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.
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.