Eric's LiveWorks

Laughter Keepers Exploring The Medicine Clown Tradition of the Wampanoag

https://eric.malsum.org/books/laughter-keepers/

Not my article, but re-posting from:

herenand
nhere

Update 24-09-2016:
nI’ve been in touch with the author, and he wants to me to share this, and edit the bits that need editing.

n

Laughter Keepers

Exploring The Medicine Clown Tradition of the Wampanoag

By Mwalim

Storyteller, Playwright & Folklorist

If all attempts to destroy a people have been unsuccessful, can youactually say that you have destroyed their traditions as well? Or haventhey merely been suppressed? One such tradition was that of thenMedicine Clown among Northeastern Algonquin people, particularly, thenAhanaeenun or “Laughter Keepers” of the Wampanoag Nation ofneastern Massachusetts.

Medicine Clowning is a practice that exists among many Native Americanncultures, in one form or another. In general, medicine people amongnnative cultures serve to provide and maintain physical, spiritual andnemotional health among their respective communities. In particular,nthe clown’s focus is emotional and spiritual healing, serving asnoracles, counselors, mediators, storytellers, teachers andntricksters. The best-known manifestations of medicine clown practicenare the Hyokas of such western native people as the Hopi [1]. MedicinenClowns are occasionally referred to as “sacred clowns,” which is a bitnof a misnomer. Unlike post earth based European cultures, almost allnsacred and secular practices; rituals and activities are notnseparated. The Ahanaeenun is a little known tradition, with verynlittle in the way of written records of their existence, survivingnprimarily through oral tradition and lore, with the Ahanaeenunnsurviving principally as storytellers.

n

The Ahanaeenun is a branch of the cultures medicine community, usingnhumor and satire as a means of bring social and spiritual healing tonpeople and the community at large. This practice in particular wasnsuppressed upon the landing of the early European colonists who foundnthe various spiritual practices of the Native people offensive, butnthis one more so, believing that the practitioners were dealing innmagic, therefore making it an evil activity. Although suppressed, thentradition was kept alive in the form of oral history andnfolklore. Among the Wampanoag, storytelling primarily served as anmeans of preserving the ethics and beliefs of the people throughnallegorical tales of animals, people and magical beings, similar tonthe fables of Aesop. This form of storytelling and the tales producednthrough it, often called medicine stories have been a staple innWampanoag culture as long as their have been Wampanoags.

n

The majority of Wampanoag writers and historians who have documentednthe roots and developments of their culture, are of the 20 thnand 21 st Centuries, their information being based on oralnhistory from elders, cross referenced with the documentation of 17nth, 18 th and 19 th Century European writers andnhistorians, whose writings hold traces of the Ahanaeenun’snexistence. To date, many Wampanoag historians have over-looked thentradition simply because they did not know what to look for in termsnof the characteristics and functions of the practice. However, just asnthe language of the Wampanoag was regenerated through the efforts ofnWampanoag linguists and scholars, the Ahanaeenun tradition has beennresearched and regenerated by Wampanoag performing arts historians,nfolklorists and oral historians. Before we examine the tradition andnthe steps taken to preserve it, let us look at the people that itncomes from.

n

According to archeological evidence and oral history, the people ofnthe Wampanoag Nation have occupied eastern New England, from modernnday Revere, Massachusetts to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island for overn12,000 years. Upon the arrival of the so-called Pilgrims, the nationnconsisted of over 40 tribes and bands. At present less then 12norganized bands and tribes remain. During the period of 1830 to 1875,nthe United States of America’s Census Department deemed over 100nNative American Nations and tribes as extinct, believing that sincenthe arrival of the first European settlers, they had effectivelyndestroyed the people and their respective cultures andnpractices. Criteria for deeming a band extinct included:

n

    n

  1. Whether or not the members of the community maintained theirnreligion, language and traditional way of life (which wasnnever clearly defined).
  2. n

