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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
There were two men called rattlesnakes, their bodies naked and curiously painted, resembling that reptile; each holding a rattle in one hand and a bunch of wild sage in the other. There were two beavers, represented by two men entirely covered with dresses made of buffalo skins, except their heads, and wearing beavers’ tails attached to their belts.
There were two men representing vultures, their bodies naked and painted brown, their heads and shoulders painted blue, and their noses red.
Two men represented wolves, their bodies naked, wearing wolfskins. These pursued the antelopes, and whenever they overtook one of them on the prairie, one or both of the grizzly bears came up and pretended to devour it, in revenge for the antelopes having devoured the meat given to the grizzly bears by the women.
All these characters closely imitated the habits of the animals they represented, and they all had some peculiar and appropriate songs, which they constantly chanted and sang during the dances, without even themselves (probably) knowing the meaning of them, they being strictly medicine songs, which are kept profound secrets from those of their own tribe, except those who have been regularly initiated into their medicines … at an early age, and at an exorbitant price; and I therefore failed to get a translation of them.
At the close of each of these bull dances, these representatives of animals and birds all set up the howl and growl peculiar to their species, in a deafening chorus; some dancing, some jumping, and others (apparently) flying; the beavers clapping with their tails, the rattlesnakes shaking their rattles, the bears striking with their paws, the wolves howling, and the buffaloes rolling in the sand or rearing upon their hind feet; and dancing off together to an adjoining lodge, where they remained in a curious and picturesque group until the master of ceremonies came again out of the Medicine Lodge, and leaning as before against the “Big Canoe,” cried out for all the dancers, musicians, and the group of animals and birds to gather again around him… .
Of men performing their respective parts in the bull dance, representing the various animals, birds, and reptiles of the country, there were about forty, and forty boys representing antelopes—making a group in all of eighty figures, entirely naked, and painted from head to foot in the most fantastic shapes, and of all colours, as has been described; and the fifty young men resting in the Medicine Lodge, and waiting for the infliction of their tortures, were also naked and entirely covered with clay of various colours (as has been described), some red, some yellow, and others blue and green; so that of (probably) one hundred and thirty persons engaged in these picturesque scenes, not one single inch of the natural colour of their bodies, their limbs, or their hair could be seen!
During each and every one of these bull dances, the four old men who were beating on the sacks of water, were chanting forth their supplications to the Great Spirit for the continuation of his favours, in sending them buffaloes to supply them with food for the ensuing year. They were also exciting the courage and fortitude of the young men inside of the Medicine Lodge, who were listening to their prayers, by telling them that “the Great Spirit had opened his ears in their behalf; that the very atmosphere out-of-doors was full of peace and happiness for them when they got through; that the women and children could hold the mouths and paws of the grizzly bears; that they had invoked from day to day the Evil Spirit; that they were still challenging him to come, and yet he had not dared to make his appearance.”
But, in the midst of the last dance on the fourth day, a sudden alarm throughout the group announced the arrival of a strange character from the West. Women were crying, dogs were howling, and all eyes were turned to the prairie, where, a mile or so in distance, was seen an individual man making his approach towards the village; his colour was black, and he was darting about in different directions, and in a zigzag course approached and entered the village, amidst the greatest (apparent) imaginable fear and consternation of the women and children.
This strange and frightful character, whom they called O-ke-hée-de (the owl or Evil Spirit), darted through the crowd where the buffalo dance was proceeding, alarming all he came in contact with. His body was painted jet black with pulverized charcoal and grease, with rings of white clay over his limbs and body. Indentations of white, like huge teeth, surrounded his mouth, and white rings surrounded his eyes. In his two hands he carried a sort of wand—a slender rod of eight feet in length, with a red ball at the end of it, which he slid about upon the ground as he ran.