"The Clown’s Way" by Barbara Tedlock

from Teachings from the American Earth, ed. Dennis and Barbara Tedlock (NY: Liveright, 1975) Ch. 7

Sacred clowns, although they are often portrayed as merely providing comic relief in otherwise deadly serious ceremonies, are in reality close to the heart of American Indian religion. As an Apache medicine man explained:

People think that the clown is just nothing, that he is just for fun. That is not so. When I make other masked dancers and they do not set things right or can’t find out something, I make that clown and he never fails. Many people who know about these things say that the clown is the most powerful.


The Sioux clown, or heyoka, is a man or woman who has received the greatest possible vision, that of the Thunder Being, who is many but only one, moves counter-sunwise instead of sunwise, is shapeless but has wings, lacks feet but has huge talons, and is headless but has a huge beak; his voice is the thunderclap and the glance of his eye is lightning. During this great vision the person promised to work for the Thunder Being on earth in a human way, and until he fulfilled his promise by announcing that he would give the Heyoka Ceremony, the Thunder Being was “wearing” him, even as a medicine man wears an object or a symbol of an object which is subject to his commands. If he did not serve the Thunder Being by clowning before his people, he would be struck and killed by a glance of the Thunder Being’s eye.

During a heyoka impersonation, the new heyoka does seemingly foolish things, such as riding backwards on his horse with his boots on backwards so that he’s coming when he’s really going; if the weather is hot he covers himself with blankets and shivers as with the cold, and he always says “yes” when he “no.” These actions, while they expose him to the ridicule of the unthinking, have important meaning. As Lame Deer expressed it,“Fooling around, a clown is really performing a spiritual ceremony.” Indeed, these actions are a translation, as it were, knowledge of another reality: a non-objective, shapeless, unnatural world of pure power or energy symbolized by lightning. The contrary actions of the heyoka not only demonstrate some of the unnatural, anti-sunwise nature of the Thunder Being, but they also open people. As Black Elk said, the people are made “to feel jolly and happy at first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them.” ~ In the process of getting a good laugh at these backwards-forwards, cold-hot contraries, the people are opened to immediate experience.

In some tribes religious ceremonies cannot even begin until all the people, particularly any strangers, have laughed. Among
Eskimos, for example, it often takes an entire night of clowning for the visitors from other other villages or tribes to break down and laugh. During a festival in 1912, the Unalit of St. Michael performed several unsuccessful humourous episodes before the Malemuit and some some Unalit from Unalakleet, until finally they presented an old man wearing a mask adorned with feathers and an erormous nose. this man was a caricature of a Yukon Indian; this tribe, called ingkilik, "louse-eater," was the chief enemy of both the hosts and visitors. Coming out and sitting down in the center of the floor, he placed his head on his breast and his hands in his lap. then, raising his hand to his head, he cracked a louse audibly. this was too much for the guests and they howled with laughter. They had resisted so long because after laughing they would be at the mercy of their hosts, who could then theoretically demand anything from them. with the visitors completely open before their hosts, the religious drama could begin. On the Northwest Coast the Haida symbolized this opening of their feast guests while greeting them on the shore: they burst open thier baggage.

Although the guests of the Haida were prepared for a forceful greeting, they were more often than not annoyed with it. Frequently, roaring laughter is neither the desired nor the actual response to ritual humor. For example, 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. The Assiniboine clowns are said to provoke laughter in their audience, but they also frighten them; when Navajo clowns approach too closely, "the smiles of the women and children quickly change to expressions of surprise, tempered with fear"; and Apache children are terrified by clowns, having been told that the clowns will put them in their baskets and carry them off to eat them. The "Fool Dancers" of the Kwakiutl, when they are possessed by supernatural power, move from practical joking, as when they throw stones at the people or hit them with sticks, to outright terror, stabbing and even occasionally killing people.


There is a clue to the potential terror of clowning in the visionary experience of the Plains clown. Black Elk, a Sioux Holy Man
explained it this way:

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, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.’°

A person who had this experience and became a heyoka, a visionary clown, could from then on strut before the lightning of his fear Among the Cheyenne, as among the Sioux, men and women who had such a vision had to act it out by clowning before the entire tribe. These people, called “Contraries,” put up a contrary lodge with its covering inside out, the lodge poles on the outside, and the smoke hole turned in the wrong direction. Dressed in rags, they backed in and out of the lodge, and sat against it upside down— that is to say, with head and body on the ground and legs against the wall—while all the people laughed at them. They did many other foolish things, such as run around wildly and pull weeds backwards: they backed up to weeds and pulled them from between their legs. They were said to act like lightning in a storm, thus becoming one with the sacred power they most feared.

