Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Okipa was the most powerful religious ceremony of the Mandan people of North Dakota. The four-day ceremony was performed every year during the summer. It retold the history of the creation of the Earth and all living things. The main characters are the Okipa Maker, or Lone Man, who created the Mandan and gave them their rituals; Hoita, or Speckled Eagle, who created the animals; and Oxinhede, the Foolish One, who did not believe in the power of Okipa and was cast out of the village at the end. These three dancers are joined by others impersonating buffalo, bald eagles, holy women, swans, snakes, grizzly bears, night, day, wolves, coyotes, meadowlarks, and antelopes. They are supported by drummers playing sacred turtle drums.

The dancers performed inside the Okipa lodge, which was filled by men fasting, praying, and seeking visions. Sacred bundles, containing objects such as buffalo hair, a stuffed raven, a porcupine headdress, buffalo teeth, and a warbonnet of raven and swan feathers, were also presented. These objects represented key elements in the history of the people. The younger men generally underwent torture to demonstrate their bravery. Long wooden skewers were pushed through cuts in the skin on their backs or chests, and they were hung by ropes from beams. Their bodies were weighted down with buffalo skulls hung from other skewers thrust into their thighs and calves. The torment was extreme, but crying out was a sign of cowardice, and those best able to stand the pain became Mandan leaders. Women were not allowed inside the lodge, although some would sit on the roof, where they would fast.

The purpose of the ceremony was to rea. rm the bond between the people and the natural world and to unify the Mandans through a ritual of suffering and bloodshed. The Okipa had been performed for hundreds of years when the artist George Catlin witnessed the ceremony in 1832. The Okipa was probably last held on Fort Berthold Reservation in 1889 or 1890, after which it was suppressed by the United States.

See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Mandans.

Leslie V. Tischauser Prairie State College

Bowers, Alfred. Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

McHugh, Tom. The Time of the Buffalo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.

Meyer, Roy W. The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandan, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

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