Holy Fools


Impersonating Heyo'ka

The role of the sacred clown

by Mark Caron

Photo courtesy of Rev. Raymond A. Bucko, S.J.
of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Creighton University.


-- People think that the clown is just nothing, that he is just for fun. That is not so...Many people who know about these things say that the clown is the most powerful.1

    The Lakota, or Sioux as they are more commonly called, are a Native American nation who flourished in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They live in the mid-western plains. In the Lakota society the heyoka, or 'sacred clown,' is viewed as a very powerful and important person.2 When one has a vision of thunder-beings he is called by Wakinyan, the Thunder Being, to be a heyoka. With this duty, he must do everything in contrary to what is meant. This often means violating social norms.3This contradiction causes many observers to feel that the heyoka practices are foolish and sac-religious. Moreover, in the 1920s these 'obscene' ceremonies involving heyokas have been 'principal targets' of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.4 However, the heyoka play a very vital role in the religion of the Lakota. This importance can be seen in their participation in ceremonies, the reverence shown to them by their people, and their healing practices.

    To understand the heyoka, one must first understand from where their power derives. J.R. Walker explains the origins of the heyoka power according to the mythology of the Lakota. Once there was only one chief, and this chief had a daughter. She brought water to the camp from the lake every day. One day, Inktomi, the trickster, told her he was thirsty, and offered her advice on how she could get more water in exchange for a drink. His advice was for her to urinate in the water bark every night. The chief, unaware of who did this, became angry. His daughter had listened to Inktomi. He threatened to throw whoever did this into the lake. Inktomi told the cheif it was his daughter, and so he threw her into the lake. The chief of the beavers captured her and hid her in his tipi under the water.

    Unktehi, the water monster, told the chief where his daughter was and offered to "put the seed of things that are good to eat in the water and in the earth" if he could have her for his woman. Meanwhile, Inktomi apologized to the girl and told her that he would take her back to shore, but he led her to a place so far away that she would never find her way back to her father. When Unktehi came to find his woman, the beaver told him that Inktomi took her. The chief didn't believe Unktehi and accused him of trying to trick him, so he asked Wakinyan to help him find his daughter. Wakinyan was unable to find his daughter, and when the chief criticized him, Wakinyan became angry. He said, "This is the last time I will try to help man. Forever hereafter, when I speak to a man he will be like you. He will stay apart from all others and be sad and do strange things."5

    When someone has a vision of Wakinyan, he is heyoka forever. Not only did the first heyokas, but all those thereafter, gain their power from Wakinyan. This power is to do everything in contrary to the normal way of doing things.6 Walker says that the horrible person of Wakinyan causes the dreamer to act foolish in this manner.7 Anyone who does not act in this way is not performing his duty. The neglect of this way of life is punishable by death, where they are struck down by lightning.8 Part of his duty is to perform a ceremony for the people because a man is not able to use his power until he has performed the ceremony for the community.9 The heyoka have a sacred pwer and they use it to benefit the people through 'funny actions.'10 It is believed that through laughter the people can be opened up, so the power can come to them. In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk says:

     When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of [the] vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.11

In these words Black Elk explains part of the importance of the heyoka's role. The heyokas act as a balance to keep the Lakota people in check, primarily in their ceremonies. Holding to the heyokas abilities of contradiction, the happiness can often preced the storm.12 In other words, religious ceremonies can often not begin until the people have laughed.13

    Black Elk describes a particular vision performance where two heyoka are measuring how deep a puddle is so they can cross. They pull out long crooked arrows and put them into the puddle. Instead of holding the arrows upright to test the depth, the proceeded to hold them horizontally and stick them in that way. Of course the whole arrow became wet. Then they measured the arrows against their bodies, showing that the water was well over their heads. After they determined that is was deep, one jumped into the puddle headfirst and began to swim violently as if he was drowning. The people laughed at this bazaar display.14

    A standard action heyokas must perform involves a sacrificial dog. The dog has been killed in a sacred fashion, quickly without any marks on its body. This is symbolic of the way lightning kills.15 The dreamer then boils the sacred dog meat. Next the heyokas plunge their hands into the scalding water and pull out the dog meat. They are able to do this without any burns.16 The reason there is no effect on the heyokas' hands is that they use a special herb that is rubbed all over the arms and hands before and after.17 But, the people believe that since they do not scald their hands, they are wakan, or sacred.18

