Sacred Clowns and Fools

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Sacred Clowns and Fools

Chapter 13 from The Sacred – Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life

By Peggy V. Beck and Anna L. Walters

Koshare taunting Kachina
Here the koshare, or clowns, taunt the kachinas, or “power centers,” in a Hopi ceremony. The people are positioned characteristically around the dance plaza of the pueblo. The ceremony seems to be a Corn Dance. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa.

Innocent and wise; painted in their stripes, their lightning streaks, fantastic masks, or naked from head to toe; the Clowns catch our attention whenever and wherever they appear. They are called heyoka, chifone, koshare, “banana ripener,” kwirana, “blue jay,” and many other names. These are the characters that follow behind the neat rows of dancers, dancing out of step, singing one beat behind. These are thenconfusing individuals, men dressed as women; old men acting young, young acting old. They are lovers, teasing the young women, the tourist ladies taking pictures, the unmarried women or other men. So obscene are their actions at times that the crowd watching them gasps in horror; minutesnlater people from the crowd are giving them food-melons, squash, corn, tortillas, fried bread, and chiles. They are the brave hunters shooting the deer dancers with miniature crooked bows and sticks for arrows, or ”counting coup” to a pot of boiling dog meat; they plunge their arms into the water to grab the meat without getting burnt. They are the serious Clowns of the medicine society maintaining the continuity of fertility, rain, crops, health, and the various orders of Creation. They are the guardians of the ritual, ready with their whips, their yucca plant lashes, ready to catch a child to throw him in the river.

Whenever the Clowns enter the stage of drama in a ritual and wherever they are found in the oral histories, stories, or songs, the Clowns have something in common with each other. A sacred Clown from one tribe would recognize a sacred Clown from another tribe, and, without a word passing between them, they would know who the other one was; what he represented, and what he was placed on earth to do. Clowns and foolish characters are part of the oral tradition of most Native American peoples. When Clowns appear in the Creation histories they often play very important roles during the emergence of The People into this present world. We have already seen how foolish figures like Coyote created death; in other instances, these figures bring light and fire to humans, and give creatures their behavior characteristics and tools for survival. In these early histories of oral tradition we are first introduced to the concepts and the techniques of clowning.

Sacred Clowns often have a special relationship to the sun-almost like sons- particularly in the Southwest of the Continent. Often there is more than one Clown society. In the Rio Grande, for instance, Pueblos divide the Clowns into Summer and Winter Clowns. Sometimes Clowns are associated with the World of Souls or the Land of the Dead and arenguides to individuals whose dreams or visions take them there (as among the Chiricahua Apache), or to the souls of the dead on their way to their final resting place. The most widespread association the Clowns make is with watery places: mist, drizzle, rain, the clouds, storms, streams, water holes, damp places, thunder, and lightning.

Group of Clowns, Zuni.
Group of Clowns, Zuni. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The Clowns are mediators for rain. They bring rain and thus bring fertility to crops, growth and life to The People. In San Juan Pueblo the Clowns usher in the Cloud Beings during the Cloud Dance. In the Hopi dance we will describe later, the Clowns are referred to as “The White Cloud” Clowns and at different points in the two-day dance they are mediators for rain. The “watersprinkler” (To nei nili) of the Navajo Night Chant Way has his origins in the Grey (San Francisco) mountain to the West. His other name is Grey God (Hash ch’el Bahi) and he is associated with rain, for West is the direction of storms and clouds. The “watersprinkler” appears in certain parts of the Night Chant Way, and does not appear in others. Barney Mitchell, speaking of the dramatic role of the “watersprinkler” remarked, “Having a ‘watersprinkler’ in the ceremony means you will have a hard winter, and therefore, one Singer from the Tsaile area does not use the ’watersprinkler’ in part of the Night Chant ceremony.” Another Navajo sacred Clown is “mud clown” (Chaazhini); the “mud clowns” are found in the Enemy Way ceremony (Squaw Dance). The Enemy Way ceremony has a “rain ceremony” within it. The ones who help with this are the “mud clowns.” Sometimes, similar to the ”watersprinkler,” if there has been a lot of rain, the “mud clowns” do not appear. Otherwise, they do and they help attract rain.

The Sioux heyoka receives his powers from the Thunderbeings, or wakinyan. Lame Deer describes in detail the Thunderbeings and the sacred power of lightning and helps us understand why sacred Clowns might be associated with these powers:

A clown get his strange powers from the wakinyan, the sacred flying-ones, the thunderbirds. Let me tell you about them. We believe that at the beginning of all things, when the earth was young, the thunderbirds were giants. They dug out the riverbeds so that the streams could flow. They ruled over the waters; they fought with unktegila, the great water monster. It had red hair all over,none eye, and one horn in the middle of its forehead. It had a backbone like a saw. Those who saw it went blind for one day. On the next day they went witko, crazy, and on the third day, they died. You can find the bones of unktegila in the Badlands mixed with the remains of petrified sea shells and turtles. Whatever else you may think you know that all this land around here was once a vast ocean, that everything started with the waters.

When the thunderbeings lived on earth they had no wings, and it rained without thunder. When they died their spirits went up into the clouds. They turned into winged creatures, like wakinyan. Their earthly bodies turned into stones, like those of the sea monster unktegila. Their remains, too, are scattered throughout the Badlands. There you also find many kangi fame-bolts of lightning which have turned into black stones shaped like spear points.

High above the clouds, at the end of the world where the sun goes down, is the mountain where the wakinyan dwell. Four paths lead into that mountain. A butterfly guards the entrance at the east, a bear guards the west, a deer the north, and a beaver the south. The thunderbirds have a gigantic nest made up of dry bones. In it rests the great egg from which the little thunderbirds are hatched. This egg is huge, bigger than all of South Dakota.

There are four large, old thunderbirds. The great wakinyan of the west is the first and foremost among them. He is clothed in clouds. His body has no form, but he has huge, four-jointed wings. He has no feet, but he has claws, enormous claws. He has no head, but he has a huge beak with rows of sharp teeth. His color is black. The second thunderbird is red. He has wings with eight joints. The third thunderbird is yellow. The fourth thunderbird is blue. This one has neither eyes nor ears.

When I try to describe the thunderbirds I can’t really do it. A face without features, a shape without form, claws without feet, eyes that are not eyes. From time to time one of our ancient holy men got a glimpse of these beings in a vision, but only a part of them. No man ever saw the whole, even in his dreams. Who knows what the great thunderbeings look like? Do you know what God looks like? All we know is what the old ones told us, what our own visions tell us.

These thunderbirds, they are wakan oyafe-the spirit nation. They are not like living beings. You might call them enormous gods. When they open their mouths they talk thunder, and all the little thunderbirds repeat it after them. That’s why you first hear the big thunder clap being followed by all those smaller rumblings. When the wakinyan open their eyes the lightning shoots out from there, even in the case of the thunderbird with no eyes. He has half-moons there instead of eyes, and still the lightning is coming out.

These thunderbirds are part of the Great Spirit. Theirs is about the greatest power in the whole universe. It is the power of the hot and the cold clashing way above the clouds. It is lightning-blue lightning from the sun. It is like a colossal welding, like the making of another sun. It is like atomic power. The thunder power protects and destroys. It is good and bad, as God is good and bad, as nature is good and bad, as you and I are good and bad. It is the great winged power. When we draw the lightning we depict it like this,

as a zigzag line with a forked end. It has tufted feathers at the tips of the fork to denote the winged power. We believe that lightning branches out into a good and a bad part.

The good part is the light. It comes from the Great Spirit. It contains the first spark to illuminate the earth when there was nothing-no light, just darkness. And the Great Spirit, the Light God, made this light. Sometimes you see lightning coming down in just one streak with no fork at the end. This light blesses. It brightens up the earth; it makes a light in your mind. It gives us visions. This lightning is still another link from the sky to the earth, like the stem and the smoke of our sacred pipe. That light gave the people their first sound, the first word, maybe.

