O-Kee-Pa is the name given to a religious and spiritual rite among the Mandan tribe. It was done yearly when the willow trees along the rivers were in full bloom. It recalls a time when a great flood killed all the inhabitants of the world, and the first Mandan survived on a great canoe. A bird came to them with a willow branch in full bloom and showed them back to land, where they settled and lived out the rest of the tribe’s life. Each year, they recreate this ceremony, and welcome warriors into the tribe after a ritual of fasting, and body suspension, as well as pray to the gods for food, fertility, and fortune. This us one of the most well documented and known ritual practices of suspension, although even still documentation is scarce. Few outsiders were lucky enough to witness this ceremony, however, those that were published some records of it to keep these traditions alive. The book O-kee-pa was originally authored by an American painter named George Catlin in 1867. It covers his month-long stay with the Mandan Indigenous Peoples in 1832. Catlin, formerly a lawyer turned painter, spent years living among Indigenous peoples, painting them and documenting their unique way of life. He quickly realized war and disease were encroaching on the western tribes and rushed to document their lives. It is this book, referenced by Fakir Musafar in Dances Sacred and Profane as one of the inspirations for him to do the O-Kee-Pa and meet the Great Spirit.
“Man in the simplicity and loftiness of his nature, unrestrained and unfettered by the disguises of art, is surely the most beautiful model for the painter, and the country from which he hails is unquestionably the best study or school of the arts in the world; such I am sure, from the models I have seen, is the wilderness of North America. And the history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations are themes worthy of the life-time of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, of becoming their historian.” – Catlin, O-kee-pa
Catlin was very interested in Indigenous peoples, but the Mandan were a subject of particular study for him. However, most collections of his work focus solely on Catlin, and his time as an explorer and his history in the art world. I can find precious few pieces that focus on his subject, the Mandan, and the amazing rituals and rites he was able to preserve. So, enough of the man who documented them – let’s instead focus on the rites and rituals of the Mandan and the beautiful pieces of their culture we are fortunate enough to still have a record of today.
When the willows bloom, from over the hills at sunrise, the Nu-mohk-muck-a-nah (or the first or only man) comes. Garbed in the pelts of white wolves and with his hair and beard slicked with white clay, he opens the medicine lodge in the center of the village, which has remained sealed since the ceremony last year. He calls for four young men, one from the North, one from the South, one from the East, and one from the West, to come with clean feet and hands, to labor in the sacred temple. They clean it out, and line the sides with aromatic herbs and willow branches, and prepare for the ceremony. During this time, the rest of the tribe are confined to their homes, not to leave.
After it is cleaned, the Nu-mohk-muck-a-nah visits each house and relays the tale of the floods and his sole survival in the big canoe. The Mandans must then make the needed sacrifices to the water, and he collects an edged tool from each family, to be thrown to the water ad the end of the ceremonies.
At sunrise the next morning Nu-mohk-muck-a-nah calls for all young men eligible for the O-Kee-Pa graduation as warriors to come forward, the rest of the village remaining in their homes. The young men come and file into the medicine lodge, where they hang their bows and arrows and medicine bags up and rest beneath them. For the next for days they will remain here, without food, or water, to prepare themselves for the final day. Then Nu-mohk-muck-a-nah hands the ceremony over to the principle medicine man of the tribe, O-kee-pa Ka-see-ka (keeper of ceremonies), and he leaves the village to turn next year and open the lodge.
During this time many dances took place within and without the lodge. The primary was the Bel-lohk-na-pick (the bull dance). 8 men, dressed in the hides of buffalo, danced to show the coming and going of the herds. They danced alongside men dressed as the stars, and the morning rays. This dance was repeated four times the first day, eight times the second, twelve the third, and sixteen the fourth. Soon among the dancers were added grizzly bears, bald eagles, antelopes, rattlesnakes, beavers, vultures, and wolves. Each dancer is covered head to tow in pattered clay, and with various costuming to represent their animal. Their movements, their sounds, their very presence called forth the creature in question with an uncanny likeness.
“At the close of each Bel-lohk-na-pick, these representatives of animals and birds all set up a howl and growl particular to their species, in a defining 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 up on their hind fee; and dancing off together to an adjoining lodge, where they remained a curious and picturesque group until the Ka-see-ka came 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 before him again.
This repeated time and time again, till, in the midst of the fourth day, a sudden alarm filled the tribe. Women sobbed and dogs barked and howled, as from the hills came a dark figure. Darting about in a zig-zag pattern, he made his way to the village. The O-ke-hee-de (the owl spirit, or evil spirit) had come. He darted through the crowd around the dancers, targeting groups of women till the Ka-see-ka came, with his medicine pipe, and stood before the O-ke-hee-de, looking him full in the eyes and holding him dead with his charm. This continued, till the villagers hissed and groaned, and the Ka-see-ka let the women escape. This back and forth was repeated, each time the women less scared of the O-ke-hee-de. Till, at last, a sly older woman came up with two handfuls of yellow dirt, and flung them upon his face! The yellow stuck to the black bear grease paint, and soon other villagers joined in with a myriad of colors. His staff was broken by one bold woman, and his power gone. He flees the village, into the arms of a group of women in the fields who scream and cry and beat him with sticks till he disappears over the hills of the prairie. The crowd of women return to the village and the one who broke his staff and stole his power is escorted by two matrons. She held the power of creation, and also the power of life and death over them; she was the father of all the buffaloes, and that she could make them come or stay away as she pleased.” –Catlin, O-kee-pa
She ordered the dance stopped, and the skulls of the bulls and humans hung on the four posts of the lodge. She ordered the Ka-see-ka and the chiefs into the lodge, and for preparations for the warrior’s ceremony to begin. At this point, the dances had been done the required amount of times, and the warriors had fasted, of both food and water, and sleep, for the past 4 days. They had remained secluded from the activities, alone in the hut with the medicine men, allowing their minds and bodies to prepare for the coming trials. The sounds of the dances and the musicians must have reached them, and the uproar and the cries when the ke-hee-de came to the village. Their concept of time blurred in the stupor, the sudden uproar and the following quiet must have warned them their time had come.
“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. …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 side of the arm, above and below the elbow, over the brachial externes and the extensor radialis, and on each leg above and below the knee, over the vast externes 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 apparent change of a muscle, smiling at me while the knife was passing through their flesh, the rippling sound of which, and the trickling of blood over their clay-covered bodies and limbs, filled my eyes with irresistible tears.” -Catlin, O-kee-pa
From there, wooden splints were inserted into each wound, with hide straps tied to each end. As this was done a cord of rawhide was lowered through the top of the wigwam, and fastened to the splints either on the breasts or shoulders of the young men. As this was done the men’s shields were brought forth and hung from the splints on his arms. From his legs, dried buffalo skulls were hung off the splints. And their medicine bag was grasped in their left hands. At a signal, the men on top of the lodge drew the young men up, two or three at a time.
“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 low at first, and gradually increases until fainting ensued, when it ceased. In each case these young men submitted to the knife, to the insertion of the splints, and even being hung and lifted up, without a perceptible murmur or a groan; but when the turning commenced, they began crying in the most heart-rending tones to the Great Spirit; imploring him to enable them to bear and survive the painful ordeal they were entering on. “ -Catlin, O-kee-pa
After this, the men were lowered down, and the primary splints removed. They were left to rest until the great spirit gave them the strength to rise. No one could offer them aid, as they were entrusting their lives to the Great Spirit, and remind in his care till he gave them the strength to move. Once they could, they rose and walked to a min in the corner of the room, where they submitted their hands upon a buffalo skull, and the little finer was removed with a hatchet at the base. Sometimes, they also offered a forefinger, and each time no cries were made, and no bleeding or inflammation ensued. Each warrior was enveloped in the strength of the Great Spirit, and felt no pain, no suffering, only his bliss.
From this the men walked outside for the final part of the ceremony, the Eeh-ke-nah-ka (the last race) The skulls still dragging from splints in their legs, the men would race around the medicine hut, till the skin broke free and the splints and skulls came out. Many made only half a lap before fainting again, and there they lay till the Great Spirit once more gave the power to stand. Some were dragged, faces in the dirt, till the skin broke and the skulls came off.
“This must be done to produce honorable scars, which could not be affected by withdrawing the splints endwise; the flesh must be broken out, leaving a scar an inch or more in length: in order to do this there were several instances where the buffalo skulls adhered so long that they were jumped upon by bystanders as they were being dragged at full speed, which forced the splints out of the wounds by breaking the flesh, and the skulls were left behind. “ -Catlin, O-kee-pa
From there the warriors rose, and entered a wigwam where their wounds were treated, and with food and drink their strength restored. The chiefs would watch all of this intently, determining who was the strongest and fastest among them, for who would be promoted and made to lead war parties and elevated among the tribe. In all the tribe’s recollection, only one member had ever died from this ceremony, and the elders believed he was needed by the Great Spirit and had been needed for some time. Once all the warriors had gone, the Ka-See-Ka took the edged tools to the river and threw them in, an offering to the Great Spirit and to the waters. He declared the O-kee-pa done and thus came the closing feast of the buffaloes.
During the feast most of the tribe remained in their homes, only the dancers, the drum players, the chief, the medicine man, and a select group of women, attended the feast. There, food was presented and the women danced a lascivious dance, pausing to lead each man off in turn to the prairie where they were safe from the eyes of the tribe. This continued, till a man could go no more, and offered instead beads, or clothes, or gifts to assure the women he still loved her, and a promise to smoke the pipe with their husbands the next day. These fertility rituals were a beautiful celebration of tribal togetherness, and the healing, releasing end to four days of building tension and energy.
These ceremonies and rites are intrinsic to the cultural history of body modification and ritual. This shows how long we have desired to expand our consciousness and experience of the world by pushing the boundaries of what the human body can endure. For thousands of years, we have been called to modify our bodies, to endure what seems like must be great suffering with a smile on our face and calmness in our bodies as we explore how far we can go. These rites and rituals are practiced around the world, and nary a culture doesn’t partake in fasting, prayer ceremonies, bloodletting, and their own unique forms of worship through physical sensation. Understanding where we come from, and how each culture practiced these rites allows us to practice in a more informed sense in modern times. Though modern body suspension is a separate art from the O-kee-pa, understanding how those before us practiced their art, helps us understand the mental and physical changes we endure when we practice it. As modern practitioners of suspension, we have a duty to keep these rituals alive within us and remember those who came before us. We can not let these rites and rituals become forgotten and pushed aside, for it is the same internal calling through the ages that brings us to this practice. Keeping the history alive also helps us track the human desire to hang from our skin, push our bodies limits, and find the bliss that waits beyond the suffering.
Images from O-kee-Pa, George Catlin.
Excerpt from Dances, Sacred & Profane © Dan and Mark Jury