and quiver, shield and medicine bag over him as he reclined upon the floor of the wigwam.
Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah then called into the Medicine Lodge the principal medicine man of the tribe, whom he appointed O-kee-pa-ka-see-ka (Keeper or Conductor of the Ceremonies), by passing into his hand the large pipe which he had so carefully brought with him, “which had been saved in the big canoe with him,” and on which it will appear the whole of these mysteries hung.
Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah then took leave of him by shaking hands with him, and left the Medicine Lodge, saying that he would return to the West, where he lived, and be back again in just a year to reopen the Medicine Lodge. He then passed through the village, shaking hands with the chiefs, and in a few moments was seen disappearing over the hills from whence he came the day previous. …
Here is the proper place to relate the manner in which I gained admission to this sacred temple … [which had] a double door, with an intervening passage and an armed sentinel at each end, positively denying all access except by permission of the Conductor of the Ceremonies, and strictly guarding it against the approach or gaze of women, who, I was told, had never been allowed to catch the slightest glance of its interior. … Luckily for me, I had completed a portrait the day before, of the renowned doctor or “mystery man,” to whom the superintendence of the ceremonies had just been committed, and whose vanity had been so much excited by the painting that he had mounted on to a wigwam with it, holding it up by the corners and haranguing the villagers, claiming that “he must be the greatest man among the Mandans, because I had painted his portrait before I had painted the great chief; and that I was the greatest ‘medicine’ of the whites, and a great chief, because I could make so perfect a duplicate of him that it set all the women and children laughing!”
This man, then, in charge of the Medicine Lodge, seeing me with one of my men and Mr. Kipp, the fur trader, standing in front of the door, came out, and passing his arm through mine, politely led me into the lodge, and allowing my hired man and Mr. Kipp, with one of the clerks of his establishment, to follow. We took our seats, and were allowed to resume them on the three following days, occupying them most of the time from sunrise to sundown. …
The Conductor or Master of the Ceremonies then took his position, reclining on the ground near the fire, in the centre of the lodge, with the medicine pipe in his hand, and commenced crying, and continued to cry to the Great Spirit, while he guarded the young candidates who were reclining around the sides of the lodge, and for four days and four nights were not allowed to eat, drink, or to sleep.
By such denial great lassitude, and even emaciation, was produced, preparing the young men for the tortures which they afterwards went through.
The Medicine Lodge … presented the most strange and picturesque appearance. Its sides were curiously decorated with willow-boughs and aromatic herbs, and its floor (covered also with willow-boughs) with a curious arrangement of buffalo and human skulls.
There were also four articles of veneration and importance lying on the ground, which were sacks, containing each some three or four gallons of water. These seemed to be objects of great superstitious regard, and had been made with much labour and ingenuity, being constructed of the skins of the buffalo’s neck, and sewed together in the forms of large tortoises lying on their backs, each having a sort of tail made of raven’s quills, and a stick like a drumstick lying on it, with which, as will be seen in a subsequent part of the ceremony, the musicians beat upon the sacks as instruments of music for their strange dances.
By the sides of these sacks, which they called Eeh-tee-ka (drums), there were two other articles of equal importance, which they called Eeh-na-de (rattles), made of dried undressed skins, shaped into the form of gourd-shells, which they also used, as will be seen, as another part of the music for their dances.
The sacks of water had the appearance of great antiquity, and the Mandans pretended that the water had been contained in them ever since the Deluge. At what time it had been originally put in, or when replenished, I consequently could not learn.…