The lightning power is awesome, fearful. We are afraid of its destructive aspect. That lightning from the south spells danger. It heads against the wind. If it collides with another lightning- that’s like a worldwide car smash-up. That kills you. A lawyer, a judge, or preacher can’t help you there. That flash from the south, that’s tonwan, the thunderbolt-the arrow of a god. Sometimes it hits a horse. You see all the veins burn up, like an x-ray. Afterward you find one of these black stones embedded in the earth where the lightning struck. The old people used to say that the damage caused by the lightning was done by the young, inexperienced thunderbirds. They did all the mischief. They were like pranksters, clowns. The old thunderbirds were wise. They never killed anybody (Lame Deer, 1972:238-241)

Black Elk says it more simply and also gives us a feeling for the ”balancing” role of the sacred Clown-the relief the Clown provides us with his pranks and mischief. Black Elk explains it this way:

I will say something about heyokas and the heyoka ceremony, which seems to be very foolish, but is not so. Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world,nit is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm. (Black Elk, 1932:192)

The following origin stories give us a glimpse of the important roles sacred Clowns play in the creation and emergence of The People. In these stories we also see other elements and powers with which the sacred Clown is associated, for instance, the Sun Father (Acoma). The two stories have certain things in common since the two tribes from which they come, Zia Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo, are related linguistically and culturally. For example, the creative powers are a parent and two daughters. The koshare and kwiraina, different kinds of Clowns, are also found in both tribes.

The first story from Zia Pueblo describes the principle roles koshare and kwiraina play in the emergence of The People into the second and third worlds- the Blue-green world and the Red world.

The two daughters, Utetsiti and Naotsiti created the medicine society, various other societies, Kachinas, and many different animals:

They lived in the Yellow world for 4 years. Then it was time for the people to ascend to the upper world. They wondered how they would go up. Early in the fourth morning Tsityostinako, Utetsiti, and Naotsiti got together. They created a ha’a’kak (Douglas spruce) seed and planted it. It sprouted at once and grew rapidly. By sunup it was 4 feet high. They sang songs to make it grow faster. By mid-morning the top of the tree was out of sight. By noontime the tree had reached the next world. They told Koshairi to make the tree firm and strong. He climbed the tree, doing funny things, shaking the branches as he went up. He was painted then as he is nowadays. When he reached the top he saw the Blue-green world. But all there was there on the land was henati (clouds) and heyac (fog). Koshari came down and told the yayas (mothers; what he had seen. He told them the tree was now ready and strong.

They started to ascend. Koshairi went first. Then came the three mothers and all of the societies and the people in the order in which they had been created. It took only a short time for everyone to get to the Blue-green earth.

They stayed in the Blue-green land for 4 years. The people were fed miraculously by Utetsiti and Naotsiti. Then a (unidentified) tree seed was created and planted. It grew up to the Red world. Kwiraina was sent to try out the tree. He acted funny as he climbed up the tree. He got to the Red world. He thought it was nice. He said to himself: “This is the place my mother sent me to see, so I am making the tree firm.” Then he came down and told Utetsiti what he had seen. She thanked him. Then everyone ascended to the Red world, with Kwiraina leading the way. (White, BBAE 184:116-117)

The following story from Acoma describes specifically the creation of the sacred Clown koshare. He began as a mysterious object in the basket of Latiku, one of the sisters who helped create all the beings on the Earth:

Latiku had three more things in her basket. She knew that there were two eggs, parrot, and crow, but the third thing she did not know, so she decided to bring it to life, and see what it was. So she said,n”Come alive! Let us see what you are like.” And at her words it came alive. It said “Why have I come alive: Am I wanted?” Latiku said, ”Do not ask. You will be useful.” It came to life in the form of a human (male). Koshari was kind of crazy; he was active, picking around, talking nonsense, talking backward, etc. Latiku did not think much of him, so she sent him to the Oak Man to see if he would be of any use there. So Koshari went, saying, “I know everything. ”Sure I’ll go and I’ll do everything for him, I’ll be a big help.” (This is said though he was just born and had no experience.)

Koshari rushed to the pueblo, climbing the wall to get in, asking everyone where the altar of the Oak Man was. He spoke very loudly around the altar, even though it was supposed to be very quiet there. After he had finally bumped into Country Chief, who was guarding the altar, Koshari asked, “Where is the Mauharo Kai’ye (kiva of the medicine man)?” He tried to go in directly, so Country Chief caught him. “But,” he protested, “I have been sent here. I am allowed everywhere by Latiku.” So Country Chief let him go, saying, ”Well, he may be of some use.” So Koshari yelled into the kiva, “I’mn oming down,” and without awaiting response or permission, he went down. As soon as he reached the bottom he said, “I came here as your partner.” I have been sent to help you. I can do anything.” The Oak Man was glad to have someone help him. But Koshari waited for nothing but went right to work and placed the different objects in front of the altar, saying, “Let me do it! I can do it.” So Oak Man did not keep him from doing anything. He caused Oak Man a lot of amusement, in his heretofore solitary life, with his garbled speech and wisecracking and his self-confidence. (Stirling, BBAE 135:33)

Then later on, after koshare had been initiated into the knowledge and practices of the chayani medicine society he was sent away, to the Sun.

Latiku turned to Koshari and said, “You have done your work faithfully but you are not acting normally enough to be here with the people.” He was different from the other people because he knew something about himself, so Latiku told him to go and live at ha-kuai’ch (the house of the Sun). “You are to be a help to the Sun. You will be called at times to help here. You are not going to be afraid of anything or to regard anything as sacred. You are to be allowed everywhere.” So Latiku painted him white with black stripes around his body and said, “This is your costume.”

She took some of the things from the altar and gave them to Kosharinsaying, “You will use these.” He thanked her but said, “I can makenmore to it and get what I want.” So he went and lives today with thenSun, whom he helps. (Stirling, BBAE 135:37)

And in one version of the Zuni histories concerning the origin of the sacred Clown societies newekwe and koymemsi the Kok’ho who is the overseer of the newekwe society, a Holy Being, was talking to Bi’tsitsi, the first Clown, who was telling him about some of his clowning implements. Kok’ho is pleased and says to Bi’tsitsi, “That is well, that is well! Come and live with me and you shall be musician and jester to the Sun Father.” (Stevenson, 1904:430)

Koshare before a dance
nThe Koshare before a dance, Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. (Courtesy of Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation)n


The sacred Clowns of North American tribal people are direct evidence that the sacred ways of tribal people are not inflexible, self-important and without humor. As we have seen throughout this textbook most sacred teachings and practices contain humor: the stories of Trickster heroes such as Coyote, Rabbit, and Raven; the curing songs of the Pima Shaman; and the admonitions to “have fun” and “enjoy yourself” during the dances, by the Elders. One of the unique features of Native American sacred ways is the important place of humor and laughter in this aspect of the Peoples’ lives.

Sacred Clowns portray and symbolize all the aspects of the sacred that we have discussed, chapter by chapter throughout this book. But they do so in a special way, a way in which their teachings get through to us without our even “thinking about” them. The Clowns in their actions do not seem to care about “concepts.” They are not concerned with definitions, but at the same time Clowns do define the concepts at the root of tribal cosmologies, the guidelines for moral and ethical behavior, and the theories of balance and imbalance.

In Chapter Three: Learning The Way: Traditional Education, we heard a number of individuals say that to learn you should not “ask why.” By asking “Why” you limit your chances of experiencing sacred knowledge. Another reason people say you should not “ask why,” is that the subject being asked may be too dangerous. Without proper instruction beforehand the person asking “why” might be harmed. In Native American communities the Clowns are the ones that “ask why.” They are often the only ones that may “ask why” in reference to dangerous objects, or “ask why” of those people who are specialists in advanced sacred knowledge. They ask in their backwards language, through their satire, and their fooling around, the questions we would like to ask. They say the things we might be afraid to say to those we might be afraid to speak to. Even though they may not or cannot conceptualize their knowledge, the answers to our questions-the truths, the philosophy, and the wisdom-comes through to us.

