- 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
Such was the appearance of the interior of the Medicine Lodge during the three first (and part of the fourth) days. During the three first days, while things remained thus inside of the Medicine Lodge, there were many curious and grotesque amusements and ceremonies transpiring outside and around the “Big Canoe.”
The principal of these, which they called Bel-lohk-na-pick (the bull dance), to the strict observance of which they attributed the coming of buffaloes to supply them with food, was one of an exceedingly grotesque and amusing character, and was danced four times on the first day, eight times on the second day, twelve times on the third day, and sixteen times on the fourth day, and always around the “Big Canoe,” of which I have already spoken.
The chief actors in these strange scenes were eight men, with the entire skins of buffaloes thrown over them, enabling them closely to imitate the appearance and motions of those animals, as the bodies of the dancers were kept in a horizontal position, the horns and tails of the animals remaining on the skins, and the skins of the animals’ heads served as masks, through the eyes of which the dancers were looking.
The eight men were all naked and painted exactly alike, and in the most extraordinary manner; their bodies, limbs, and faces being everywhere covered with black, red, or white paint. Each joint was marked with two white rings, one within the other, even to the joints in the under jaw, the fingers, and the toes; and the abdomens were painted to represent the face of an infant, the navel representing its mouth.
Each one of these characters also had a lock of buffalo’s hair tied around the ankles, in his right hand a rattle (she-shée-quoin), and a slender staff six feet in length in the other; and carried on his back, above the buffalo skin, a bundle of willow-boughs, of the ordinary size of a bundle of wheat.
These eight men representing eight buffalo bulls, being divided into four pairs, took their positions on the four sides of the Ark, or “Big Canoe,” representing thereby the four cardinal points; and between each couple of these, with his back turned to the “Big Canoe,” was another figure engaged in the same dance, keeping step with the eight buffalo bulls, with a staff in one hand and a rattle in the other: and being four in number, answered again to the four cardinal points.…
Two of these figures were painted jet black with charcoal and grease, whom they called the night, and the numerous white spots dotted over their bodies and limbs they called stars. The other two, who were painted from head to foot as red as vermilion could make them, with white stripes up and down over their bodies and limbs, were called the morning rays (symbols of day).
These twelve were the only figures actually engaged in the Bull dance, which was each time repeated in the same manner without any apparent variation. There were, however, a great number of characters, many of them representing various animals of the country, engaged in giving the whole effect to this strange scene, and all of which are worthy of a few remarks.
The bull dance was conducted by the old master of ceremonies (O-kee-pa-ka-see-ka) carrying his medicine pipe; his body entirely naked, and covered, as well as his hair, with yellow clay.
For each time that the bull dance was repeated, this man came out of the Medicine Lodge with the medicine pipe in his hands, bringing with him four old men carrying the tortoise drums, their bodies painted red, and headdresses of eagles’ quills, and with them another old man with the two she-shée-quoins (rattles). These took their seats by the side of the “Big Canoe,” and commenced drumming and rattling and singing, whilst the conductor of the ceremonies, with his medicine pipe in his hands, was leaning against the “Big Canoe” and crying in his full voice to the Great Spirit. Squatted on the ground, on the opposite side of the “Big Canoe,” were two men with skins of grizzly bears thrown over them, using the skins as masks covering their faces. Their bodies were naked, and painted with yellow clay.
These characters, whom they called grizzly bears, were continually growling and threatening to devour everything before them, and interfering with the forms of the ceremony. To appease them and keep them quiet, the women were continually bringing and placing before them dishes of meat, which were as often snatched away and carried to the prairies by two men called bald eagles, whose bodies and limbs were painted black, whilst their heads and feet and hands were whitened with clay. These were again chased upon the prairies by a numerous group of small boys, whose bodies and limbs were painted yellow, and their heads white, wearing tails of white deer’s hair, and whom they called antelopes.
Besides these there were two men representing swans, their bodies naked and painted white, and their noses and feet were painted black.