The clown’s mystical liberation from ultimate cosmic fears brings with it a liberation from conventional notions of what is dangerous or sacred in the religious ceremonies of men. Among the northwestern Maidu of California, clowns interrupt the shaman whenever he tries to make a speech and parody everything he says.’ In the Wintu Hesi Ceremony, the most important of all Wintu ceremonies, the clown, walking backwards, precedes the leader all around the inside of the dance house in perfect step with him, while delivering joking remarks about his bad singing.’3 Among the Zuñi of New Mexico, a neweekwe clown may lampoon a Beast Priest (shaman), wearing a bear paw on his left hand, a wolf snout on his nose, and acting wild. The clown of the Navajo Mountain Chant burlesques the sacred sleight-of-hand performances, clumsily revealing their secrets.

Although the clown, by causing people to laugh at shamans and other religious authorities, might appear to weaken the very fabric of his society's religion, he may actually revitalize it by revealing higher truths. For example, the Navajo clown who reveals sleight-of-hand tricks is in effect reminding the people that these tricks are not in themselves the power which cures them, but are instead a symbolic demonstration of power which is itself invisible. A white man cured by a Navajo medicine man during a Red Ant ceremony asked him whether he really had red ants in his system. The curer told him, "No, not ants. We have to have a way of thinking strongly about disease."

Because of the difficulty in seeing other than disruptive meanings for specific clown actions, I shall give a second example from my own knowledge of religious symbolism. the most common religious gesture among Pueblo Indians is the feeding of their katchina dancers (ancestors impersonated by initiated males) by sprinkling them with corn meal. On occasion, clowns have been known to substitute ashes or sweepings from the plaza for corn meal as their own "sacred" offering, which causes people to laugh. The clowns intend this immediate response, but their action also contains a hidden meaning. for ten days before each winter solstice every Zuni woman saves her cooking and heating ashes and her sweepings and then on the solstice she and her daughters take them to the family corn field and desposit them, saying first to the sweepings: "I now deposit you as sweepings but in one year you will return to me as corn," and then to the ashes: "I now deposti you as ashes but in one year you will return to me as meal." We can understand her assertion on the model of plant germination, which involves the bursting forth of life from the decay of the seed pod just as flames may suddenly spring forth from smoldering ashes. The clown's offering of ashes, then, can be understood as an esoteric substitute for corn meal. Here we see the clown's creative edge: no one else ever deviates from feeding the katchina dancers the corn meal, but the clown thinks of a possible variation, and one that is only apparently disrespectful.

The ability of American Indian religions to allow room for the disruptive, crazy, but creative power of the clown in perhaps their greatest strength. Within some Indian societies the clown is given his charter for “revolution” within the text of the sacred story of the creation itself. At Acoma Pueblo, the first koshari clown "was kind of crazy; he was active, picking around, talking nonesense, talking backwards,” saying “I know everything,” and “loudly around the altar, even though it was supposed to be very quiet there.” It was decided that he should live with his Sun Father because he was “not acting normally enough to be here with the people. He was different from the other people because he knew something about himself.” From this time on he was o help the sun cross the sky, but he would be called upon from time to time to help on earth, and since he was not “afraid of anything," nor did he “regard anything as sacred,” he was “to be allowed everywhere.” So, although the people could not live with such a powerful bundle of energy all of the time, they did need him from time to time. When he was called upon to help on earth it was always for new ideas. For instance, when the people decided that they needed a harvest dance in order to “get away from the continuous solemnity of the secret ceremonies,” Country Chief called upon Koshari “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. For Koshari had power to do this.” The Acoma avert the possibility of the stagnation of their religion in excessive esotericism by including the clown.
In other creation stories from the Southwest the clown leads the people out of the darkness of the underworld into the knowledge of daylight, thereby assuming an even more central position within the religion. At Isleta Pueblo k’ apyo shure clowns used their horns in order to tunnel upwards to the earth’s surface so that the people could come out. At Zia both koshairi and kwiraina clowns helped the people emerge by leading them up through the four underworids by means of four trees which they strengthened by their clowning:


They told him to make the tree firm and strong. So he climbed the tree doing funny things, shaking the branches as he went up....Then he told them the tree was now ready and strong and they started to ascend. Koshairi went first and then the three mothers and all of the societies and the people in the order in which they had been created.