Jokes, puns, satire-these different forms of humor are important teaching tools. In general, with Clowns, we, the audience, have to “read between the lines” to understand their dramatic message. By making us read between the lines, the Clowns make us think about things we do not usually think about in ways we do not usually think; or look at things in a way we do not usually look. That is what jokes do to people in conversations.

A Joke takes your thoughts, ties them in a knot and then, at the punch line, the joker takes the two ends, pulls them, and the knot is untied. Many times we might even feel as though we had been part of the joke all along just by listening to it from beginning to end. The sacred Clowns do the same thing. They teach by not teaching; they make us see by stumbling around; they make us laugh by frightening us; and they can take the heart of sacred knowledge and ridicule it before our eyes.

In terms of portraying and symbolizing other concepts that we have been discussing throughout this textbook, the Clowns’ role is an important one.

In Chapter Four, we discussed the boundaries of the world. Such boundaries are often symbolized in rituals, in the sacred pipe ceremony, for example, or in San Juan Pueblo by the directions from which the Holy Beings enter the Plaza where the drama and dances are held. In most Native American ceremonies, boundaries and directions are usually strictly observed in dancers’ movements, the movements of the characters in the drama, and the manner in which lodges, tipis, hogans, and other ritual structures are placed and entered.

Clowns often turn these directions inside out and backwards. Instead of moving clockwise they move counterclockwise. Instead of using the right hand, they use the left. The Clowns may also enter realms where ordinary people are not allowed to go or would be afraid to go, for instance, into the symbolized worlds of the Holy People. In this way the Clowns portray the limits and boundaries of the world by going beyond them, acting in a non-ordinary way while doing so, and in this way they contrast their own contrary behavior with the orderly ritual directions and sacred worlds.

Fundamentally, the sacred Clowns portray the Path of Life with all of its pitfalls, sorrows, laughter, mystery, and playful obscenity. They dramatize the powerful relationships of love, the possibility of catastrophe; the sorrow of separation and death; the emerging consciousness of human beings entering into life-into this world as ordinary beings with non-ordinary potential. They show the dark side; they show the light side; they show us that life is hard; and they show us how we can make it easier. If death takes everything away when it robs an individual of life, then the Clowns must be able to combat death in mock battle and wrestle life back again. Just as the Baffin Bay People say that “evil will shun a place where people are happy,” so do the Clowns; they hold the fourth enemy away from our thoughts by making us laugh. And if catastrophe is always just around the corner, the Clowns must prepare us for the worst by portraying it…and then. . .stabilize everything in the end of the drama. If we are there watching the Clowns, if we are perhaps the subject of the Clowns’ ridicule and teasing, we will learn. Because the Clowns are just reflecting what could happen to any of us, at any time of day or year, at every turn along the Road of Life.

And last, where there are still sacred Clowns in tribal societies, they have been able to integrate modern-day elements into aboriginal rituals. This, of course, makes their dramas effective from year to year, whereas, in many instances, ceremonial dramas and healing rituals have lost their meaning for young people. Symbolic dramas, rituals, and ceremonials often lose their effectiveness in the lives of The People without the leadership of specialists and without educating the young people In their rules and symbols year after year. The Clowns, since their message is basic to every human being in every society, (and has been for thousands of years) can usually manage to reflect the problems and jokes of today as well as of the past. An example of this is the weekly cartoon in the Hopi newspaper Qua’toqti, published at New Oraibi, which features the striped Hopi Clowns in an editorial page cartoon of contemporary significance.

Lame Deer, a Sioux man who has narrated his autobiography, summed up the most important role of the Clown, in this case the Sioux heyoka, when he said:

For people who are as poor as us, who have lost everything, who had to endure so much death and sadness, laughter is a precious gift. When we were dying like flies from the white man’s diseases, when we were driven into the reservations, when the Government rations did not arrive and we were starving, at such times watching the pranks of a heyoka must have been a blessing. (Lame Deer, 1972:237)


He was different from the other people because he knew something about himself. [1]

Kwakiutl Noo'nlemala, or 'fool dancers'
The Kwakiutl Noo’nlemala or “fool dancers.” Franz Boas, 1895. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives)

The most obvious characteristic of sacred Clowns is that they are full of contradictions. One of the contradictory qualities people use to describe sacred Clowns is their mixture of innocence and wisdom. On the one hand they act foolishly, apparently without any thought, without any conscience; and, on the other hand, the creation histories say that the Clowns speak like “wise priests,” speaking the truth, speaking prophecies.

Children, too, are considered innocent. To grow older is to grow wiser. Often the rituals that mark a person’s growth reflect this learning process from being empty of wisdom as a child to becoming filled with experience and knowledge as one grows older. A young man strips naked and fasts in the wilderness for a vision or power dream. He cries like a baby with the pain and the loneliness, and if he is fortunate, a vision comes to him. Then afterward he is cleansed, given a new name perhaps, and allowed many new privileges that only an initiated man can have. During the Zuni ceremonies in the 1930’s the koyemsi Clowns stripped naked, and one individual was recorded as explaining, “It is alright for the koyemsi to take off their covering, because they are just like children.” They are like children sometimes and other times they display a knowledge far beyond that of childhood. They have knowledge of sexual relationships, the specialized knowledge of rituals, and about the inner workings of human nature and human society.

For example, the Acoma koshare are members of the Acoma Medicine Society along with the society’s specialists, the Chaianyi, some of the most powerful individuals in the tribe. In the origin story of the koshare when the koshare group was first given its privileges and duties, “the Chaianyi told the koshare they were to know no sadness and were to know no pain even if hurt. They were to know no sickness.” (Stirling, 135th:65) On the one hand they were joining the powerful medicine society and, on the other hand, they were innocent of pain, sickness, and sadness. The “Water Sprinkler” or To’nei nili of the Navajo who is the Clown in the Night Chant, “Has no knowledge of love and no knowledge of being serious.”

To know love and to have love break your heart is to know sadness and pain. To know sickness is to know the fear of death. For a Clown to bring laughter he/she must be innocent of these things, and it is the Clowns’ duty to not only make people aware of the origin of their pain and their sorrow, but also to relieve them of the thought of it. In order to combat the pain of heartbreak and sickness, in order to take away seriousness, the Clown must know about them but he must not let them touch him. This is why the Clown is both wise with ancient knowledge and innocent of its pain. In the Creation histories the Clown emerges with the knowledge of things, and in the rituals of today the Clown acts innocently of them. Lame Deer, speaking again of the heyoka tells us that “Being a Clown brings you honor, but also shame. It gives you power, but you have to pay for it.”

Hopi 'pointed' clowns next to a line of dancers in the 'Long Hair' dance.
Hopi “pointed” clowns next to a line of dancers in the “Long Hair” dance. (Courtesy of Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation) Emory Kopta, 1912.

It seems that in dreams we can imagine many things that in ordinary life could not happen, for one, because it would create mass confusion-at least that is what people say. One can imagine if everyone acted like Clowns non-stop every day of the year, order and growth could not be maintained. In dreams, in our non-conscious, non-mindful behavior, we sometimes behave like Clowns. At the beginning of this section we heard that koshare was described as “different from the other people because he knew something about himself.” He knew something we do not ordinarily think or ask about-sacred things perhaps, dangerous things, shameful things. Of course, during the course of one’s life, one asks about troubling problems, dreams, experiences, and it is good to know that there are specialists around who can help answer questions. Clowns also act as instructors and counselors in their dramas about matters of sex, love, death, pride, shame, selfishness, and many other powerful feelings. In the emergence and creation stories and in other parts of oral tradition are found the origin of the Clowns’ particular wisdom.