  3. The level of clear and obvious intermingling between Native communities and Africans.
  4. n

n

Although Wampanoag people maintained their communities, the practicenof their religion and use of their language was rendered illegal bynthe European colonists and enforced through a myriad of harshnmethods. As a result, the Wampanoag communities had adopted many ofnthe customs and practices of the Europeans. In addition, manynNortheastern tribal communities made it a regular practice of givingnasylum to runaway slaves and indentured servants, dating back to thenfirst arrival of bonded Africans in the region. Hence, the variousncommunities of Wampanoags throughout the territories were not sparednthis administrative genocide. To this day, many government officialsnbelieve that if Native Americans do not live as they did 500 yearsnago, they should be considered extinct.

n

One of the practices among Native people that the Puritans found mostnoffensive was that of the Medicine Clown, whose activities andnpractices were considered demonic. In the writings of Edward Winslownof the Plymouth Colony, particularly his text “The Glorious Progressnof the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England” (1649) we findnreferences to riddlers and tricksters among the Wampanoagnpeople who were portrayed as individuals who got in the way of thencolonists efforts to convert the Wampanoags to Christianity. Under thenstringent rules and regulations of the Puritan’s version ofnChristianity, theater and its related practices were considered annabomination. A lingering example of the puritan attitude is the factnthat Harvard University, to this day, does not offer any form ofntheater arts as a degree-granting major because theater is notnconsidered to be a gentleman’s profession.

n

In exploring the history of the expansion of Christianity as annorganized religion, we find that all earth-based spiritual practicesnhave posed a threat to the churches ambitions for exclusivity onnproviding emotional and spiritual guidance. One of the recurringnrhetorical tools was to demonize the deities, spirits and clergy of angroup’s practice. For example, the horned god of Europe’snpre-Christian pantheon became the image of the devil in the 13nth Century, as did Ellegba, the trickster god of the Yoruba innWest Africa. With this campaign, the spiritual elements of the theaternand clowning were suppressed into simply becoming a form ofnentertainment. With the growth of fundamentalist forms of Christianitynamong the Protestants, theater and clowning were outlawed.

n

With this history it would be only natural that the Puritans would benthreatened by the spiritual practices of Native people. One such tale,nwhich is purported to be a true story, was often told by the latenChief Sly Fox (Vernon Pocknett, Sr.) of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe isn“Weasel Man”. So the tale goes, many Mashpees had gathered in thenmeetinghouse one Sunday to hear the gospel of a white pastor. As thenpastor preached, a weasel ran into the meetinghouse, looking at thenpeople and running all about the meeting. It was not unusual fornanimals to wander into meeting, so nobody saw it as unusual, until thenweasel ran up to the pulpit and stood next to the pastor. The weaselnthen transformed into a man. The man was somebody that was known tonthe Mashpees as a medicine man who lived off by himself in thenwoods. He asked the assembly if their preacher could do that too, thennchanged back into a weasel and scurried out of the meetinghouse. Itnwas said that the pastor quickly changed his sermon to a discussionnabout the demons that exist among us. Some medicine clowns are knownnto be amazing acrobats and contortionists, not unlike the Yogi’s ofnthe Far East. The oral history and lore of the Wampanoag also containsnmany tales of shape shifters and changelings, including the forenmentioned “Weasel Man.”

n

Why should we believe that the Ahanaeenun existed? With very little innthe way of documentation to go by, a small team of Wampanoagnhistorians, both traditional and academic, utilized a combination ofnsociological profiling and oral history to identify theirnclown. First, let us consider the fact that the word exists in thenWampanoag vocabulary. Why would the Wampanoag have a word for a personnif the person did not exist? Second, we have to consider that severalnaspects of community structure bear close similarities across NativenAmerican cultures and communities, for example, clan systems, chiefsnand chief councils, medicine people, elders councils, warriornsocieties, etc. Third, we must also consider that many western andnseveral southern Native American cultures have maintained a form ofnthe medicine clown. Fourth, we must also recognize that some form ofnclowning and/or theater have always existed throughout the world, innall cultures and societies. As a result, the hypothesis became one of:nIt makes sense that the Ahanaeenun exists.

