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O-Kee-Pa -- American Heritage Book Selection

June 2024
29min read

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.

The degree of physical torture to which some American Indians voluntarily submitted as part of their religious tradition appeared cruel and sanguinary to the few white men who witnessed such rites. An outstanding example, unknown to most readers of history because of the white man’s general neglect of Indian customs and folklore, was the O-kee-pa ceremony by which the Mandans initiated fledgling warriors and summoned the all-important buffaloes. The tribe was very nearly exterminated in 1837 by one item for which white traders did not charge: smallpox. Fortunately, from a historical standpoint, the famous artist George Catlin visited the Mandans in their earth-lodge villages in what is now North Dakota before the disease decimated them; he left a record, in words and on canvas, of this remarkable ceremony. Catlin spent most of the summer of 1832 with the Mandans and, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, became the first white man to view the secret rites in their entirety. While the experience was fresh in his mind, Catlin wrote a description of it for a New York newspaper. Nine years later he included an expanded, illustrated version in his impressive survey of North American Indians. Then, in 1856, there appeared a scholarly tome, printed with congressional funds and edited by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, in which a former Indian trader, Colonel David D. Mitchell, accused Catlin of having imagined the whole ceremony. Catlin, in France at the time trying to recoup his sagging personal fortune, immediately began to accumulate corroborating testimony, including a letter from Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, who had spent some time with the Mandans shortly after Catlin’s visit (see “Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West” in the April, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Catlin published O-kee-pa, complete with these testimonials, thirteen chromolithographs, and a fuller text, in 1867. But the rehabilitation of his reputation did not really begin until a few months after his death in 1872, when Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, included a strong defense of Catlin in his annual report. Since then, in the words of the Smithsonian’s senior ethnologist, John C. Ewers, “Catlin’s O-kee-pa has ripened into a nineteenth-century classic in the ethnology of western North America.” His evaluation introduces the centennial republication of O-kee-pa by the Yale University Press. Excerpts begin overleaf. For another view of Indian spirituality, see “Reading, Writing, and History” in this issue. — The Editors

During the summer of 1832 I made two visits to the tribe of Mantlan Indians, all living in one village of earth-covered wigwams, on the west bank of the Missouri River, eighteen hundred miles above the town of St. Louis.

Their numbers at that time were between two and three thousand, and they were living entirely according to their native modes, having had no other civilized people residing amongst them or in their vicinity, that we know of, than the few individuals conducting the Missouri Fur Company’s business with them, and living in a trading-house by the side of them. …

The Mandans, in their personal appearance, as well as in their modes, had many peculiarities different from the other tribes around them. In stature they were about the ordinary size; they were comfortably, and in many instances very beautifully clad with dresses of skins. Both women and men wore leggings and moccasins made of skins, and neatly embroidered with dyed porcupine quills. Every man had his “tunique and manteau” of skins, which he wore or not as the temperature prompted; and every woman wore a dress of deer or antelope skins, covering the arms to the elbows, and the person from the throat nearly to the feet.

In complexion, colour of hair, and eyes, they generally bore a family resemblance to the rest of the American tribes, but there were exceptions, constituting perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth part of the tribe, whose complexions were nearly white, with hair of a silvery-grey from childhood to old age, their eyes light blue, their faces oval, devoid of the salient angles so strongly characterizing all the other American tribes and owing, unquestionably, to the infusion of some foreign stock.

Amongst the men, practised by a considerable portion of them, was a mode peculiar to the tribe, and exceedingly curious—that of cultivating the hair to fall, spreading over their backs, to their haunches, and oftentimes as low as the calves of their legs; divided into flattened masses of an inch or more in breadth, and filled at intervals of two or three inches with hardened glue and red or yellow ochre. …

The Mandans (Nu-mah-ká-kee, pheasants, as they called themselves) have been known from the time of the first visits made to them to the day of their destruction, as one of the most friendly and hospitable tribes on the United States frontier; and it had become a proverb in those regions, and much to their credit … “that no Mandan ever killed a white man.”

I was received with great kindness by their chiefs and by the people, and afforded every facility for making my portraits and other designs and notes on their customs; and from Mr. [James] Kipp, the conductor of the Fur Company’s affairs at that post, and his interpreter, I was enabled to obtain the most complete interpretation of chiefly all that I witnessed.

I had heard, long before I reached their village, of their “annual religious ceremony,” which the Mandans call “O-kee-pa.” … I resolved to await its approach, and in the meantime, while inquiring of one of the chiefs whose portrait I was painting, when this ceremony was to begin, he replied that “it would commence as soon as the willow-leaves were full grown under the bank of the river.”…

As I have before said, these people all lived in one village, and their wigwams were covered with earth--they were all of one form; the frames or shells constructed of timbers, and covered with a thatching of willow-boughs, and over and on that, with a foot or two in thickness, of a concrete of tough clay and gravel, which became so hard as to admit the whole group of inmates, with their dogs, to recline upon their tops. These wigwams varied in size from thirty to sixty feet in diameter, were perfectly round, and often contained from twenty to thirty persons within.

The village was well protected in front by a high and precipitous rocky bank of the river; and, in the rear, by a stockade of timbers firmly set in the ground, with a ditch inside, not for water, but for the protection of the warriors who occupied it when firing their arrows between the pickets. …

The “Medicine Lodge,” the largest in the village and seventy-five feet in diameter, with four images (sacrifices of different-coloured and costly cloths) suspended on poles above it, was considered by these people as a sort of temple, held as strictly sacred, being built and used solely for these four days’ ceremonies, and closed during the rest of the year.

In an open area in the centre of the village stands the Ark (or “Big Canoe”), around which a great proportion of their ceremonies was performed. This rude symbol, of eight or ten feet in height, was constructed of planks and hoops, having somewhat the appearance of a large hogshead standing on its end, and containing some mysterious things which none but the medicine men were allowed to examine. An evidence of the sacredness of this object was the fact that though it had stood, no doubt for many years, in the midst and very centre of the village population, there was not the slightest discoverable bruise or scratch upon it! …

The O-kee-pa, though in many respects apparently so unlike it, was strictly a religions ceremony, it having been conducted in most of its parts with the solemnity of religious worship, with abstinence, with sacrifices, and with prayer, whilst there were three other distinct and ostensible objects for which it was held.

1st. As an annual celebration of the event of the “subsiding of the waters” of the Deluge, of which they had a distinct tradition, and which in their language they called “Mee-ne-ró-ka-há-sha” (the settling down of the waters).

2nd. For the purpose of dancing what they called “Bel-lohk-na-pick” (the bull dance), to the strict performance of which they attributed the coming of buffaloes to supply them with food during the year.

3rd. For the purpose of conducting the young men who had arrived at the age of manhood during the past year, through an ordeal of privation and bodily torture, which, while it was supposed to harden their muscles and prepare them for extreme endurance, enabled their chiefs, who were spectators of the scene, to decide upon their comparative bodily strength and ability to endure the privations and sufferings that often fall to the lot of Indian warriors, and that they might decide who amongst the young men was the best able to lead a war party in an extreme exigency.

The season having arrived for the holding of these ceremonies, the leading medicine (mystery) man of the tribe presented himself on the top of a wigwam one morning before sunrise, and haranguing the people told them that “he discovered something very strange in the western horizon, and he believed that at the rising of the sun a great white man would enter the village from the west and open the Medicine Lodge.”

In a few moments the tops of the wigwams, and all other elevations, were covered with men, women, and children on the look-out; and at the moment the rays of the sun shed their first light over the prairies and back of the village, a simultaneous shout was raised, and in a few minutes all voices were united in yells and mournful cries. …

All eyes were at this time directed to the prairie, where, at the distance of a mile or so from the village, a solitary human figure was seen descending the prairie hills and approaching the village in a straight line, until he reached the picket, where a formidable array of shields and spears was ready to receive him. A large body of warriors was drawn up in battle-array, when their leader advanced and called out to the stranger to make his errand known, and to tell from whence he came. He replied that he had come from the high mountains in the west, where lie resided—that he had come for the purpose of opening the Medicine Lodge of the Mandans, and that he must have uninterrupted access to it, or certain destruction would be the fate of the whole tribe.

The head chief and the council of chiefs, who were at that moment assembled in the council-house, with their faces painted black, were sent for, and soon made their appearance in a body at the picket, and recognized the visitor as an old acquaintance, whom they addressed as “ Nu-mohk-mùck-a-nah ” (the first or only man). All shook hands with him, and invited him within the picket. He then harangued them for a few minutes, reminding them that every human being on the surface of the earth had been destroyed by the water excepting himself, who had landed on a high mountain in the West, in his canoe, where he still resided, and from whence he had come to open the Medicine Lodge, that the Mandans might celebrate the subsiding of the waters and make the proper sacrifices to the water, lest the same calamity should again happen to them.