The following story [2] tells the origin of the Zuni koyemsi clowns. It is from the Zuni emergence history at the time The People were searching for The Center or The Middle, as the right place to begin their lives as The Zuni. This particular segment begins when the leader of The People (who were Holy People in that period) chose one of his own sons to go and seek “the middle”-the final resting place of the Zuni People…

The father chose his oldest son, for he was wise, but the son, after setting out did not return. The father and the people were worried, so he sent the second eldest son and he left and did not return. Then he sent his third oldest son and the same thing happened. Finally the father decided to send his youngest son who was a handsome young man, and his daughter who was a beautiful young woman.

They journeyed far and late in the day they saw a mountains before them. The brother spoke, “Let us hurry my sister because you are tired from traveling. We will rest in the shade of that mountain over there. I will build you a shelter of cedar and hunt for small game for our food, and you shall rest happily my sister.” He spoke gently to her because he loved her and her beauty. And so they hurried, and when they reached the mountain, the brother built a shelter of cedar branches under the shade of a tree. Then he went out to hunt for some game. When he returned, his sister was sleeping in the shelter. He came in and sat down gazing at her for a long time with his chin in his hand. The wind was blowing gently through the shelter, lifting slightly now and then her light clothes. Her brother became filled with desire and when he could no longer contain his feelings, he slept with her. He lay with her and made love with her without thinking of the consequences of his act. When his sister woke up and realized what had happened she fled from him, afraid. And as she fled her fear turned to shame, and then to anger. She came back to where he was shouting furiously at him for what he had done. And as she scolded him her eyes grew large and glaring and her face spotted and pale. And as he listened and watched her, he grew dazed and stood senseless before her, his head bowed, his eyes red and swollen, his forehead bent and burning.

“You shameless man,” she cried, “You shall never return to your people, never, and neither will I. With my power I will make a deep river dividing this mountain. Alone on one side I will live, and alone on the other you shall live. I will draw a line and make the water swift between us and between our people!” She stomped with her sandle as she spoke and the sound echoed through the mountain. Then she ran down to the westward end of the mountain and drew her foot along the sands from south to north making a gully as she went. And her brother, seeing her run away, ran after her, calling hoarsely. But, as he neared her he stopped and stared. Then he grew crazy again-this time in fright and anguish at her anger and the way her face was becoming changed and distorted. As she turned again away from him he lifted his arms high and beat his head and temples and tore away his hair and clothes and clutched his mouth and eyes wildly, until great welts and knobs stood out on his head. His eyes puffed up, and his lips blubbered and puckered. Tears and sweat and wet blood drenched him and he rolled in the dust until he was coated with the color of the earth from that place. And when he staggered to his feet, the soil stuck to him and his ugliness hardened.

The sister stared in wild terror at him and she too was filled with sorrow and grief and ran around shrieking in despair -so much so that her hair turned white. And so she cried, and sometimes she pitied him and yearned for him with love, and sometimes they laughed at one another’s ugliness, other times in love. When he laughed she laughed too; and when he was silent and bowed she cried and called to him. From then on it was like that with them. They talked loudly to each other; they laughed or they cried. Sometimes they were like silly children playing on the ground; then suddenly they were wise as priests and high beings and preached as parents to children and leaders to people. And as the water in the river grew deeper and swifter they ran away together, away from their people. They lived in caves forgetting the faces of human beings and not thinking about their own ugly condition.

In time there were born to these two, twelve children. They were neither man-children or woman-children, but both mixed together. The first three were girls, the rest were boys. They were big boys and earth-colored like their father. They were silly yet wise as the gods and high priests. Because fools and mad people speak from the things seen in the instant, uttering wise words and prophecy, so they spoke that way and became the wise people and interpreters, attendants, and guides of the ancient dance dramas of the Kachinas.

[These nine boys] had names but they were not ordinary names-they were instead “names of mismeaning,” or contrary names.

First, Priest Speaker of the Sun. He meditates in the middle of the day and does not say much at all. When he does speak it is something without sense or without use.

Second, Bow Priest Warrior. He is a coward, so much that he dodges behind ladders thinking that they are trees and stays back after the others, frightened at the smallest leaf or spider-and looks in every direction but the straight one whenever danger threatens.

Third, The Bat. Who can see better in the sunlight than any of them but would injure himself in a shadow and will avoid a hole in the ground even if it were the size of a beetle hole.

Fourth, Wearer of the Eyelets of Invisibility. He has horns like the catfish and is knobbed like a squash. He never disappears even when he hides his head behind a ladder rung or turkey quill-though he thinks he is out of sight then.

Fifth, The Pouter, who does nothing but laugh.

Sixth, his younger brother, Aged Buck, who is the biggest of them all. He looks as ancient as a horned toad, but is as frisky as a fawn and giggles and cries like a small boy playing games.

Seventh, The Glum One.

Eighth, Suckling.

Ninth, Old Youth, the youngest and most willfully important of the nine. Always advising others and strutting like a young priest in his first dance or like a youthful warrior who has gone sour with self-importance.

And while their father stands dazed with his head bowed and his hands clasped before him, like broken bows hanging by his sides, these children romp and play (as he and his sister did when they turned childish). And their children are like idiots and crones turned young again, laughing, startled to a new thought by every flitting thing around them. But in the Presence of the Old Ones and serious Kachinas they are themselves more serious. And they are like oracles of all the sacred “sayings” of deep meanings; and so they are called koyemsi, husbandmen of the ko’ko or sacred drama-dance. And they are spoken of as the Wisemen of the Ancients.

That is the story of one group of sacred fools who knew shame, came to “know themselves” and through this knew wisdom. Today these same characters appear in Zuni dance dramas.

Another group of Clowns found among the Sioux also derive their power and wisdom from an experience of shame. Unlike the koyemsi, the Sioux heyoka originates at least part of his/her characteristics from an individual vision or dream uniquely his/her own, and not recorded in oral tradition. Similar to the koyemsi and other sacred Clowns, however, the relationship of sacred Clowns to thunder, lightning, rain-water in general-is made explicit with the heyoka. (Some say that the koyemsi Clowns of the Zuni derive their “knobby” appearance from the association of those knobs with certain stones found in the area through which the original Zuni wandered on their way to The Middle or The Center. These stones are associated with rain, torrents, and high mesa watery places.)

Zuñi Koyemsi clowns
nZuni Koyemsi clowns. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives)

With the Sioux, the concept of shame is tied to a fear and respect for the wakinyan or thunder beings. The heyoka has to “pay for his power” by being threatened with punishment by the thunderbeings if he/she does not follow the rules of becoming a heyoka. For example, Lame Deer tells us:

A clown in our language is called a heyoka. He is upsidedown, backward- forward, yes-and-no man, a contrary-wise. Everybody can be made into a clown, from one day to another, whether he likes it or not. It is very simple to become a heyoka. All you have to do is dream about the lightning, the thunderbirds. You do this, and when you wake up in the morning you are a heyoka. There is nothing you can do about it.

If the thunder-beings want to put their power on the earth, among the people, they send a dream to a man, a vision about thunder and lightning. By this dream they appoint him to work his power for them in a human way. This is what makes him a heyoka. He doesn’t even have to see the actual lightning, or hear the thunder in his dream. If he dreams about a certain kind of horse coming towards him, about certain riders with grass in their hair or in their belts, he knows this comes from the wakinyan. Every dream which has some symbol of the thunder powers in it will make you into a heyoka.

Suppose you have such a dream. What happens then? It is very unpleasant to talk about. What I mean is that a man who has dreamed about the thunderbirds, right away, the next morning, he’s got a fear in him, a fear to perform his act. He has to act out his dream in public.

