Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony

  • George Catlin, Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony, 1832, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.505

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The centerpiece of the Mandan religious calendar was the annual enactment of the O-kee-pa, a four-day ceremony that included the painful initiation of the most promising young men of the tribe. Their ordeal began with a four-day fast, strictly supervised by a priest in the medicine lodge. George Catlin witnessed the ceremony on his travels of the Upper Missouri in 1832. While the young men were sequestered inside the medicine lodge, the entire community petitioned the Great Spirit for fertility and an abundant supply of bison in a series of activities outside. Each participant in the Bull Dance wore an entire buffalo skin, head, horns, hooves, and a tail included. They repeated the dance forty times over the course of of the O-kee-pa, imitating the movements of a buffalo. “During the first three days of this solemn conclave,” Catlin wrote, “there were many very curious forms and amusements enacted in the open area in the middle of the village, and in front of the medicine-lodge, by other members of the community, one of which formed a material part or link of these strange ceremonials . . . The bull-dance . . . is repeated four times during the first day . . . and sixteen times on the fourth day; and always around the curb, or ‘big canoe’ [the drumlike structure in the center of the open area] . . . This subject I have selected for my second picture, and the principal actors in it were eight men, with the entire skins of buffaloes thrown over their backs, with the horns and hoofs and tails remaining on; their bodies in a horizontal position, enabling them to imitate the actions of the buffalo, whilst they were looking out of its eyes as through a mask.” (Catlin, Letters and Notes, vol. 1, no. 22, 1841; reprint 1973)

Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony
On View
Not on view.
23 1/4 x 28 in. (59.0 x 71.1 cm)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Mediums Description
oil on canvas
  • Architecture Exterior – domestic – hut
  • Figure group – male
  • Western
  • Ceremony – dance – Bull Dance
  • Ceremony – Indian – O Kee Pa Ceremony
  • Ethnic – Indian – Mandan
Object Number
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