     The heyokas are considered wakan by the Lakota. In spite of the heyokas' spiritual power perceived by the Lakota one must be careful around them. When a heyoka says, "I'll help you," he is really saying the opposite. Also, sweat lodges can never be hot enough for a heyoka. An ordinary person can end up with second degree burns and blisters from being in one with them.19 More examples of these contrary actions are riding horses backwards, wearing heavy rags and blankets in the summer and complaining about how cold it is, and saying 'yes' when they mean 'no.'20

    Many people question how heyokas could help their religion. Nothing they do conforms to the rules. When they are supposed to move clockwise, they move counter-clockwise. They cause people to laugh at shamans and other authoritative figures in society. This is how the heyokas can fill that certain gap in Lakota society as Black Elk explains in his quote about the storm. Furthermore, Tedlock made the statement that this "might appear to weaken the very fabric of his society's religion, [but] he may actually revitalize it by higher truths."21 They serve as a buffer between the truth and the people. Black Elk continues:

    ...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 or weeping. When the people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them...22

    Today, something seems to be missing in Lakota ceremonies without the heyoka to perform his duty. Severt Young Bear says that everyone is very serious and business like. "The humor is no longer there; the heyoka is missing...that funny middleman isn't there to use humor to keep respect and honor in balance. The funny side of it is all gone.23

    Similarly, this sacred role of the clowns can be seen in other Native American religions also. For example, the Pueblo clowns sometimes throw ashes and plaza sweepings at the katsina instead of corn. This seems to be a very rude thing to do. However, Tedlock describes this as having a deeper meaning. She says that the Zuni women save their cooking ashes and sweepings to plant in the family cornfield every winter solstice. These ashes are to return to them as meal. So, in fact, the clowns are throwing that which gives them the corn.24

    This is not to say that heyokas and their foolish behavior are always bad to be around. Young Bear tells of a story where a bear was attacking some Lakota and a heyoka got in the way. The people were yelling, "Run heyoka! He's going to kill you!" But the heyoka continued to stand there. The bear was about to attack him, but he turned around, holding a porcupine quill pointed at the bear's stomach and simply said, "bzzz." The bear screamed and fell over. Then the bear ran away.25 Such actions are perceived to be the result of sacred powers. Instead of running this heyoka had the power to stand his ground and fend off the bear by doing the opposite of everyone else. He did not panic; instead he remained calm. The abilities of this particular heyoka, as with other heyokas, derive from his spiritual power. Thus heyokas use spiritual power to help the Lakota people.

    Because they use their powers to help the people, they are viewed with great reverence. Animals and children are kept away form them so the heyokas would not be bothered, and elders talked to them in "subdued voices."26 Calling someone a heyoka is not a funny compliment; instead it can bring bad luck. They have the most sacred of all powers, the power to restore like Wakinyan. Wakinyan restores the earth with his rains.

    The power to restore is used in human form. Similar to how Wakinyan restores the earth, the heyoka restore people. They would rejuvenate the people with laughter, and sometimes they would even scare them. This is believed to cure them of any negative thoughts. The clown is a medicine man without any medicines. He uses his behavior to delight and intrigue the sick.27

    In some cases, though, the heyoka can have medicine. An example of such a healing is when Black Elk had a vision of a "four-rayed herb." He knew he was to use this herb to heal. This herb was sacred and he knew that it would be hard to find. He prayed to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, to send him voices so he could find this plant. He looked up and saw where it would be. After gathering the herb it came time for him to heal Cuts-to Pieces' son. He performed his ceremony using the herb that was in his vision, and he healed the boy.

    Not only was Black Elk able to heal the boy, but for doing so he became revered, even at the age of nineteen.28 Also, Young Bear has explained how the heyokas are missing from today's ceremonies. Their laughter is no longer there to calm the people before the truth of the ceremony. Therefore, one might say that the heyokas' importance to ceremonies, the reverence shown to them, and their healing powers demonstrate their religious contributuions to the Lakota society. They play a vital role in their religion and should be viewed in the highest regard. Their comical behavior, as grotesque as it may be sometimes, is used to liven every situation to open the people up to the power of Wakan Tanka. Every society needs laughter, according to Black Elk:

    The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this is the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.29

The heyoka are just another way to bring this laughter to people. They sacrifice themselves, and take the hardest and the most sacred duty for the good of the people.




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