n

Another cross-referencing fact is one of nature: No society can existnand thrive without a release. All living things require a means bynwhich to purge themselves. Theater and clowning have historically beennthe means by which societies have emotionally, and in some casesnspiritually, cleared themselves of issues and tensions. As mentionednbefore, theatre and/or the clown have existed in all societies andncivilizations in one form or another. For example, many West Africanncultures have traditions that are collectively called the griotntradition, whose functions and activities are similar to the generalnfunctions of a clown. According to Metu Neter, by Ra Un Nefer Amen,nthe priests in the temples of Memphis would enter a trance and embodynthe spirits of ancestors and deities and act out tales and events fromnhistory and lore as a healing and guidance ritual for thosenattending. It is believed that this ritual was the basis for Greekntheater. The Japanese have Kabuki and Europeans had the variousntraditions of minstrels, troubadours, jongleurs and jesters who servednsimilar functions to those noted above.

n

From this hypothesis, the team examined the general profile of a clownnas well as the general profile of the medicine clowns in NativenAmerican cultures. The term clown is Anglo-Saxon in origin, andnapplies to a practice among certain members of a community who arentricksters, riddlers, jokers as well as teachers and healers usingntheir antics as a means of bringing and maintaining spiritual andnemotional balance among the members of that community. Clowns arenconsidered the embodiment of super natural beings and spirits whonwould bring blessings or curses to people based on their words and orndeeds. Not unlike the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” thenability to bring emotional relief from intense events, issues andnconflicts is viewed as a sacred activity. The emotional and spiritualnhealing that came from these rituals and performances is similar tonwhat Aristotle referred to as the catharsis in his text ThenPoetics, relating to the purpose and impact of theater in Greeknsociety.

n

As oracles and counselors, community members would consult clowns tonhelp put concerns and issues into perspective. One such activity wouldnbe dream interpretation: the analysis of people’s dreams, as well asntheir own visions, as a means of understanding the present and thenfuture. It was also used as a method of detecting issues that might bendamaging to the persons emotional and spiritual well-being. This isnsimilar to the services provided by clergy and mental healthnprofessionals who counsel those with issues and concerns that arenimpacting their emotional and spiritual well-being.

n

Another principle function of the clown is mediator, providingnassistance in conflict resolution. A clown’s ritual for conflictnresolution is similar to a theater or storytelling performance in thenround, where the community would assemble in the round, particularlynincluding the parties who were having or causing the conflict. Ifnthere is a social conflict in a given community, or between differentncommunities (tribes, nations, etc.) the clowns will bring thencommunity together for a session to address the conflict. Using anforum similar to theater, the clowns will act out the situation ornevents, using humor and satire to ridicule the situation until theynhave everybody laughing about it. Once the laughter has begun, theyncan actually address the conflict directly and guide the communitynand/or parties towards resolving it. This is not unlike the travelingntheater companies in Europe who would venture from village to village,ntown to town often presenting plays and performances that wouldnaddress and often satirize the policies, attitudes, behavior andnactivities of those who ruled and/or administered over the land.

n

Medicine Clowns also provided advising and counsel to sachems (chiefs)nand clan leaders. Ironically, clowns and jesters also providednservices to the rulers of Ancient Europe, using their antics and jokesnto investigate and reveal the acts of enemies and traitors to thenrulers. As storytellers and tricksters, medicine clowns are among thenwise people of the community, capable of memorizing thousands of yearsnof history and hundreds of tales. In many Native American cultures,ntales are the keys to the traditional philosophy and ethics of ancommunity. According to Traces of a Hidden Tradition in Masonrynand Mediaeval Mysticism, by Isabel Cooper-Oakley, it was thentroubadours that preserved hundreds and thousands of years of historynand arcane wisdom in their songs and tales. Likewise is said about thenrole of griots in the book The African Diaspora: African Originsnand New World Identities, edited by Isidore Okpewho, Carole BoycenDavies, and Ali A. Mazrui.