If I had a heyoka dream now which I would have to re-enact, the thunder- being would place something in that dream that I’d be ashamed of. Ashamed to do in public, ashamed to own up to. Something that’s going to want me not to perform this act. And that is what’s going to torment me. Having had that dream, getting up in the morning, at once I would hear this noise in the ground, just under my feet, that rumble of thunder. I’d know that before the day ends that thunder will come through and hit me, unless I perform the dream. I’m scared; I hide in the cellar; I cry; I ask for help, but there is no remedy until I have performed this act. Only this can free me. Maybe by doing it, I’ll receive some power, but most people would just as soon forget about it.

The wise old people know that the clowns are thunder-dreamers, that the thunder-beings commanded them to act in a silly way, each heyoka according to his dream. They also know that a heyoka protects the people from lightning and storms and that his capers, which make people laugh, are holy. Laughter-that is something very sacred, especially for us Indians. (Lame Deer, 1972:236, 241-242, 237)

A painting done by Rain-in-the-face
A painting done by Rain-in-the-face, a Hunkpapa Sioux man from the Standin nRock Reservation. In a dream, the lightning tells him that, unless he gives a buffalo feast, the lightning will kill him. He gives the feast, one part of which consists of filling a kettle with hot buffalo tongues and eating some in order to save his life. (Courtesy of Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation)

This power that the heyoka receives in his/her vision has to be cleaned of its wildness, its unharnessed force. This is done in a cleaning ceremony. Black Elk, the Oglala man of knowledge, had a series of important visions from the time he was young. In these visions he was taught sacred knowledge which was to eventually prepare him to be a sacred practitioner among his people. One of his last visions was a heyoka vision. He tells us that after he came back from his lonely vision quest:

We brought the sacred pipe back home and I went into the sweat lodge after offering the pipe to the Six Powers. When I was purified again, some very old men who were good and wise asked me to tell them what I had heard and seen. So, after offering and smoking the sacred pipe again, I told it all to them, and they said that I must perform the dog vision on earth to help the people, and because the people were discouraged and sad, I should do this with heyokas, who are sacred fools, doing everything wrong or backwards to make the people laugh. They said they did not know but I would be a great man, because not many men were called to see such visions. I must wait twenty days, they said, and then perform my duty. So I waited. (Black Elk, 1932:191)

He was then counseled by the old men to have a cleansing ceremony. To prepare for the ceremony he and his heyoka helpers had to kill a dog and put it to boil in a big kettle. Every person in camp was called to join in the ceremony around the area where the stew was cooking. Lame Deer with his version of a “dog” ceremony, goes on to explain:

Well, the heyokas dance around that steaming kettle, sing and act contrary. If the dreamer says, “A good day tomorrow,” well, it will be a hell of a day next day. And if he says, “Tomorrow will be a bad day, thunderstorms from morning to night,” why, you can leave your umbrella at home. You won’t need it, because it will be beautiful. And if the heyoka sees a sick person and says, “He’s going to die,” that sick person will be all smiles because he knows he’s going to live. But, if the heyoka says, “You are going to get well,” the poor thing, he might as well start writing his will. (Lame Deer, 1972, 244)

Black Elk adds from his own experience:

During all this time, thirty heyokas, one for each day of a moon, were doing foolish tricks among the people to make them feel jolly. They were all dressed and painted in such funny ways that everybody who saw them had to laugh. One Side and I were fellow clowns. We had our bodies painted red all over and streaked with black lightning. The right sides of our heads were shaved, and the hair on left side was left hanging long. This looked very funny, but it had a meaning, for when we looked toward where you are always facing (the south) the bare sides of our heads were toward the west, which showed that we were humble before the thunder beings who had given us power. Each of us carried a very long bow, so long that nobody could use it, and it was very crooked too. The arrows that we carried were very long and very crooked so that it looked crazy to have them. We were riding sorrels with streaks of black lightning all over them, for we were to represent the two men of my dog vision. (Black Elk, 1932:194-195)

The climax of the ceremony is when the heyokas dance around the kettle and prepare to take out the dog meat. At this time the heyokas are doctors since the meat is sacred now through the prayers and songs that have been sung, and they can strengthen people by feeding it to them. Lame Deer describes this scene:

The fourth time around the heyoka runs up to the bucket and at the precise moment plunges his whole bare arm into that boiling water, searches around in there and comes up with the head, holding it up to the four winds. He will run with it, and he is guided in this by the spirit, by what he has dreamed, to whom to give this dog’s head. He will give it to a certain sick man or woman. That person will be scalded. He will quickly throw it to another man, and he will get burned, and he will throw it to the one next to him and so on. Five or six people will throw that head, because it is too hot for them to hold. And this comes from the thunder power; it is not a cheap, magic trick.

After this the other heyokas charge that bucket, put their arms in
and get the rest of the meat out. They don’t care how hot it is.
They give this meat to the poor and the sick. Their dreams told them
whom to give it to. That’s a good medicine and a hundred times
better than all your pills and antibiotics or whatever you call
them, because it cures all their sicknesses right there, during the
ceremony. This happens every year and I have witnessed it many

What is it that makes a heyoka not get scalded? You can go up to him
and examine his hands and arms. There’s not a blister on him. It
wouldn’t even show color as when you dip your hand in really hot
water and it gets red. It’s not even pink. There is a special herb
that I know of, a kind of grayish moss, the root of it, called
heyoka tapejuta. When you chew that and smear your arms with it the
boiling water won’t burn you. But you have to be a heyoka for that
herb to do you any good. A man who isn’t a heyoka could never stand
that boiling water. He’d have no arm… (Lame Deer, 1972: 245)

The combination of the vision, the acting out of the dream, and the
final cleansing ceremony are good examples of where shame becomes
transformed into wisdom by a person coming to “know himself.” The
individual who becomes a heyoka begins in innocence like a child. He
learns shame, and then transforms it into power-both by using the gift
of making people laugh which is a powerful gift, and by acting out the
deeply hidden emotions of human beings- the emotions that make up the
Path of Life itself. Black Elk summarizes the heyoka cleansing ceremony
by saying:

In the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, it is planned that
the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it
may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that
the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with
suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing
and weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing
face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too
sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to
see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony is for. (Black
Elk, 1932:192-193)

In Chapter One, Part II, we discussed basic ways of “thinking about” the
sacred, concepts at the root of the sacred. We also heard many people
comment on the fact that the sacred was part of everyday life. These
sacred concepts were, aboriginally, important to The People because they
aided or prevented the survival of a community. Clowns are directly
involved in the educational process; that of dramatizing relationships
basic to ecology and the continuity of the society and the life of each
individual. Such relationships would include, for example:


Of these and other relationships, food, reproduction, health, sharing,
and language are very important. Every child must learn the concepts at
the root of the sacred to fully participate in the sacred life of the
tribe-not specialized knowledge, but the basic balances of life. The
Clowns, as we said earlier, teach the children and remind the adults
about these survival tools. As we said, they teach backwards, through
nonsense, jokes and threats.