By preparing the trees for climbing and making the tunnel through the earth these Pueblo clowns opened the way for their people to follow them out of the earth (ignorance) into the sunlight (knowledge).

The Jicarilla Apache, however, did not see this sunlight world purely good, but as containing disease; the clown that led them
out of the dark earth (thought of as perfectly spiritual and holy) was equipped with a “horrible non-human laugh” which scared
way the sickness on the earth’s surface. In this origin story we learn a basic curing technique which is still practiced today by clowns in many tribes. Just as these Apache clowns kept smallpox and other epidemics away from the people with their sudden terrifying laugh, the Assiniboine, Plains Cree, and Plains Ojibwa clowns scare disease out of the people. Navajo clowns during their Mud Dance all of a sudden stop dancing and rush up to a sick person and lift him high above their heads, sometimes tossing him into the air.” The Cheyenne “Contraries” also cure by quickly lifting people into the air, sometimes holding the head downward. Another curing method is to run up to a person very fast; in a threatening manner, and then either jump over him or else throw a piece of boiling-hot dog meat at him.
By startling people in these ways clowns reverse their polarity, as it were, curing them by releasing them from any idle thoughts or worries. This clearing of worry from the mind is both an ethical value and an important preventative health concept. The Tewa beautifully express this ethic within one of their most important

Now go to your homes
Without worry
Without weeping
Without sadness.

At Zuñi, before a man puts on his mask to impersonate the dead (an action which might well worry him), he is reminded to “make his mind a blank, just forget about worries”; otherwise he could be taken over by the terrible power of the mask and die. At Hopi the clown himself “must go out there with a happy heart, a heart without worry, to help his people.” Releasing oneself from worry is central to much American Indian thought; as the Hopis have it, “disease and death are primarily caused by worry, which settles particularly in the stomach, causing it to harden.” The clown, as the enemy of worry, is also the curer of the stomach. The Zuñi neweekwe clowns are “the medicine men par excellence of the tribe, whose special province is the cure of all diseases of the stomach—the elimination of poisons from the systems of the victims of sorcery or imprudence.” At Acoma, where it is the chayani (magician or shaman) who actually makes the medicine for stomach troubles, the clown takes this medicine without permission and goes among the people, administering it to them through his own mouth. They prefer him to the chayani because “he knows no sadness, pain, or sickness.”
The clown himself is immune from stomach problems, that is, from poisoning. Among the California Maidu, the pehei’pe clown was the chief of the ceremony of yomepa or “poisons,” powerful substances owned by shamans which killed on contact.’ The Southwestern clown demonstrates his immunity by eating filth of all sorts without any visible harm. These scatalogical rites have quite naturally attracted much descriptive attention. As early as 1882 Adolph Bandelier, reporting on a clown performance at Cochiti Pueblo, noted that “the whole is a filthy, obscene affair. [They were] drinking urine out of bowls and jars used as privies on the house tops, eating excrements and dirt.”
At Zuñi Cushing described a neweekwe clown, or “glutton,” as eating “bits of stick and refuse, unmentionable water, live puppies—or dead, no matter—peaches, stone and all, in fact everything soft enough or small enough to be forced down his gullet, including wood ashes and pebbles.” During the koshari initiation at Acoma, “one of the old members took a dish, urinated in it and mixed this with the medicine (herbs), another put phlegm from his nose in it, and the woman who was a koshari pulled out some pubic hair and threw it in.
At Hopi during the Horned Water Serpent, dance the seven chuku clowns eagerly drank three gallons of well aged, particularly foul-smelling urine, “rubbing their bellies after each draught and shouting,‘Very sweet!’ " The Jicarilla Apache clowns, whose name means “Striped Excrement,” eat both dog and child feces; this makes their bodies very powerful, enabling them to dance ecstatically for hours, amusing and curing the people. Just before they eat this “medicine” they say, “Wa!” four times, imitating the sound people make when they are going to vomit. These clowns, known for their ability to cure vomiting, never give their “medicine" to anyone except themselves; for others, they chew small sun- and moon-shaped breads which they wear around their necks and then administer these, partially masticated, to the sick person.