n

According to the lore of various Native American cultures, includingnthe Hopi, Cherokee, Apache, Navajo and Cheyenne people, medicinenclowns were also often viewed as shape-shifters and changelings. Amongnsome medicine clown traditions, clowns did things backwards, such asnwalking, dressing and speech (e.g., saying goodbye, for hello or vicenversa, etc.) the belief being that doing things backwards would helpnto correct problems caused by the deeds of regular people.

n

Some contemporary examples of Hyoka’s activities include: A Hyoka innNew Mexico hosted a sweat lodge (A purification ritual similar to ansteam bath, using hot rocks and water). As the other attendees enterednwearing shorts or loincloths, the Hyoka sat in the lodge wearing heavynwool pants, a winter snorkel coat and a scarf. As the others sat innthe lodge sweating, he sat there huddled up and shivering. At the 2002nSundance Gathering of Nations, a Hyoka attended, but instead ofndressing in traditional Hyoka garb and giving tobacco to the elders,nas tradition dictates, one Hyoka wore a barrel with suspenders andnhanded out candy.

n

In the lore and oral history of the Wampanoag, tales and legends ofntricksters abound, including people and events that are documented innWampanoag history. While not documented in such an official capacitynas Ahanaeenun, their actions and behaviors fit the profile of what annAhanaeenun would do: addressing and resolving conflicts with humor andnsatire, providing counsel to people in need of guidance and serving asnstorytellers. Another common characteristic among those who would benconsidered of the Ahanaeenun is that they are often very intelligentnpeople who are often considered odd and/or peculiar to theirncontemporaries.

n

Some examples would include: The legendary medicine man of thenWampanoag people during the 1920’s and ‘30’s, Robert James seemed ablento communicate with animals and plants. There was also Harold Tobey,nwho on a dare was able to bring a sudden rainstorm to Boston’snGovernment Center in 1973 through prayer. Another legendary medicinenperson of the Wampanoag people is Granny Squanit, is said to havenlived during the 18th Century and was a tiny woman, whose moccasinnprints resembled rabbit foot prints in the dirt. Known for hernadvanced knowledge of herbs and spiritual matters as well as her quickntemper and favor of seclusion, Granny’s legend among the Wampanoagnpeople became one used to scare poorly behaved children, who were toldnthat they would be magically carried off in the night by her. Onenkeeper of the Granny Squanit tales is Joan Avant-Tavares, a MashpeenWampanoag elder and the Beaver Clan mother. A favorite activity ofnMashpee children on Halloween is to walk through the woods in thenNoisy Hole Road area of Mashpee (The location of Granny’s home) wherenthey are greeted by Mrs. Tavares, dressed as Granny.

n

In 2000, under the guidance of the Mashpee Wampanoag Elder’s Council,na handful of Wampanoag storytellers, oral historians, singers andndancers, formed the Wampanoag Medicine Clown Society or then“Ahanaeenunash”. Until this time there has been no known organizationnor order of Medicine Clowns among the Wampanoag. However, afternconducting the research into the practices and existence of clowns innthe community a strong need of an organized effort to preserve andncontinue the tradition was recognized. Of course, with thendocumentation of the tradition (much of which is not available to thengeneral public) also came recognition of the activities, objectivesnand practices of the contemporary Ahanaeenun. Such contemporary issuesnincluded community, lifestyle, and language.

n

In 1870, the Mashpee territory was taken by the commonwealth ofnMassachusetts and incorporated as a town. Up until the mid 1970s,ntribal members ran the town government and it’s variousndepartments. As the fastest growing town in Barnstable County, MashpeenWampanoags now account for less then 15{74eb42cd07fb0b2d77795570daf6b86063b5b3233818fef3fece3facd111407f} of the total townnpopulation. In spite of this, the Mashpees have maintained a communitynwith traditional tribal leadership, including a Satchem, Satchem’sncouncil, elder’s council, clan system and medicine people. ThenMedicine Clown Society, as tradition dictates, is accountable to thenelder’s council. The society consists of about ten principle membersnwho were approved by the elders. The society also has severalnapprentices, selected by the society members and approved by thenelders as well.