The next moment he was seen entering the village under the escort of the chiefs, when the cries and alarms of the villagers instantly ceased, and orders were given by the chiefs that the women and children should all be silent and retire within their wigwams, and their dogs all to be muzzled during the whole of that day, which belonged to the Great Spirit.

… I had a fair view of the reception of this strange visitor from the West; in appearance a very aged man, whose body was naked, with the exception of a robe made of four white wolves’ skins. His body and face and hair were entirely covered with white clay, and he closely resembled, at a little distance, a centenarian white man. In his left hand he extended, as he walked, a large pipe, which seemed to be borne as a very sacred thing. The procession moved to the Medicine Lodge, which this personage seemed to have the only means of opening. He opened it, and entered it alone, it having been (as I was assured) superstitiously closed during the past year, and never used since the last annual ceremony.

The chiefs then retired to the council-house, leaving this strange visitor sole tenant of this sacred edifice; soon after which he placed himself at its door, and called out to the chiefs to furnish him “four men,— one from the North, one from the South, one from the East, and one from the West, whose hands and feet were clean and would not profane the sacred temple while labouring within it during that day.”

These four men were soon produced, and they were employed during the day in sweeping and cleaning every part of the temple, and strewing the floor, which was a concrete of gravel and clay, and ornamenting the sides of it, with willow boughs and aromatic herbs which they gathered in the prairies, and otherwise preparing it for the “Ceremonies,” to commence on the next morning.

During the remainder of that day, while all the Mandans were shut up in their wigwams, and not allowed to go out, Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah (the first or only man) visited alone each wigwam, and, while crying in front of it, the owner appeared and asked, “Who’s there?” and “What was wanting?” To this Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah replied by relating the destruction of all the human family by the Flood, excepting himself, who had been saved in his “Big Canoe,” and now dwelt in the West; that he had come to open the Medicine Lodge, that the Mandans might make the necessary sacrifices to the water, and for this purpose it was requisite that he should receive at the door of every Mandan’s wigwam some edged tool to be given to the water as a sacrifice, as it was with such tools that the “Big Canoe” was built.

He then demanded and received at the door of every Mandan wigwam, some edged or pointed tool or instrument made of iron or steel, which seemed to have been procured and held in readiness for the occasion; with these he returned to the Medicine Lodge at evening, where lie deposited them, and where they remained during the four days of the ceremony. …

Nu-mohk-múck-a-nah rested alone in the Medicine Lodge during that night, and at sunrise the next morning, in front of the lodge, called out for all the young men who were candidates for the O-kee-pa graduation as warriors, to come forward—the rest of the villagers still enclosed in their wigwams.

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.…

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.

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.

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.

The bodies of these two men, who were probably medicine men, were painted red, with their hands and feet black; and the one who made the incisions with the knife wore a mask, that the young men should never know who gave them their wounds; and on their bodies and limbs they had conspicuously marked with paint the scars which they bore, as evidence that they had passed through the same ordeal.

To these two men one of the emaciated candidates at a time crawled up and submitted to the knife, which was passed under and through the integuments and flesh taken up between the thumb and forefinger of the operator, on each arm, above and below the elbow, over the brachialis externus and the extensor radialis, and on each leg above and below the knee, over the vastus externus and the peroneus; and also on each breast and each shoulder.

During this painful operation, most of these young men, as they took their position to be operated upon, observing me taking notes, beckoned me to look them in the face, and sat, without the apparent change of a muscle, smiling at me whilst the knife was passing through their flesh, the ripping sound of which, and the trickling of blood over their clay-covered bodies and limbs, filled my eyes with irresistible tears.

When these incisions were all made, and the splints passed through, a cord of raw hide was lowered down through the top of the wigwam, and fastened to the splints on the breasts or shoulders, by which the young man was to be raised up and suspended, by men placed on the top of the lodge for the purpose.

These cords having been attached to the splints on the breast or the shoulders, each one had his shield hung to some one of the splints: his medicine bag was held in his left hand, and a dried buffalo skull was attached to the splint on each lower leg and each lower arm, that its weight might prevent him from struggling; when, at a signal, by striking the cord, the men on top of the lodge commenced to draw him up. He was thus raised some three or four feet above the ground, until the buffalo heads and other articles attached to the wounds swung clear, when another man, his body red and his hands and feet black, stepped up, and, with a small pole, began to turn him around.

The turning was slow at first, and gradually increased until fainting ensued, when it ceased. In each case these young men submitted to the knife, to the insertion of the splints, and even to being hung and lifted up, without a perceptible murmur or a groan; but when the turning commenced, they began crying in the most heartrending tones to the Great Spirit, imploring him to enable them to bear and survive the painful ordeal they were entering on. This piteous prayer, the sounds of which no imagination can ever reach, and of which I could get no translation, seemed to be an established form, ejaculated alike by all, and continued until fainting commenced.…

In each instance they were turned until they fainted and their cries were ended. Their heads hanging forwards and down, and their tongues distended, and becoming entirely motionless and silent, they had, in each instance, the appearance of a corpse. …

When brought to this condition, without signs of animation, the lookers-on pronounced the word dead! dead! when the men who had turned them struck the cords with their poles, which was the signal for the men on top of the lodge to lower them to the ground, —the time of their suspension having been from fifteen to twenty minutes. …

After this ordeal… a man advanced and withdrew the two splints by which they had been hung up, they having necessarily been passed under a portion of the trapezius or pectoral muscle, in order to support the weight of their bodies; but leaving all the others remaining in the flesh, to be got rid of in the manner yet to be described.

Each body lowered to the ground appeared like a loathsome and lifeless corpse. No one was allowed to offer them aid whilst they lay in this condition. They were here enjoying their inestimable privilege of voluntarily entrusting their lives to the keeping of the Great Spirit, and chose to remain there until the Great Spirit gave them strength to get up and walk away.

In each instance, as soon as they got strength enough partly to rise, and move their bodies to another part of the lodge, where there sat a man with a hatchet in his hand and a dried buffalo skull before him, his body red, his hands and feet black, and wearing a mask, they held up the little finger of the left hand towards the Great Spirit (offering it as a sacrifice, as they thanked him audibly, for having listened to their prayers and protected their lives in what they had just gone through), and laid it on the buffalo skull, where the man with the mask struck it off at a blow with the hatchet, close to the hand.

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.…

It was natural for me to inquire, as I did, whether any of these young men ever died in the extreme part of this ceremony, and they could tell me of but one instance within their recollection, in which case the young man was left for three days upon the ground (unapproached by his relatives or by physicians) before they were quite certain that the Great Spirit did not intend to help him away. They all seemed to speak of this, however, as an enviable fate rather than as a misfortune; for “the Great Spirit had so willed it for some especial purpose, and no doubt for the young man’s benefit.”

After the Medicine Lodge had thus been cleared of its tortured inmates, the master or conductor of ceremonies returned to it alone, and, gathering up the edged tools which I have said were deposited there, and to be sacrificed to the water on the last day of the ceremony, he proceeded to the bank of the river, accompanied by all the tribe, in whose presence, and with much form and ceremony, he sacrificed them by throwing them into deep water from the rocks, from which they could never be recovered: and then announced that the Great Spirit must be thanked by all—and that the O-kee-pa was finished.

The end of the ceremony was, in a sense, the beginning of the controversy. For George Catlin had made two errors of fact which, though they do not seriously detract from the historical and ethnological value of his O-kee-pa, did provide Henry Rowe Schoolcraft with a factual basis to attack the artist’s veracity. First, Catlin embraced the theory later thoroughly discredited—that the Mandans were descendants of a Welsh expedition to the New World in the twelfth century. More seriously, Catlin published a secondhand report that the tribe had been totally annihilated by the smallpox epidemic of 1837. As Mr. Ewers points out in his fascinating introduction to the new edition of O-kee-pa, the Mandans were nearly wiped out by the epidemic Catlin heard about, but more than one hundred survived; they continued to perform the O-kee-pa until about 1890.

1 The publishing mores of Catlin’s era would not permit a factual description of the procreative aspects of the bull dance or of the “power” captured from the Evil Spirit by his female pursuers, which was in reality a huge carved phallus. Hence, in the interests of complete accuracy, Catlin wrote a separate detailed account of the fertility rituals, which was inserted in the book as a detachable Folium Reservatum. “Scientific men,” he explained, “who study not the proprieties of man, but Man, will receive this addendum in this form, and, I believe, duly appreciate and protect it.”

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