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Thunderbird and Trickster

https://eric.malsum.org/books/thunderbird-and-trickster/

from here:

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by Steve Mizrach

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Introduction

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The Thunderbird is one of the few cross-cultural elements of NativenNorth American mythology. He is found not just among Plains Indians, butnalso among Pacific Northwest and Northeastern tribes. He has also becomenquite a bit of an icon for non-Indians, since he has also had the honornof having automobiles, liquors, and even a United States Air Forcensquadron named after him. Totems bearing his representation can be foundnall over the continent. There have been a number of curious theoriesnabout the origins of the Thunderbird myth – ones which I will show arenprobably wrongheaded.

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In this paper, moreover, I want to examine how the myths and legends ofnthe Thunderbird tie into the sacred clowning/trickster ritual complex ofnPlains tribes such as the Lakota. I will show how the Thunderbird isnintimately connected to this complex, and attempt to explain why. It isnthe intimate association between these two traditions that may helpnexplain some features of Plains culture and folklore. Aspects of thenThunderbird myth only make sense in light of these associations.

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Plains Indians myth and folklore

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In order to understand Plains Indians folklore, we have to realize thatntheir myths were not just “just-so” stories to entertain, divert, ornmake inadequate efforts at naturalistic explanation. Rather, Indian mythnfunctioned in religious, pedagogical, and initiatory ways, to helpnsocialize young people and illuminate the various religious and othernroles in society. Indian myth was always fluid, and grounded in thenpresent, which is what might be expected of societies which largelynlacked static, written traditions. Storytelling was an art which wasnmaintained by the medicine people with great fidelity, because it wasnused to explain the development of certain rituals and elements ofnsociety. (Hines 1992)

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Some have looked at the Thunderbird myths through the same lens ofnunderstanding applied to European mythology. The Thunderbird is like thenIndo-European dragon or ogre or Leviathan, a huge monster who kidnapsnvirginal maidens, and who must be slain by the brave hero. Or thenThunderbird is simply treated as some kind of fantastic oddity, like thenmythical unicorn or mermaid – an impossible construction borne from thenextremes of the imagination. Both these attempts at explaining myth losenthe important point of seeing Thunderbird as a personification ofnenergies in nature – those found in violent thunderstorms and such – andnhis crucial dual nature.

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Still, the Indians were not merely “mythmaking” in the pejorative sense.nThey no more literally believed in a giant bird generating stormsnthrough the beating of its wings, then Christians today literallynbelieve in their divine being as an old man with a beard sitting on anmarble throne. Thunderbird is an allegory; his conflicts with othernforces in nature are then an attempt to allegorize relationshipsnobserved in the natural order, such as the changing of the weather. Likenother Thunder Beings, he is essentially an attempt to represent thenpatterns of activity of a powerful, mysterious force in a way that cannbe understood simply and easily – sort of the way in which a weather mapnfunctions today. (Edmonds and Clark 1989)

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The Plains Indians believed that everything that was found in nature hadna human representative in microcosm. Everything in nature oftenncontained its own opposite polarity, hence the expected existence ofnbeings such as contraries, women warriors, and berdaches. Because thenThunderbird in particular represented this mysterious dual aspect ofnnature, manifest through the primordial power of thunderstorms, it isnnot surprising that his representatives were the heyoka or sacrednclowns, who displayed wisdom through seemingly foolhardy action. Westernnthinking has prevented us from seeing the reasons why Indians perceivednthis connection. Few anthropologists have sought to locate hownThunderbird may have been mythologically linked to Trickster.

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The Nature of Thunderbird

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In Plains tribes, the Thunderbird is sometimes known as Wakinyan, fromnthe Dakota word kinyan meaning “winged.” Others suggest the word linksnthe Thunderbird to wakan, or sacred power. In many stories, thenThunderbird is thought of as a great Eagle, who produces thunder fromnthe beating of his wings and flashes lightning from his eyes.n(Descriptions are vague because it is thought Thunderbird is alwaysnsurrounded by thick, rolling clouds which prevent him from being seen.)nFurther, there were a variety of beliefs about Thunderbird, whichnsuggest a somewhat complicated picture. Usually, his role is tonchallenge some other great power and protect the Indians – such as WhitenOwl Woman, the bringer of winter storms; the malevolent Unktehi, ornwater oxen who plague mankind; the horned serpents; Wochowsen, the enemynbird; or Waziya, the killing North Wind. But in some other legends (notnso much in the Plains), Thunderbird is himself malevolent, carrying offnpeople (or reindeer or whales) to their doom, or slaying people who seeknto cross his sacred mountain. (Erdoes and Ortiz 1984)

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Many Plains Indians claim there are in fact four colors (varieties) ofnThunderbirds (the blue ones are said, strangely, to have no ears orneyes), sometimes associated with the four cardinal directions, but alsonsometimes only with the west and the western wind. (According to thenmedicine man Lame Deer, there were four, one at each compass point, butnthe western one was the Greatest and most senior.) (Fire and Erdoesn1972) The fact that they are sometimes known as “grandfathers” suggestnthey are held in considerable reverence and awe. It is supposed to benvery dangerous to approach a Thunderbird nest, and many are supposed tonhave died in the attempt, swept away by ferocious storms. The symbol ofnThunderbird is the red zig-zag, lightning-bolt design, which some peoplenmistakenly think represents a stairway. Most tribes feel he and thenother Thunder beings were the first to appear in the Creation, and thatnthey have an especially close connection to wakan tanka, the GreatnMysterious. (Gill and Sullivan 1992)

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The fact that Thunderbird sometimes appears as something that terrorizesnand plagues Indians, and sometimes as their protector and liberator (innsome myths, he was once an Indian himself) is said to reflect the waynthunderstorms and violent weather are seen by Plains people. On the onenhand, they bring life-giving rain (Thunderbird is said to be the creatornof ‘wild rice’ and other Plains Indians crops); on the other hand, theynbring hail, flood, and lightning and fire. It is not clear where withnthem worship and awe end, and fear and terror begin. Some Indians claimnthat there are good and bad Thunderbirds, and that these beings are atnwar with each other. Others claim that the large predatory birds whichnare said to kidnap hunters and livestock are not Thunderbirds at all.nLargely, I suspect that this dual nature of the Thunderbird ties it tonthe Trickster figure in Indian belief: like the Trickster, the harm thenThunderbird causes is mostly because it is so large and powerful andnprimeval.

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Origins of the Thunderbird Myth

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Cryptozoologists like Mark A. Hall, having studied the Thunderbird mythsnof numerous tribes, and compared them to (mostly folkloric) accounts ofnunusually large birds in modern times, as well as large birds (like thenRoc) in other mythic traditions, suggest that there may well be ansurviving species of large avians in America – big enough, apparently,nto fly off carrying small animals or children, as has been claimed innsome accounts. (Hall suggests the wingspan of such a species would benseveral feet longer than any known birds – certainly bigger than that ofnthe turkey vulture or other identifiable North American species.) (Halln1988) Such researchers feel the Thunderbird myth may have originatednfrom sightings of a real-life flesh-and-blood avian which might be annatavism from earlier epochs (a quasi-pterodactyl or teratorn, perhaps.)

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However, the big problem with this theory is that most ornithologistsnconsider it to be quite farfetched. If such a species existed (ansituation akin to the folkloric Sasquatch), it would be amazing that tonthis point it has remained unidentified and uncatalogued. A species ofnbirds that big, unless it consisted of an extremely small number ofnmembers, would find it hard to avoid detection for long. Hall doesnsuggest the possibility that maybe, like the mastodon, these large birdsnwere hunted to extinction prior to the arrival of Europeans on the NorthnAmerican continent. Still, the other problem with his theory is that itnignores what Indians themselves have to say about the Thunderbird.

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They describe the Thunderbird as a spiritual, not just physical,nbeing. It is not seen as just a large, fearsome predatory bird thatnpeople tell stories about. Rather, it’s an integral part of PlainsnIndians religion and ritual. Only by ignoring this fact could we put ournWestern ethnocentric biases into effect, and reduce it to a zoologicalncuriosity. The Thunderbird is much more than that; the Indian attitudentoward it comes from more than just the mere fact that it is supposed tonbe really big. To understand the origins of Thunderbird myths, it’snnecessary to see how they connect with other elements of Indian beliefnand ceremony – especially the Trickster complex – and see how they fitninto the structure of Plains Indian myth as a whole.

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Clowning around in Plains Indian culture

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Clowning, like the icon of the Thunderbird, could be found in almostnevery North American Indian society. In every case, it involvednridiculous behavior, but on the Plains it especially exhibited inversionnand reversal as elements of satire. There were four types of clownnsocieties on the Plains – age-graded societies, military societies, thennorthern plains type, and the heyoka shamanistic societies. Thenbehaviors of all sorts of clowns revolved around a few basic themes ornattributes: burlesque, mocking the sacred, playing pranks or practicalnjokes, making obscene jokes or gestures, caricature of others,nexhibiting gross gluttony or extreme appetite, strange acts ofnself-mortification or self-deprecation, and taunting of enemies ornstrangers. (Steward 1991)

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The age-graded clown societies primarily consisted of older people whonhad been inducted into their ranks – groups such as the Gros VentrenCrazy Lodge or the Hidatsa Dog Society. These clowns were assumed tonsimply be playing a role appropriate to their sodality, rather thannreceiving some sort of supernatural inspiration. They carried outncertain expected ritual performances on proscribed days, such as thenCrazy Dance or the imitation of animals. In contrast, the military clownnsocieties such as the Cheyenne Inverted Bow String Warriors, oftenncarried comical or ridiculous weapons, but were also expected to shownabsurd bravery in battle, provoking the enemy into giving up itsndiscipline and cohesion with taunts and insults. Not surprisingly, theynsometimes rode their horses backwards into battle.

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The northern plains clowns, found among tribes such as the Ojibway, worenmasks which made them appear to be two-faced, and costumes of rags whichnmade them appear comical. All of these three types of clown societiesnpracticed a sort of conventionalized or patterned sort of anti-naturalnbehavior. That is, they might do something which seemed strange orncontrary, but under somewhat regular conditions. You knew when theynmight do something weird – and there were times when they were forbiddennto perform their antics. Further, they might often “give up” thenclowning way of life, and return to a non-contrary state by marrying andnengaging in a more normal mode of existence.

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The heyoka were different in three primary ways from the other sorts ofnclowns. They were truly unpredictable, and could do the unexpected orntasteless even during the most solemn of occasions. Moreso than othernclowns, they really seemed to be insane. Also, they were thought to benmore inspired by trans-human supernatural forces (as individuals drivennby spirits rather than group conventions), and to have a closer link tonwakan or power than other clowns. And lastly, they kept their role fornlife – it was a sacred calling which could not be given up withoutnperforming an agonizing ritual of expiation. Not surprisingly, thesenunique differences were seen as the result of their having visions ofnThunderbird, a unique and transforming experience.

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Testimony of Black Elk: the heyoka and lightning

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The Oglala Indian Black Elk had some interesting things to say about thenheyoka ceremony, which he himself participated in. Black Elk describesnthe “dog in boiling water” ceremony in some detail. He also describesnthe bizarre items he had to carry as a heyoka, and the crazy antics henhad to perform with his companions. He also attempts to explain the linknbetween the contrary trickster nature of heyokas with that ofnThunderbird.

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n”When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comesnwith terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision hasnpassed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth ofnvision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see,nis happier after the terror of the storm… you have noticed thatntruth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad withnsuffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughingnor weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughingnis better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure ofnbeing safe, maybe the weeping face is better. And so I think this isnwhat the heyoka ceremony is for … the dog had to be killed quicklynand without making any scar, as lightning kills, for it is the powernof lightning that heyokas have.” (quoted in Neihardt 1959: 160)

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Today, of course, Western physicists describe the dual nature ofnelectricity. An object can carry a positive or negative electric charge.nThe electron is simultaneously a wave and a particle. Electricity andnmagnetism are thought to be aspects of the same force, and as is wellnknow with magnetism, it comes in polarities, with opposite poles (northnand south) attracting. Though the Indians did not have access to ournmodern scientific instruments, they are likely to have observed some ofnthe same properties in lightning. Thus it would have been intuitive tonlink the dual spiritual nature of the heyoka (tragicomedy – solemnnjoking – joy united with pain) with the dual nature of electricity.

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Thunderbird and Heyoka, the Sacred Clown

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It was believed among the Lakota and other tribes that if you had andream or vision of birds, you were destined to be a medicine man; but ifnyou had a vision of Thunderbird, it was your destiny to become somethingnelse; heyoka, or sacred clown. Like Thunderbird, the heyoka were at oncenfeared and held in reverence. They were supposed to startle easily atnthe first sound of thunder or first sight of lightning. Thunderbirdnsupposedly inspired the “contrariness” of the heyoka through his ownncontrary nature. He alternates strong winds with calm ones. While allnthings in nature move clockwise, Thunderbird is said to movencounterclockwise. Thunderbird is said to have sharp teeth, but no mouth;nsharp claws, but no limbs; huge wings, but no body. All of these thingsnsuggest Thunderbird (and the heyoka) have a curious, paradoxical,ncontrary nature. You could become heyoka through a vision of thenThunderbird, or just of lightning or a formidable winged being of power.n(Steiger 1974)

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While clown societies were found throughout the Plains, the heyoka, ornsacred clowns, were usually few in number, but were found in almostnevery clan. Heyoka were contraries, often speaking and walkingnbackwards. They acted in ridiculous, obscene, and comical ways,nespecially during sacred ceremonies. They were thought to be fearlessnand painless, able to seize a piece of meat out of a pot of boilingnwater. They often dressed in a bizarre and ludicrous manner, wearingnconical hats, red paint, a bladder over the head (to simulate baldness),nand bark earrings. The heyoka was thought to usually carry variousnsacred items – a deer hoof rattle, a colored bow, a flute, or drum. Hisn”anti-natural” nature was thought to be shamanistic in origin — and asna contrary, he was expected to act silly and foolhardy during battlen(although this was found more among warrior clown societies such as thenCheyenne Inverted Warriors.)

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However insulting or sacrilegious heyoka actions might be, they werentolerated, since it was assumed they were acting on the higher and moreninscrutable imperatives of the Great Mystery. Heyoka were freed from allnthe ordinary constraints of life, and thus were usually not expected tonmarry, have children, or participate in the work of the tribe. Despitentheir bizarre acts (such as dressing in warm clothes during summer ornwearing things inside out), they were trusted as healers, interpretersnof dreams, and people of great medicine. Whenever they interrupted thensolemnity of a ceremony, people took it as an admonition to see beyondnthe literalness of the ritual and into the deeper mysteries of thensacred. Like the flash of lightning, the heyoka’s sudden outbursts andndisturbances were thought to be the keys to enlightenment – much likenthe absurd acts of Zen masters in Japan. (Hultkrantz 1987)

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Thunderbird and Trickster

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Part of the link between heyoka and Thunderbird comes from Iktomi, thenTrickster figure. Iktomi is said to be heyoka because he has seen andntalked with Thunderbird. Iktomi is the first-born son of Inyan (rock),nand is said to speak with rocks and stones. Like Coyote and othernTrickster figures, Iktomi likes to pull pranks on people, but is just asnoften the victim of tricks and misfortunes. This makes him at once anculture hero, and a figure to be feared and avoided. Iktomi was thoughtnto be a hypersexual predator, one who frequently pursued winchinchalasn(young virgins) who bathed in streams, through various methods ofndeceit. Yet his pursuits and antics often wound up with himninadvertently getting hurt or winding up in trouble.

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Paul Radin suggests that Iktomi and other Trickster figures are akin tonthe Great Fool or Wild Man of European folklore, who often shows up innthe Feast of Fools and other ceremonies where the social order is turnedntopsy-turvy. (Radin 1956) Jung, following his lead, claims the Tricksternas an archetypal part of the collective unconscious; and his “crazynwisdom” as emblematic of humankind’s earlier, undivided, unindividuatednconsciousness. Iktomi and other tricksters seem to be at the constantnmercy of their desires; yet their blind luck always seems to protectnthem from the consequences of their missteps. He is dangerous primarilynbecause he is so powerful, yet so rarely has the forethought or goodnjudgment to use his power wisely. Radin and others proclaim him thenrepresentative of untamed, unpredictably wild nature, within thenconfines of culture.

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In other cultural traditions, thunder and lightning are connected withnthe unexpected. We talk about a “bolt out of the blue.” In American folknculture, there are a host of legendary stories of mysterious cures orntransformations wrought by someone being struck by lightning. It’s atnonce dangerous, and a symbol of sudden, shocking revelation andninspiration. It’s also the primary weapon in most pantheons of the chiefnsky god (such as Zeus in Greek mythology.) For the Plains Indians,nthunder and lightning symbolized the vast, uncontrollable energy ofnnature. It’s not surprising, then, that the Thunderbird is connectednwith the strange, uncontrollable force of the Trickster figure, and hisnavatar, the heyoka.

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Significance of the Trickster Figure and “Contrariness” in Plains Society

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Psychological anthropologists, especially those oriented towardnpsychoanalytic theory and depth psychology, point to the Tricksternfigure as a sort of important cultural “release valve.” He representsnthe “return of the repressed,” the Dionysian aspects of life onlyntemporarily held in abeyance by the Apollonian forces of civilization.nThe carnivals and feasts held in honor of fools in Europe, suggest somenanthropologists, are “outlets,” allowing people to invert the socialnorder temporarily as a way of promoting its continuity in the long runn(avoiding its ultimate collapse.) The ruler is dressed in peasants’nclothes, and some ignorant serf is crowned king. Symbols of authoritynnormally held in extreme reverence are mocked and desecrated.

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Clowns and contraries in Plains societies do not just come out once anyear, however. They are permanent parts of the society, and are seen asncontinual reminders of the contingency and arbitrariness of the socialnorder. Long before French theorists came on the scene, the heyoka wasnreminding his own people about the social construction of reality. Byndoing everything backwards, the heyoka in a way is carrying out anconstant experiment in ethnomethodology, showing people how theirnown expectations limit their behavior. Like a good performance artist,nthe shocking behavior of the heyoka is supposed to confront people andnmake them reconsider what they may have arbitrarily accepted as normal.nIt’s to “jolt” them out of their ordinary frames of mind. (Steward 1991)

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More importantly, as a representative of Thunderbird and Trickster, thenheyoka reminds his people that the primordial energy of nature is beyondngood and evil. It doesn’t correspond to human categories of right andnwrong. It doesn’t always follow our preconceptions of what is expectednand proper. It doesn’t really care about our human woes and concerns.nLike electricity, it can be deadly dangerous, or harnessed for greatnuses. If we’re too narrow or parochial in trying to understand it, itnwill zap us in the middle of the night. Like any good trickster, thenheyoka plays pranks on others in his culture not to make them feelnembarrassed and stupid, but to show them ways they could start beingnmore smart.

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The Account of John (Fire) Lame Deer: Heyoka and ASC

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Lame Deer calls the heyoka the “”upside-down, forward-backward, icy-hotncontrary.”” He describes in detail one particular heyoka trick which mayngive some clues to the nature of their antics. Apparently, they wouldngrab pieces of dog meat out of a pot of boiling water, and fling them atna crowd of people, without being burned or harmed in any way. (Why dognmeat? Lame Deer gives a clue when he says, “For the heyoka, he says godnwhen he means dog, and dog when he means god.”) Lame Deer suggestsnbefore doing this they chewed a grayish moss called tapejuta. Insuspect that heyoka were able to perform this feat through going intontrance, an altered state of consciousness, by utilizing this and othernpsychotropic plants on occasion.

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More importantly, I think they induced trance in others through theirncontrary behavior. Psychologists have noted that trance does not alwaysnoccur through rhythmic repetition. Another way in which it occurs (then”paradoxical state”) is through a sudden shock to the nervous system.nEthnomethodologists have often noted the blank, glassy stares andnstrange states produced by violating peoples’ expectations – by, fornexample, getting into an elevator and facing the other people in it.nIt’s in such “paradoxical states” that people often may assimilate newninformation quickly, without filtering. They also may be able ton”abreact” psychological trauma. For these reasons, the heyoka may havenbeen seen as a source of wisdom and healing.

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Lame Deer seems to suggest the power of trance is connected to the powernof Thunderbird. As a paradoxical state of consciousness, it ties intonthe paradoxical energy of thunder and lightning. The crash of thunderncan startle us and wake us up out of dreaming sleep. The trance of thenheyoka comes from sacred power. He ties it all together in a way that’snfairly succinct:

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n” These Thunderbirds are part of the Great Spirit. Theirs is aboutnthe greatest power in the whole universe. It is the power of the hotnand the cold clashing above the clouds. It is blue lightning fromnthe sun. It is like atomic power. The thunder power protects andndestroys. It is good and bad; the great winged power. We draw thenlightning as a forked zigzag, because lightning branches out into angood and bad part… In our Indian belief, the clown has a powernwhich comes from the thunder beings, not from the animals or thenEarth. He has more power than the atom bomb, he could blow off thendome of the Capitol. Being a clown gives you honor, but also shame.nIt brings you power, but you have to pay for it.” (quoted in Erdoesn1972: 251)

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Conclusion

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The Thunderbird’s association with heyoka clowns is not simplynserendipitous. The fact that the Thunderbird displays many paradoxicalnand contradictory attributes links it to Trickster figures and to thencontraries of Plains Indians culture. This culture complex probablynresulted from Indian beliefs about nature and the ways in which thundernand lightning exemplified the manners in which it could be at oncencapricious, beneficent, and destructive. The Thunderbird’s own link tonthe original Great Mystery suggests that the role of the sacred clownnwas seen as one of the highest in Plains society – like wandering foolsnin Europe, they were thought to be touched by the Divine power itself.nLike Thunderbird himself, the heyoka was thought to be a conduit tonforces that defied comprehension, and by his absurd, backwards behaviornhe was merely showing the ironic, mysterious dualities that existednwithin the universe itself.

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Bibliography

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  • Edmonds, Margot, and Clark, Ella E., Voices of the Winds: NativenAmerican Legends, Facts on File, New York, 1989.
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  • Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso, eds., American Indian Myths andnLegends, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984.
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  • Fire, John, and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions,nWashington Square Press, New York, 1972.
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  • Gill, Sam D., and Sullivan, Irene F., Dictionary of Native AmericannMythology, ABC-CLIO Inc., Santa Barbara, 1992.
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  • Hall, Mark A., Thunderbirds: The Living Legend of Giant Birds,nFortean Publications, Minneapolis, 1988.
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  • Hines, Donald M., Ghost Voices: Indian Myths, Legends, Humor, andnHunting Stories, Great Eagle Publishing, Issaquah, 1992.
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  • Hultkrantz, Ake, Native Religions of North America, Harper & RownPublishers, San Francisco, 1987.
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  • Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks, Simon & Schuster, New York,n1959.
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  • Radin, Paul, The Trickster: a Study in American Indian Mythology,nGreenwood Press, Westport, 1956.
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  • Steiger, Brad, Medicine Power, Doubleday & Company, Inc., GardennCity, New York, 1974.
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  • Steward, Julian Haynes, The Clown in Native North America, GarlandnPublishing, New York, 1991.
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Return tonCyberAnthropology

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