Thus the clown, even though he is a curer, has no medicine of his own; he either uses medicine that belongs to others, or else his "medicine” is nothing but common filth. All he has, otherwise, is himself and his own actions. In a word, clowns are poor, or at least they appear to be. All over North America they wear shabby clothing or even rags; they beg for and even steal food. Poor though they may be, they are also powerful and potentially terrifying, so that the people willingly give them anything when they go on begging tours. Zuñis, for example, give away whole dressed sheep or deer—or bushels of apples, cantaloups, and watermelons—to their koyemshi clowns, because “they are very dangerous, and whoever withholds food from them will injure himself—he will burn himself." During the Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony, beggars wearing “False Face” masks and rags or a “parody of women’s dress— very short skirts, out-size bras, girdles, and the like” go fron house to house collecting tobacco or food. If anyone refuses then they throw dirt on them or else simply steal whatever they want. The theft of food is common clown behavior in California, when the Miwok clowns are allowed to enter any home for this express purpose.

The aggressive shamelessness the clowns display in their quest for food is also extended to sex. They talk about, sing about, and even perform shocking sexual displays in societies which are normally quite modest. For example, Jemez clowns “make advances toward women”; Ponca clowns “crawl up and touch a woman’s genitalia in full daylight”; and Kwakiutl clowns jest with chiefs’ daughters, often making pointed references to sex. In the Southeast, Creek clowns, while singing obscene songs during the Crazy Dance, make sexual motions and even come into bodily contact with women, touching and rubbing against their genitals. The Pueblo clowns formerly wore enormous dildos, and sometimes they displayed their own genitals. Among the Arizona Tewa, Alexander Stephen saw a clown snatch off another clown’s breech clout and “literally drag him by the penis nearly the whole length of th dance court,” and in California, Yuki clowns “hold each other’ penises during their frolics.” In the Plains, Crow clowns simulate intercourse with a horse made of willow bark; east of the Plains, the Fox clowns, imitating stallions during the Mule Dance, performed “indecent antics”; and in the Southwest the koyemshi clowns tell the people at Sha’lako, the most important religious ceremony at Zuñi, to go out and “copulate with rams.”

From an 1880 entry in Bandelier’s diary we learn of a particularly intense example of sexual display at Cochiti Pueblo:

They chased after her, carried her back and threw her down in the center. of the plaza, then while one was performing the coitus from behind, another was doing it against her head. Of course, all was simulated, and not the real act, as the woman was dressed. The naked fellow performed masturbation in the center of the plaza or very near it, alternately with a black rug and his hand. Everybody laughed.41

Such performances as this would have to get some response from everyone present, including foreigners, and indeed they did. As the American anthropologist Julian Steward noted, “funny as these are to the natives, however, they have elicited only emotions of repugnance and disgust from even the ethnologist.” Whatever the attiudes of ethnologists, it is fortunate that at least some of them made a record of such displays (often using Latin instead of English) while they still flourished. The objections and interferences of Protestant missionaries have been unrelenting, and during the 1920s the Bureau of Indian Affairs indulged in one last fling at religious persecution. ‘Obscene” practices were one of the principal targets of the Bureau’s “religious crimes code,” and clown performances have never been quite the same since.

My last example, reported from Hopi at the turn of the century by Alexander Stephen, contains an important detail suggesting an
esoteric interpretation. A clown dressed as a woman comes into the plaza with a basin of water and proceeds to wash “her” legs while displaying a great false vulva and turning around so that all the spectators can see and laugh at it. Then another clown wearing a large false penis made of a gourd neck comes in, climbs on top of "her," and proceeds to “imitate copulation with her with the utmost grossness right on the sacred shrine.” This clowning episode, centering itself as it did on top of the shrine, might be interpreted as revealing the higher truth of a non-attachment to shrines, altars, or other religious objects; it certainly demonstrates the clown’s own non-attachment.


Here, as at other clown performances, the onlookers are opened to immediate experience by laughter or shock; their minds
cleared of whatever worries they brought with them. It may be possible to attend a church service without so much as a smile, but American Indian religion, like Zen Buddhism, has a place for laughter, the laughter that goes with a sudden opening or dislocation in the universe. R. H. Blyth, one of the foremost Western students of Zen, has said that for him laughter is “a breakthrough of the intellectual barrier; at the moment of laughing something is understood; it needs no proof of itself. . . . When we laugh we are free of all the oppression of our personality, or that of others, and even of God, who is indeed laughed away.” Or, as a Zen monk explained, a well-placed, unexpected kick from his master helped him to attain enlightenment, and “since I received that kick from Ma Tsu, I haven’t been able to stop laughing.” Or, as Black Elk put it, the people are made “to feel jolly and happy at first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them." And, as the Acomas say of the first clown, “He knew something about himself.”