Fertility Rites of the Mandans

Savage Fertility Rites of the Mandans

By Colin Taylor

“To ensure an abundance of buffalo and general good fortune, tradition dictated that the O-kee-pa should be given each summer.”

Mandan girl Sah-ko-ka

Sah-ko-ka (The Mint). a Mandan girl. From a painting by George Catlin, 1832.

The Mandans were a Siouan speaking group who, at the time of their earliest contact with Europeans, resided in circular earth lodge villages which were situated on the banks of the Missouri River in what is now the state of North Dakota. They referred to themselves as Numangkake (men) identifying their descent by adding the name of the village. Archaeological evidence suggests that the historic Mandan culture probably was developed about 1500 A.D. and their villages became important centers for trade to the pedestrian (later equestrian) nomads of the Great Plains of the West. Their subsistence was about equally based on horticulture and the chase while their culture was extremely rich in ceremonialism, much of which pivoted around the medicine bundle complex. Observers in the 19th Century described the Mandans as a vigorous and well-made people, rather above the middling stature. The men had high cheek bones and prominent noses with broad angular jaws and particularly fine strong even teeth as white as ivory. The Mandans believed that many animals and birds and even some inanimate objects possessed spirit power which they called xo’pini. Such powers, they said, could be transferred to individuals by involvement in certain rituals. However, this power was lost a little at a time in the hazards of daily life and consumed rapidly on the warpath.

Indeed, by the end of the fourth expedition most of the power had been consumed and it had to be renewed. Fasting, the purchase of sacred bundles and the invitation to older men – during buffalo-calling ceremonials – to have ceremonial sexual intercourse with a wife, renewed or increased a man’s spirit power. It was believed that this ceremonial act was tantamount to intercourse with the buffaloes, who, when placated, would send the buffalo herds close to the villages and promise success in warfare.

It was against this background that the total ceremonial life of the Mandans was set and an individual’s supernatural experiences were powerfully dictated by hereditary tribal bundles and their associated rituals. The most important of all these ceremonials was the O-kee-pa which, prior to the virtual extermination by smallpox of the Mandans as a tribe in the summer of 1837, was, without question, the most complicated and colorful of those performed on the Northern Plains. The O-kee-pa, performed at least once every summer, acted out the mythological history of the tribe. It was a dramatization of the creation of the earth, its people, plants and animals, together with the struggles that the Mandan endured to attain their present position. It ritually ensured the coming of the buffalo for the general welfare of the people and additionally it enabled key participants to renew the coveted xo’pini.

Chief Four Bears

Four Bears, or Mahtotohpu, second chief of the Mandans.

Mandan traditions related that it was First Man, the mythological creator of mankind, who founded the O-kee-pa ceremonial and the members of the clan he founded – the Waxikenas – became not only custodians of the O-kee-pa Lodge but also protectors of most of the ceremonial objects associated with the O-kee-pa. These included a medicine bundle containing the articles traditionally used and worn by First Man. Although such bundles could be, and indeed were duplicated, the possession of the principal bundle gave the greatest prestige. It was those families who possessed the important tribal bundles and who participated frequently in the ceremonials that occupied high status within the tribe. Their wealth and standing was boldly expressed by hanging valuable objects such as the skin of a white buffalo on poles outside their lodges or adjacent to the burial grounds. First Man was said to have established the custom of leaving an open area within each village for dancing, thus every Mandan village traditionally had an open circle or plaza which was reserved for ceremonials.

At the center of the plaza, and directly opposite the entrance to the ceremonial lodge, stood a cedar post which was surrounded by a palisade of cottonwood planks with a willow hoop near the top. Symbolically, the cedar post, which was painted red, represented not only the body of First Man but also tribal ancestors. The palisade symbolized a barrier which Lone Man erected to protect the people from a great flood, the willow hoop indicating the maximum height to which the waters could rise. Although this sacred enclosure was a central pivotal point for the O-kee-pa ceremonial, it clearly symbolized the integrity of the Mandan as a people for First Man also told them that it would be a breastwork for their protections and that “when the people from across the water came against you, they may kill some, but never so long as this stands.” It is interesting to observe that this ancient symbol of Mandan ceremonialism and unity – often referred as “The Ark of the First Man” – is still to be found within the traditional territory of the Mandan. However, few today realize its full significance as a symbol of cultural history of an all but extinct tribe who played such an important role when the Great Plains were inhabited by pedestrian and later equestrian buffalo hunting nomads.

To ensure an abundance of buffalo and general good fortune, tradition dictated that the O-kee-pa should be given every summer. This four-day ceremonial was initiated by a visionary who approached the tribal council and sought their support. It was a costly affair since all participants  ultimately received gifts from the O-kee-pa Maker, thus only a man of considerable status could afford this commitment – but it did elevate him still more within the tribal hierarchy. Four Bears, one of the most successful and well-known Mandans reported on in the early 19th Century, continued to give the O-kee-pa even after he had already become a second chief.

Mandan Earth Lodge

Interior of a Mandan earth lodge. From a painting by Carl Bodmer, 1833.

On the first evening of the O-kee-pa, those young males seeking success assembled in the ceremonial lodge. The would act as suppliants during the ceremonial and in so doing would acquire the coveted xo-pini or spirit power. They were generally naked but carried bow cases and quivers and also their father’s medicine bundles. At the center toward the back stood the O-kee-pa Maker. In front of him was an altar flanked with human and buffalo skulls and beyond the central fireplace to the left of the door were drummers and singers. With them as an impersonator of First Man who had in his possession the ancient wooden pipe from the First Man bundle. He addressed the assembled group encouraging them for the ordeal they were about to undertake and then turning to the O-kee-pa Maker he transferred the ancient pipe to him with the plea that the performance should be correctly carried out as the original First Man had intended.

At sunrise the next day, O-kee-pa Maker left the ceremonial lodge and approached the south side of the sacred shrine which stood at the village center. Here he implored First Man to hear his prayers so that the buffalo would return and the people would be protected. Then the drummers and rattlers commenced singing and the young men, now dressed in buffalo robes with the hair side out, emerged from the ceremonial lodge and danced toward the shrine while the O-kee-pa Maker continued to plea to Lone Man to help the people. The ritual was repeated three more times on the first day finishing at sunset when the sacred turtle drums endowed with augury powers were carried into the ceremonial lodge by First Man.

Early in the morning of the second day, while those who were to impersonate the buffalo bulls were being symbolically painted and fasters from both sides of the O-kee-pa Lodge imitated buffalo bulls fighting, the First Man impersonator walked through the village carrying the medicine pipe. He was symbolic of the ancient times when First Man had seen to the needs of the people, anticipating their return and the villagers gave him gifts of dressed buffalo robes.

O-kee-pa Ceremony

Interior of a Mandan earth lodge. From a painting by Carl Bodmer, 1833.

Just after mid-day the buffalo dancers, now elaborately painted, emerged from the ceremonial lodge followed by the gasters who, for the entire four days, would be without food or water. That evening, a number of these fasters would decide to present themselves for the torture ceremonial of the third day. Throughout the entire O-kee-pa ceremonial, challenges were sent to – as one observer described him – the Evil Spirit or Okeeheede to match his powers against those of the First Man’s ancient pipe and on the third day he makes his appearance from a prairie bluff a mile or so from the village. Grotesquely painted with a mixture of bear’s grease and pounded charcoal, he approaches on a darting zig-zag course; he is scantily dressed and wears a rod and pumpkins to represent the male genitals. Of this character, George Catlin, the 19th Century artist wrote, “to the terror of the women and children he had attached by a small thong encircling his waist, a buffalo’s tail behind and from under a bunch of fubbalo hair covering the pelvis, an artificial penis, ingeniously (and naturally) carved in wood, of colossal dimensions, pendulous as he ran, and extending somewhat below his knees. This was, like his body, painted jet black with the exception of the glans, which was of as glaring a red as vermillion could make it.” Okeeheede carried a staff about eight feet long on the end of which was a ball of buffalo hair xumbolizing a human head. He rushes toward the women who scream in terror as they attempt to retreat from his now amorous advances.

O-kee-pa Torture

Torture episode of O-kee-pa ceremonial. From a sketch by George Catlin, July 1832

When George Catlin first witnessed this scene, he was led to observe that Okeeheede was also something of a magician “his art consisting in his magical wand, by the mysterious influence of which, the colossal penis is erected.” The havoc produced in his wake is brought to an abrupt halt by the O-kee-pa Maker who leaves the central shrine and thrusts the ancient  First Man pipe before the Evil Spirit challenging his right to come amongst the people to break up the ceremonial and hence bring misfortune or death to the tribe. At this point, the dancing and singing stop sand it is believed then that the welfare of the tribe was dependent on the power of First Man’s pipe to overcome the Evil Spirit. Complete silence prevails while Okeeheede remains perfectly stationary for some 15 to 20 minutes. The silence is then broken by victory songs as the Evil Spirit symbolically subdued by the power of the pipe, retreats before the O-kee-pa Maker. Now taking the part of a clown, Okeeheede imitates the buffalo bulls during the breeding season and approaches the young women first, then the male buffalo dancers whom he mounts. Thus, the obvious prowess of Okeeheede is turned to the advantage of the tribe who symbolically at least, will now attribute the coming of the buffalo to the combined actions of O-kee-pa Maker and the Evil Spirit. The powers of Okeeheede are finally totally destroyed when he accidentally breaks his staff while attempting to enter the O-kee-pa lodge. Now, losing all fear, the women rush forward and break his staff into small pieces and seize the rest of his regalia, including the phallus, which is then wrapped in sage to resemble a doll. Some of the women press this trophy to their breasts to transmit the xo’pini or spirit power which in turn it was believed would be acquired by their husbands in their daily activities of living and working together. On the final day, the ceremonial took on a particularly serious aspect. Four bull dancers, specially selected for their size and bravery, together with the drummers and rattlers, entered the central plaza. This heralded the commencement of an episode in the O-kee-pa ceremonial which would be undertaken by several of the fasters and also possibly the O-kee-pa Maker himself.

In the summer of 1832, an eye witness reported on this part of the ritual and although he frankly stated that it would “almost stagger the belief of the world when they read it,” independent observers subsequently verified his observations. Catlin wrote, “An inch or more of the flesh on each shoulder, or each breast, was taken up between the thumb and finger by the man who held the knife in his right hand; and the knife . . . was forced through the flesh below the fingers and being withdrawn, was followed with a splint or skewer from the other, who held a bunch of such in his left hand, and was ready to force them through the wound. “There were then two cords lowered down from the top of the lodge, which were fastened to these splints or skewers, and they instantly began to haul him up; he was thus raised until his body was just suspended from the ground where he rested, until the knife and splint were passed through the flesh or integuments in a similar manner on each arm below the shoulder, below the elbows, on the thighs and below the knees . . . . “Each one was then instantly raised with the cords until the weight of his body was suspended by them, and then, while the blood was streaming down their limbs, the bystanders hung upon the splints each man’s appropriate shield, bow and quiver, etc; and in many instances, the skull of a buffalo with the horns on it, was attached to each lower arm and each lower leg, for the purpose, probably, of preventing by their great weight, the struggling, which might otherwise take place to their disadvantage while they were hung up.” The suppliants were thus hung some six or eight feet above the ground and those who had not already lost consciousness were rotated by means of a pole. As they lost consciousness, they were lowered to the ground.

The sacred turtle drums then became the focus of attention and throughout the singing and dancing they were lifted to determine their weight which would indicate the abundance of the buffalo to come. After these turtle drums had been moved four times and the symbolic buffalo hunt concluded, the remaining fasters emerged from the O-kee-pa lodge each having one or more buffalo skulls dragging from skewers fastened through the skin. These fasters were led or dragged around the sacred shrine until each lost consciousness and then the knives and tools used in the torture sequences were thrown into the Missouri as the final offering to the spirits. At sundown, the ceremony was concluded by a sweat bath in which all the officers who had taken part in the O-kee-pa participated. The goods collected were now distributed and the O-kee-pa maker together with some of the fasters proceeded to prepare new medicine bundles according to instructions received from the supernatural powers during the O-kee-pa ceremonial.

The tribe, The People, had once again been symbolically enriched.


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