Okipa, the torture test

THE SAVAGE ORDEAL THAT A WARRIOR HAD TO ENDURE

The Mandan tribe historically lived along the banks of the Missouri River, in earthen huts shaped like domes. They wandered in the plains, hunting buffalo.

Before young men of the Mandan tribe of Red Indians could become fully-fledged warriors of the tribe, they had to undergo what was one of the world’s most painful and barbaric initiation rituals, designed to test extreme endurance, strength and courage.

The Okipa ceremony was a very important part of the Mandan religious life. The ceremony opened with a Bison Dance, followed by a variety of torturous ordeals through which an aspiring warrior had to prove his physical courage and gain the approval of the spirits.

First, the young man had to go without food, water and sleep for four days and nights. Then, clad in ornate clothes and with his body painted, he would go to a ceremonial hut.

The chief medicine man would then use a jagged knife to carve slices of flesh from the chest and the shoulders of the warrior-to-be, who would have to sit through all of that with a smile on his face. Then wooden skewers were thrust through the bleeding flesh behind the muscles.

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Stout thongs, secured to the rafters of the hut, were then tied to both ends of the skewers, and the initiate was hoisted from the floor. To add to the already immense agony, heavy weights were attached to the legs, and the body was twirled round and round until the initiate would lose consciousness.

When- and if- the young brave recovered, proving approval from the spirits, he was given a hatchet, with which he had to sever the little finger of his left hand.

As if all of this still wasn’t enough, there was a final stage to test stamina, where the participant had ropes tied to his wrists and had to run in a circle, like a horse being broken in, until he dropped unconscious due to exhaustion.

If the young aspirant survived all of these painful ordeals, he was seen as being honored by the spirits, and would then be able to return to his family in triumph as a fully-fledged warrior of the tribe. Those who completed this brutal test twice would gain everlasting fame among the tribe. Chief Four Bears, or Ma-to-toh-pe completed the ritual twice. Real tough guy!

So, how many braves died during the Okipa? Nobody knows. The last time it happened was in 1889. An American artist named George Catlin went to live among the Indians in 1831 and preserved the savage details of the ceremony that he witnessed on canvas.

In the end, however, bravery alone wasn’t sufficient to save the tribe as they were almost entirely wiped out by an enemy too small to see- the terrible scourge of smallpox. And those who survived were assimilated into other smaller tribes.

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