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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
In several instances I saw them offer immediately after, and give, the forefinger of the same hand,--leaving only the two middle fingers and the thumb to hold the bow, the only weapon used in that hand. Instances had been known, and several such were subsequently shown to me amongst the chiefs and warriors, where they had given also the little finger of the right hand, a much greater sacrifice; and several famous men of the tribe were also shown to me, who proved, by the corresponding scars on their breasts and limbs, which they exhibited to me, that they had been several times, at their own option, through these horrid ordeals.
The young men seemed to take no care or notice of the wounds thus made, and neither bleeding nor inflammation to any extent ensued, though arteries were severed—owing probably to the checked circulation caused by the reduced state to which their four days and nights of fasting and other abstinence had brought them.
During the whole time of this cruel part of the ceremonies, the chiefs and other dignitaries of the tribe were looking on, to decide who amongst the young men were the hardiest and stoutest-hearted, who could hang the longest by his torn flesh without fainting, and who was soonest up after he had fainted—that they might decide whom to appoint to lead a war party, or to place at the most important posts, in time of war.
As soon as six or eight had passed through the ordeal as above described, they were led out of the Medicine Lodge, with the weights still hanging to their flesh and dragging on the ground, to undergo another and (perhaps) still more painful mode of suffering.
This part of the ceremony, which they called Eeh-ke-náh-ka Na-pick (the last race), took place in presence of the whole tribe, who were lookers-on. For this a circle was formed by the buffalo dancers (their masks thrown off) and others who had taken parts in the bull dance, now wearing headdresses of eagles’ quills, and all connected by circular wreaths of willow-boughs held in their hands, who ran, with all possible speed and piercing yells, around the “Big Canoe”; and outside of that circle the bleeding young men thus led out, with all their buffalo skulls and other weights hanging to the splints, and dragging on the ground, were placed at equal distances, with two athletic young men assigned to each, one on each side, their bodies painted one half red and the other blue, and carrying a bunch of willow-boughs in one hand, who took them, by leather straps fastened to the wrists, and ran with them as fast as they could, around the “Big Canoe”; the buffalo skulls and other weights still dragging on the ground as they ran, amidst the deafening shouts of the bystanders and the runners in the inner circle, who raised their voices to the highest key, to drown the cries of the poor fellows thus suffering by the violence of their tortures.
The ambition of the young aspirants in this part of the ceremony was to decide who could run the longest under these circumstances without fainting, and who could be soonest on his feet again after having been brought to that extremity. So much were they exhausted, however, that the greater portion of them fainted and settled down before they had run half the circle, and were then violently dragged, even (in some cases) with their faces in the dirt, until every weight attached to their flesh was left behind.
This must be done to produce honourable scars, which could not be effected by withdrawing the splints endwise; the flesh must be broken out , leaving a scar an inch or more in length: and in order to do this, there were several instances where the buffalo skulls adhered so long that they were jumped upon by the bystanders as they were being dragged at full speed, which forced the splints out of the wounds by breaking the flesh, and the buffalo skulls were left behind.
The tortured youth, when thus freed from all weights, was left upon the ground, appearing like a mangled corpse, whilst his two torturers, having dropped their willow-boughs, were seen running through the crowd towards the prairies, as if to escape the punishment that would follow the commission of a heinous crime.
In this pitiable condition each sufferer was left, his life again entrusted to the keeping of the Great Spirit, the sacredness of which privilege no one had a right to infringe upon by offering a helping hand. Each one in turn lay in this condition until “the Great Spirit gave him strength to rise upon his feet,” when he was seen, covered with marks of trickling blood, staggering through the crowd and entering his wigwam, where his wounds were probably dressed, and with food and sleep his strength was restored.… As soon as the six or eight thus treated were off from the ground, as many more were led out of the Medicine Lodge and passed through the same ordeal … and on the occasion I am describing, to the whole of which I was a spectator, I should think that about fifty suffered in succession, and in the same manner.…