The language the Clowns use is backwards contrary speech. For example,
Lame Deer describes the action of a heyoka after he has had his
“shameful” dream and must act it out in public. Since our actions in
dreams are often confusing, backwards, without a sense of time, the
actions of the heyoka are also like this. Lame Deer explains:

A heyoka does strange things. He says “yes” when he means “no.” He
rides his horse backward. He wears his moccasins or boots the wrong
way. When he’s coming, he’s really going. When it’s real hot, during
a heat wave, a heyoka will shiver with cold, put his mittens on and
cover himself with blankets. He’ll build a big fire and complain
that he is freezing to death. In the wintertime, during a blizzard,
when the temperature drops down to 40 degrees below, the heyoka will
be in a sticky sweat. It’s too hot for him. He’s putting on a
bathing suit and says he’s going for a swim to cool off. My grandma
told me about one clown who used to wander around naked for hours in
subzero weather, wearing only his breechcloth, complaining all the
time about the heat. They called him Heyoka Osni-the cold fool.
Another clown was called the straighten-outener. He was always
running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy
things, making them straight, things like soup dishes, eggs, balls,
rings or cartwheels. (Lame Deer, 1972:237)

Newekwe clowns at Zuñi
Newekwe Clowns at Zuni, New Mexico. M. C. Stevenson, 1898. (Courtesy of Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation)

Among the Zuni, it has been recorded that the Clowns imitate
Satataca, the Bow Priest, in his Night Chant prayer (see end of
Chapter Two)-they make obscene remarks in place of the original
lines, for example:

Now that those who hold our roads, night priests, have come out
standing to their sacred place, we have passed you on your roads.
Our daylight fathers; our daylight mothers, after so many days,
eight days, on the ninth day you will copulate with rams. (Bunzel,
47th ARBAE:952)

One man from Acoma remarked that perhaps the Clowns speak their contrary
language to remind us of the precious gift language really is for us;
without it we could not communicate abstract ideas, compose curing
songs, pass on oral tradition and, of course, many other essential

Other ritual Clowns perform in a similar way, for example, the “Blue
Jay” Clown from the Plateau tribes (Sanpoiel, Gros Ventres, Spokane).
Running around the lodge acting like Blue Jays, perching now and then on
the rafter beams, shooting miniature arrows from miniature bows, the
“Blue Jays” hoard feathers, holding them in their arms. Then they begin
to throw them into the air, around the room, shouting at the same time
the precious feathers disappear, “I am rich, I am rich!” We are told in
an account of various clowning activities that the

Arapaho “Crazy Dancers” are said to “act as ridiculously as possible
and annoy everyone in camp;” the Cahuilla “Funny Man” of Southern
California “annoys people by throwing water on them or dropping live
coals down their backs;” and the Iroquois “False Faces” on entering
a house, scoop up handfuls of smoldering cinders from the fireplace
and spray everyone in sight, sending them screaming in all
directions. (Tedlock, 1975:107)

The Clowns teach by “bad example.” That is, the Clowns do just the
opposite of what a child should learn. They mock the order of the
ritual, they mock the prayers, the songs, the Holy Beings, and the
sacred objects. The Clowns momentarily create an unbalanced and
disordered world in the midst of ritualized social order. The student
will recall previous discussions of disease and imbalance [3] in the
textbook. One of the Clowns’ roles is to prepare us for catastrophe-the
possibility at any moment of disorder, sickness, separation, death.
Social order, first constructed in the Creation histories, is designed
to maintain order in the midst of the world’s “essential disorder.”
Collaboration by everyone is needed to maintain life which is threatened
always by catastrophe. In the end, at the conclusion of the ceremonies,
the Clowns are brought into the balanced world again in cleansing
ceremonies. All the frenzy, obscenity, and terror is calmed and
dispersed at this time. The Clowns’ imbalance, their dancing at the edge
of limitations, and their mocking of order, helps contrast imbalance and
balance, order and disorder, in such a way that even a child can
understand the basic concept of balance. Without the Clowns’ disorder,
order would not, in the end, be so obvious and so justified.

Personal responsibility is at the heart of social order and
survival-many individuals have said this throughout the pages of this
textbook. The following Hopi dance drama portrays among other concepts,
the consequences of irresponsibility. In the end the Clowns go through a
cleansing ceremony in which they are forgiven for their misbehavior and
trouble they have caused. They are also, at this time, given the
opportunity to share their “shame” with the public and release it from
their thoughts.

The Clowns are chosen before the day of the dance. At noon on Saturday
the Kachinas come from the sponsoring kiva and arrive in the plaza to
begin the dancing. The Clowns have been preparing themselves in another
kiva, planning how they are going to entertain the People, preparing
prayer sticks, fasting, talking. When they come out they first go up on
the top of the roofs of the house on one side of the plaza. They lift up
their arms and shout, fooling around, so that the people know that they
have arrived. Here on the roof, they also symbolize clouds, which will
bring rain for the crops.

The first thing they do when they jump off or come down off the roof is
to “build their house.” Groups of clowns go off into each of the four
directions to get materials with which to build their “house”-sand,
sticks, and so on-not big pieces of wood, but wood chips, etc. They also
have in their possession a doll whom they call the “girl clown.” When
they are done building their house they place the girl doll in the west
corner of it. The house is divided into rooms and during the course of
the day, when the Clowns receive gifts of food from their aunts, they
place everything they receive in this house.

Then they begin their joking and clowning around. Later on in the day
another group of Clown-like Kachinas comes out of another kiva. These
are the “imitators”-they are Kachinas who help carry out the plans of
the Clowns. For example, they play the roles of individuals the Clowns
want to imitate or satirize, like the tourist man in his shorts taking
pictures; the missionaries trying to convert the People; and so on. Some
Clowns tease people in the audience-young girls for
example-propositioning them, teasing each other about them. The tourists
are the subject of many jokes. Some are requested to come into the plaza
to dance, others to join in a planned contest in which they bid for a
doll. After every one of these skits and jokes, the person whom the
Clown has teased receives a gift from the Clown. Sometimes the Clowns
demand things from people in the audience and these are given without

Anak'china Dance; clown antics
Anak’china Dance; clown antics (Hopi). (Courtesy of Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation)


Demanding food from the audience is one of the characteristics of sacred
Clowns in many places in North America. Teaching about hoarding, greed,
selfishness is difficult unless you can set an example. The Clowns do
just that. They are gluttons; they stuff down food; they pretend to
urinate where people are eating. It has been said that during certain
Acoma dances, “the koshare always grab the food the Kachinas bring to
the people and then demand some themselves -for example, biting a piece
out of a melon before giving it over.” (Stirling, 35th BBAE:34) And at
Zuni, we are told,

One must never refuse anything to the Koyemci, because they are
dangerous. Last year around Ca’lako my mother received a present of
a box of apples. She was wondering whether she should give it to our
“child” when he was washed. [4] She was thinking it would be nice
if she would keep that box of apples. While she was white-washing
the house she fell off the ladder and bruised her leg. Then she knew
that she must give that box of apples to the Koyemci. She was hurt
because she had withheld it from them even in her thoughts. The
Koyemci are dangerous. (Bunzel, 47th ARBAE:947)

And among the Papago, too, the Clowns ask for food. Maria Chona tells of
the time she went to the Harvest ceremony where her second husband was
one of the Clowns:

This husband was one of the clowns who makes the people laugh at our
great harvest ceremony. The clowns wear masks, you know, great white
bags of deerskin, pulled down over their faces with tiny eyes
painted on them and just little holes to see through. [5] They talk
in a squeaky voice because we think the clown is a magic person who
comes from far in the north and talks a language we do not know. So
when we went to the harvest festival and I saw the clown, I never
knew it was my own husband.

In the evening, when we were getting supper ready, the clowns would
come running to all the camps squeaking in their sacred voices and
holding a basket out for food, to feed the men in the Big House.
Then we all gave them food, and we were afraid of them, too, because
clowns have much power. Once I put tamales in the clown’s basket,
and there, under the white blanket that was tied around him, I saw a
piece of my husband’s trousers. “I’m not going to give you anything
more,” I said. “I know you now.” The other women said I must not
speak like that. They were afraid. So I kept on giving him food.
(Underbill, 1936:59)

The performances and fooling around of the Hopi Clowns is inspired,
obscene, playful, serious, and goes on all day. On Sunday, the next day,
two dances from the end of the whole ceremony, people bring buckets of
water onto the plaza and put them down in various places. The imitators
come and catch the Clowns; they whip them and dump the water over their
heads. This is the first punishment and cleansing; the pouring of water
is also for rain.

At the end of the dance the Imitators line up in two rows and the Clowns
group together at one end of the plaza. Each Clown moves up to the head
of the line of imitators, one at a time. Here he begins a song that he
has composed. He must sing about some personal event-something that is
shameful inside of him or that makes him feel bad, like a bad dream, or
something about a relative that is disturbing-some way he or she had
misbehaved. He sings this song, moving down the row of imitators until
he is finished and can join the clowns again. After each of the clowns
has sung his song he may then pick up all the food he has received that
day from a pile near where they have been singing. At this time, too, he
can join his relatives and eat with them.

Hopi clown sprinkling pollen
Hopi Clown sprinkling pollen on the “Long Hair” dancers, Hopi, 1912. Emory
Kopta (Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives)

One of the main themes of this ceremony is the importance of individual
responsibility-to share, to be humble, to be thoughtful. One of the main
objectives is to make people happy- “the Clowns open you,” “they make
you happy,” the people say. And the Clowns “tame”-they unbalance things
and balance them again. “When they feel too sure or too safe, maybe this
is good for them,” says Black Elk. The Navajo mud clown of the Enemy Way
ceremony does this too-it is one of his powers. By throwing a
well-dressed man (who is showing off his clothes) in the mud, the man is
tamed. And, as we saw, the Clown is fair about this. After he has teased
his victim he gives him/her a gift. This is behavior which helps a
community survive.


One of the roles of sacred Clowns is to serve The People against
excesses by practitioners or leaders who might wrongly use their special
knowledge: the power of magic; secrets or oral tradition; sacred
practices; and other special techniques or prayers. The Clowns, as
allies and friends to ordinary people, sometimes mock the practitioners
(as we heard in the Sayataca Night Chant parody) by dancing behind the
dancers and mocking their steps; interrupting speeches by dance leaders
as the Clowns did in the aboriginal Winter Hesi Ceremony; or mimicking
shamans in their work. [6] Like all excesses, the Clowns serve to
neutralize them; to return excesses to a balanced state.

But we have already seen that Clowns are also considered to be powerful
in their own way, and different from ordinary people. One Zuni
individual stated:

The Koyemci are the most dangerous of all the kachinas. If anyone
touches a Koyemci while he has his paint on, he will surely go
crazy. They carry the sacred butterfly, lahacoma, in their drum to
make people follow them. That is why they are so dangerous. Anyone
who follows lahacoma will go crazy. (Bunzel, 47th ARBAE:947)

The Contrary Society of the aboriginal Cheyenne, for example, was a
warrior society of great power, reputation, and strict regulations. Its
members were highly respected, its arms and implements feared. Though
the members lived alone, ate alone, did not engage in sex, and lived a
simple life, their actions were the opposite. They did things backwards;
they gave orders backwards; they rode into battle without thought of
their own lives; and they carried a lance that was half spear, half bow.

The Clowns in oral tradition, as well as during rituals and ceremonies,
are often given duties and responsibilities equal to the specialists and
sacred practitioners. For example, in Acoma oral tradition, one account
tells us the story of how koshare was given the responsibility to invent
a dance because The People did not have one:

Country Chief told the people to make their own songs, that this
dance was to be danced by everyone who wanted to dance-boys, girls,
men and women. Katsinas dance with just one foot so when the people
suggested that they dance like katsina-which was the only dancing
they had ever seen-Country Chief said, “No! This is your dance and
you must do it a different way.” But he knew no way to do it. They
decided to spend 4 days preparing for the dance, making up the songs
and rehearsing. Everyone was happy, full of anticipation; the whole
pueblo was stirred up.

So the War captain, Country Chief, kept suggesting that they call
Koshari, that he was going to call him. This was because he knew of
no new way to dance and he wanted to leave it to Koshari to arrange
the dance and instruct the people in it. Koshari had power to do
this. Country Chief said to his two helpers, “I’ll try out Koshari
and see if he will come. He talks a lot and seems to know
everything.” So he made a prayer stick and prayed and made a
cigarette for him.

This prayer stick reached Koshari at hakuaich. On the morning of the
fourth day Koshari arrived, still painted in stripes, with his hair
tied up on top of his head. He asked for Country Chief, “Am I needed
here? I have been called to this place.” He was brought to the kiva
where Country Chief was. Country Chief said, “Yes, / want you here.
I believe now that you are real and have power. My people are going
to have a dance and I am leaving it all to you to arrange as you may
wish.” He explained to Koshari the purpose of the dance. Before he
had stopped telling him about it, Koshari knew all about it and
said, “Yes, I will arrange it for you.” So Country Chief told the
people that they were to obey Koshari.

Koshari went out, going from house to house telling the people to
hurry up and come out. They were much interested in him and obeyed
him. He said, “All who want to dance come on to the kiva.” He was
the one to show them how to paint themselves and put on their
costumes. While going from house to house, Koshari spied the drum
belonging to the Chaianyi [Medicine Society] (The drum, of course,
was only for a very sacred purpose, but without asking permission,
Koshari took it.) (Stirling, 135th BBAE: 43)

Sacred Clowns have a special relationship to the specialists-the
shamans, the curers, and the medicine people. Often Clowns are
considered to be able to cure illnesses, often they have access to the
same knowledge or societies as the medicine people. For instance, the
Acoma koshare is part of the Chayaini medicine society. In the oral
tradition, when the first koshares were being initiated into the Clown
society as was the first and original koshare:

Chaianyi told them they were to represent the real Koshari, who had
the habit of going wherever they pleased, and they would be allowed
to go even in the most sacred places. “You will also have the power
of a chaianyi. Even if the chaianyi has made medicine, you can go in
and take it without permission and go out and cure anyone you wish
with it.” (Nowadays the Koshari will sometimes go to the medicine
bowl, suck up some of the medicine, and administer it to the patient
through his mouth.) The chaianyi told the men they were to know no
sadness and were to know no pain even if hurt. They were to know no
sickness. (If someone in a household is unhappy or sick, frequently
they prefer to call on a Koshari rather than on a medicine man.)
(Stirling, BBAE 135:65)

And, among the Papago, when Maria Chona described her life, she told
about the powers of her husband who was a sacred Clown:

At the festival, my husband cured the sick people. Everybody who
feels badly sits in a row at that feast and they call to the clown:
“Cleanse me!” So he comes and blows over them and then they are
well. People used to come to my husband even when we were home again
at Standing Rock. Anyone who had done wrong at the harvest feast
would come to him; those who had danced or sung wrong or, maybe,
fallen down when they were carrying some sacred thing. That can make
you very sick, perhaps, so that you cannot walk any more.

My husband would put on his white mask, with the big bunch of turkey
feathers on top. He kept that mask in a jar, far out in the hills
behind our house. You must not keep such things near you. They are
too strong. Perhaps you would die from their power. But he would go
out all alone and get it, and come back from the north, wearing it.
Then he would blow on the people. If they were very sick indeed, he
had to have singers to sing the harvest songs and make the harvest
feast again for that sick man. That is the way to get well.
(Underhill, 1936:59-60)

Though often Clowns are considered to be very powerful as curing
specialists, like everything else, they cure in a kind of backwards,
joking around way. They prefer to focus on “preventive
medicine”-everyday ordinary things such as eating and defecating -and
how important these acts are to us daily. In the past, it has been
recorded among many communities, that the Clowns would pretend urine and
feces were “medicine” as well as making reference to the power of
menstrual blood-in addition to the other basic instincts and functions
common to human beings and animals.

Beggar dancer
Beggar dancer of the Seneca, Cattaraugus Reservation, New York, 1905. Joseph
Keppler. (Courtesy of Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation)

Earlier we discussed the relationship of shame to wisdom, or “knowing
oneself.” In the Mountain Chant of the Navajo, the sacred Clown, “Yucca
Fruit Grower” or “Banana Ripener” (Hashk’aan Neinilt’a’i) together with
his “wife” (a man dressed up as a woman) performs a small skit for the
people attending the Sing. It concerns a theme that is found in every
society in the world: jealousy. More than that, however, the skit
portrays, in front of children as well as adults, the sexual act, and it
may also portray other kinds of behavior ordinarily not talked about nor
performed in public. The following portion of the skit performed by the
Yucca Fruit Grower is taken from The Mountain Chant [7] This kind of
dialogue is still dramatized today during the Mountain Chant (Fire
Dance) of the Navajo People.

CHARACTERS: The old hunter and the man dressed as a woman,
who will be referred to as He and She.

He: Come, my wife, I have found something good. This [yucca
fruit] is what I have long looked for. Are you not glad I have
found it?

She: Yes, I am very glad, my sweet.

He: It tastes like you. (He gives her a piece to eat.)

She: It is sweet, but not as sweet as you. (After this
compliment he draws close to her and begins to dally, not over
decently. One act is to put his hand under her clothes, withdraw
it and smell it. At length he puts his hand in at the neck of
her dress as if to feel her bosom and draws forth a handkerchief
hidden there. He becomes furious.)

He: (Squealing in feeble wrath) Where did you get this?

She: My aunt lost it in the spring and, when I went for
water, I found it there.

He: I don’t believe you! You have been cohabiting [8] with
someone else. This is your pay.

She: No, truly, my aunt lost it.

He: (Still in jealous fury, lights a cigarette and tries to
smoke, presently throws cigarette peevishly away.) I will go
away and never see you again.

She: Don’t leave! Don’t leave! You are a fool!

He: Yes, I know it, but I will be one no longer. Now I go
away. (He moves off.)

She: (Pouts a moment, then takes a pinch of dust in her
fingers, blows it toward him and says,) Thus, do I blow away my
regard for you. I will follow you no more. (With head averted,
and sitting, she watches him furtively till he shuffles off out
of sight, among the crowd of spectators; then she runs after him
and soon reappears dragging him back.)

He: You were not strong enough to blow me away, I am so
sweet. (Again they sit side by side and indulge in [teasing] and
loud kisses)

He: I don’t like you to cohabit with others while I am away
hunting. I find you food and sweet things to eat, but you are

She: Do not leave me. I will never touch another man again.
(They eat together of the yucca fruit.)

He: How sweet this fruit is! Let us see which is the
sweeter, this or (making love) (Each puts a piece in the mouth
and they proceed with the most complete realism of action, but
without exposure, to imitate the sexual act. When through, he
tumbles off with a groan as if completely exhausted.)

She: (Spitting the fruit from her mouth) The hosh-kawn is
sweet, but not half so sweet as what we have been doing.

The skit is most important, ultimately as a curing technique. The
patient is inside the hogan with the Singer (Hat’aalii), the Clown is
outside making jokes, saying strange and funny things, as well as
performing with his “wife” in the skit. “It’s the way he talks,”
explained one Navajo man, “What he says helps cure the patient who is
inside with the Singer. The patient, in other words, is guilty of all
these things he (Yucca Fruit Grower) says. The patient works out his/her
problems through the jokes and ways of the Yucca Fruit Grower.” In this
case then, the Clown is a “psychologist” working through the problem
feelings of the patient.

Other Navajo sacred Clowns have curing powers. “The Watersprinkler,”
Barney Mitchell tells us, “has more power over all the dancers than the
Talking God. He is like Coyote. Talking God has his limitations but
Coyote has his ways of getting around them.” The Mud Clowns of the Enemy
Way ceremony can also cure, Barney Mitchell explains, “They can cure by
putting a special black mud on a sick child, for instance. Sometimes
they also bounce the sick child in the air and sing.”

Lame Deer sums up the special relationship of Clowns to sacred power
when he says:

To us a clown is somebody sacred, funny, powerful, ridiculous, holy,
shameful, visionary. He is all this and then some more. Fooling
around, a clown is really performing a spiritual ceremony. He has a
power. It comes from the thunder-beings, not the animals or the
earth. In our Indian belief, a clown has more power than the atom
bomb. This power could blow off the dome of the Capital. I have told
you that I once worked as a rodeo clown. This was almost like doing
spiritual work. Being a clown, for me, came close to being a
medicine man. It was in the same nature. (Lame Deer, 1972:236)

Diné Mud Clowns in ceremony
Mud clowns in the Enemy Way ceremony of the Navajo, Kayenta, Arizona, 1920. (Courtesy of Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation)


In this chapter we have discussed the origin, concept, and ritual
behavior of the Native American sacred Clown. We discussed the
relationship of shame to wisdom, or “knowing oneself.” The role of the
Clown in carrying out the educational process for children and the rest
of the community was explained – particularly the Clowns’ ability to
create disorder and order or balance it again, leaving behind a message
for the audience on what constitutes personal responsibility in respect
to a community’s survival. We also talked about the special language and
dramatic techniques the Clowns use to communicate their message:
backwards talk, jokes, satire, and contrary behavior.

As a final word on Clowns, we present a story that comes from the
Papago. It concerns an old man and his dream about the Papago Clown-the
same Clown that Maria Chona described earlier. The Clown, even in the
dream, leaves the People with the gift of knowledge and thoughfulness.

One of the northern villages has an ancient Keeper of the Smoke who
at one time was very ill. In his delierium he dreamed a series of
songs to which the youths and maidens of his village have been
dancing for two years.

The old man found himself in a city “far under the east” where the
streets were like rocky canyons. [New York City] There he saw the
clown who dances at Papago ceremonies, wandering lost. The clown
said he had been spirited to this strange city because someone had
taken his photograph and transported it [there].

Of course, the body of the clown then had to follow, even against
his will. But, with the old man there, the clown felt strength to

The clown went, singing, back to the west, and the old man followed.
“There wonderful things were seen.” Among them was an ancient rain
house, made of brush and hung with all the [decorations] of a Papago
ceremony. There were the masks of the harvest singers; there were
the cotton “clouds;” there, too, were the woman’s grinding slab, and
the man’s bow and arrow.

“Look at these things,” said the clown. “Our people are ceasing to
use them. It may be that this is right and that they should take
over the white man’s ways. But, before you decide, come here. Look
once more at the old things. Be sure.” (Underbill, 1938:157-158)

Papago clown

Suggested Additional Readings:

CATLIN, GEORGE 1967 – 0-kee-pa: A Religious Ceremony and Other
Customs of the Mandans
, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press.

EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. 1967 – The Zande Trickster, Oxford,
Clarendon. (The West African trickster figure and the tales in which he
is hero.)

LEWIS, THOMAS 1970 – “Notes on the Heyoka: The Teton Dakota
‘Contrary Cult’,”
Pine Ridge Research Bulletin, No. 11 (Jan.), pp.

OPLER, MORRIS 1938 – “The Sacred Clowns of the Chiricahua and
Mescalero Indians,”
El Palacío, 44, nos. 10-12, pp. 75-79.

RADIN, PAUL 1972 – The Trickster, New York, Schoken Books. (Tales
of the Winnebago trickster figure.)


[1]Referring to the original koshare, or Clown of the Acoma (Stirling, 135th:37)
[2]Adapted from Frank Cushing, “Outline of Zuni Creation 310 Myths” 13th ARBAE, 1891-1892:398-403.
[3]For example, in Part I of Chapter Eleven, The world is seen as an
essentially disordered place which may bring to man at any time bad
dreams, encounters with unhealthy animals and situations (lightning,
ants), and all sorts of unnamed hazards. Nature may turn on a person by
their not being under control; that is, his own natural desires if
allowed full rein, can cause disease (the best example is, of course,
excess of any sort). In fact, one common way of envisioning evil among
the Navajo (Dine) is to describe it as the absence of order, or as
something which is ritually not under control. (Tolkein, 1969:229)
[4]A sacred initiation ceremony.
[5]See illustration of this Clown on p. 325.
[6]See, for instance, Crumrine, N. Ross, “Capakoba, The Mayo, Easter Ceremonial Impersonator: Explanations of Ritual Clowning,” Jrl. For the Scientific Study of Religion, 8:1-22, 1969.
[7]5th ARBAE, 1888, p. 441, recorded by Washington Matthews, but kept out of that publication, and placed in the National Anthropological Archives, ms. 4834.
[8]Sleeping or living with someone else.
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