The Mandan’s Okipa


The Mandan are a Native American people living in North Dakota. They are enrolled in the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. About half of the Mandan still reside in the area of the reservation; the rest reside around the United States and in Canada.

The Okipa Ceremony as Witnessed by George Catlin

According to pre-Christian Mandan beliefs, each person possessed four different, immortal souls. The first soul was white and often seen as a shooting star or meteor. The second soul was coloured a light brown and was seen in the form of the meadowlark. The third soul, called the lodge spirit, remained at the site of the lodge after death and would remain there forever. The final soul was black and after death would travel away from the village. These final souls existed as did living people; residing in their own villages, farming and hunting.

The Okipa ceremony was a major part of Mandan religious life. This complex ceremony about the creation of the earth was first recorded by George Catlin. The ceremony opened with a Bison Dance, followed by a variety of torturous ordeals through which warriors proved their physical courage and gained the approval of the spirits.

The Okipa began with the young man not eating, drinking, or sleeping for four days. Then they were led to a hut, where they had to sit with smiling faces while the skin of their chest and shoulders was slit and wooden skewers were thrust behind the muscles. Using the skewers to support the weight of their bodies, the warriors would be suspended from the roof of the lodge and would hang there until they fainted. To add agony, heavy weights were added to the initiate’s legs. After fainting, the warrior would be pulled down and the men (women were not allowed to attend this ceremony) would watch the warrior until he awoke, proving the spirits’ approval. Upon awakening, the warrior would offer his left pinkie finger to the Great Spirit, whereupon a masked tribesman would sever it with a hatchet blow. Finally, participants would endure a gruelling race around the village called “the last race” with weights and skewers still in place, to determine who among them was the strongest.

Those finishing the ceremony were seen as being honoured by the spirits; those completing the ceremony twice would gain everlasting fame among the tribe. Chief Four Bears, or Ma-to-toh-pe, completed this ceremony twice. The last Okipa ceremony was performed in 1889, but the ceremony was resurrected in a somewhat different form in 1983.

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