n

All contemporary Wampanoag people speak English, with a small numberncurrently studying the Wampanoag language under the instruction ofnWampanoag Linguist, Jessie “Little Doe” Fermino. All members of thenAhanaeenunash are required to study the language, recognizing thatnpreserving the traditional aspects of the practice would require anworking knowledge of the language that the practice existed in. Suchnthings as the principles and rituals of the society for example arenwritten in phonetic Wampanoag and cannot be translated into English.

n

With the influence of European society and culture, the division ofnthe sacred and the secular has worked its way into the world of thenMedicine Clown as well, with their work dividing into publicnactivities and those activities limited to tribal community and closednrituals. Public activities include such things as storytelling andn“clownings.” Clownings are public pranks with a message.

n

Some examples of recent clownings include:

n

    n

  • A group of clowns, dressed in traditional Wampanoag regalia,nentering a supermarket that was built on traditional hunting groundsnand proceeding to hunt for food with bows and arrows (suction cupntips) in the meat, frozen food and canned good sections and claimednthe food under aboriginal hunting rights (All food hunted for wasnpaid for prior to the stunt).
  • n

  • A group of clowns were asked to come to a multicultural festival andnsing “authentic” Wampanoag songs. The group arrived with their drumnand proceeded to sing songs in a Native fashion, but the lyrics werenby Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley. Traditional dances werenalso augmented with break-dance moves. They also stated that thensongs were authentic because all of the singers were on a tribalnroll under the Wampanoag Nation.
  • n

n

With the introduction of technology and the written word, the tools ofnthe Ahanaeenun have also increased. Contemporary Ahanaeenun arenexploring such avenues as the Internet, interactive software, film andnvideo production and the publishing of books and documents as a meansnof conducting their work and developing a self-sustaining mechanismnfor their order’s activities. Ahanaeenun are also actively engaged inndeveloping a form of performance that will incorporate bothntraditional Ahanaeenun styles of storytelling and conventionalntheater. The works produced through these means would in no waynexploit the traditions of the practice, but provide the public withnexamples of the contemporary arts and culture of the Wampanoag.

n

In spite of several hundred years of the impact of European basednAmerican culture, Wampanoag people have succeeded in maintaining theirnculture and traditions, using aspects and tools of the impactingnculture to preserve many traditions and restore others. Although manyntraditions have been suppressed, they have not been completelyndestroyed and there is enough information, through conventionalnacademic means as well as traditional oral histories of the people tonallow those traditions to resurface and thrive. While these traditionsnmust be restored in their historic context, their ability to continuenrequires an understanding of how to put them in context of thencontemporary society and world. In this particular case, we havenexplored how a clown tradition that was suppressed has been restorednand reactivated by members of the community and culture. While thentradition has been altered, due to the impact of other cultures, itnmust be recognized that all cultures and their respective traditionsnhave been altered due to similar contact. Either way among thenoriginal people of Massachusetts, the Ahanaeenun still exist and stillnlabor to maintain the spiritual and emotional well-being of theirncommunity in a modern society.

nMwalim is a Historian of performing arts traditions, folklorist and keeper of the Wampanoag Medicine clown tradition

mailto:mwalim@gmail.com / www.mwalim.com /nwww.myspace.com/mwalim7

n

Reposted from: mwalim2.htm

n

n

n

n

n

n

[1]Everywhere it says “Hyoka”/”Hyokas” I imagine the author means “Heyoka”, andnthey’re not Hopi, they’re Lakhota/Dakhota/Nakhota. The Hopi, do havenclowns though, the Diné (AKA Navajo) do too, and some of their more ‘famous’nclowns the Koshari. They live/are from in the southwest US.

n

n

%d bloggers like this: