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
On entering the crowd where the buffalo dance was going on, he directed his steps towards the groups of women, who retreated in the greatest alarm, tumbling over each other and screaming for help as he advanced upon them. At this moment of increased alarm the screams of the women had brought by his side O-kee-pa-ka-see-ka (the conductor of the ceremonies) with his medicine pipe, for their protection. This man had left the “Big Canoe,” against which he was leaning and crying during the dance, and now thrust his medicine pipe before this hideous monster, and, looking him full in the eyes, held him motionless under its charm, until the women and children had withdrawn from his reach.…
In several attempts of this kind the Evil Spirit was thus defeated, after which he came wandering back amongst the dancers, apparently much fatigued and disappointed; and the women gradually advancing and gathering around him, evidently less apprehensive of danger than a few moments before.
In this distressing dilemma he was approached by an old matron, who came up slyly behind him with both hands full of yellow dirt, which (by reaching around him) she suddenly dashed in his face, covering him from head to foot and changing his colour, as the dirt adhered to the undried bear’s grease on his skin. As he turned around he received another handful, and another, from different quarters; and at length another snatched his wand from his hands, and broke it across her knee; others grasped the broken parts, and, snapping them into small bits, threw them into his face. His power was thus gone, and his colour changed: he began then to cry, and, bolting through the crowd, he made his way to the prairies, where he fell into the hands of a fresh swarm of women and girls (no doubt assembled there for the purpose) outside of the picket, who hailed him with screams and hisses and terms of reproach, whilst they were escorting him for a considerable distance over the prairie, and beating him with sticks and dirt.
He was at length seen escaping from this group of women, who were returning to the village, whilst he was disappearing over the plains .…
The crowd of women entered the village, and the area where the ceremony was transpiring, in triumph, and the fortunate one who had deprived him of his power was escorted by two matrons on each side. She was then lifted by her four female attendants on to the front of the Medicine Lodge, directly over its door, where she stood and harangued the multitude for some time; claiming that “she held the power of creation, and also the power of life and death over them; that she was the father of all the buffaloes, and that she could make them come or stay away, as she pleased.”1
She then ordered the bull dance to be stopped—the four musicians to carry the four tortoise-drums into the Medicine Lodge. The assistant dancers, and all the other characters taking parts, were ordered into the dressing and painting lodge. The buffalo and human skulls on the floor of the Medicine Lodge she ordered to be hung on the four posts. She invited the chiefs to enter the Medicine Lodge, and (being seated) to witness the voluntary tortures of the young men, now to commence. …
Thus ended the bull dance (bel-lohk-na-pick) and other amusements at midday on the fourth day of the O-kee-pa, preparatory to the scenes of torture to take place in the Medicine Lodge; and the pleasing moral from these strange (and in some respects disgusting) modes, at once suggests itself, that in the midst of their religious ceremony the Evil Spirit had made his entrée for the purpose of doing mischief, and, having been defeated in all his designs by the magic power of the medicine pipe, on which all those ceremonies hung, he had been disarmed and driven out of the village in disgrace by the very part of the community he came to impose upon.
The bull dance and other grotesque scenes being finished outside of the Medicine Lodge, the torturing scene (or pohk-hong as they called it) commenced within, in the following manner.
The young men reclining around the sides of the Medicine Lodge, who had now reached the middle of the fourth day without eating, drinking, or sleeping, and consequently weakened and emaciated, commenced to submit to the operation of the knife and other instruments of torture.
Two men, who were to inflict the tortures, had taken their positions near the middle of the lodge; one, with a large knife with a sharp point and two edges, which were hacked with another knife in order to produce as much pain as possible, was ready to make the incisions through the flesh, and the other, prepared with a handful of splints of the size of a man’s finger, and sharpened at both ends, to be passed through the wounds as soon as the knife was withdrawn.