Jesters in Reality

North America

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Native American clowns: Heyoka
Clowning could be found in almost every North American Indian society. In every case, it involved ridiculous behavior, but on the Plains it especially exhibited inversion and reversal as elements of satire. There were four types of clown societies on the Plains - age-graded societies, military societies, the northern plains type, and the heyoka shamanistic societies. While clown societies were found throughout the Plains, the heyoka, or sacred clowns, were usually few in number, but were found in almost every clan.

Heyoka were contraries, often speaking and walking backwards. They acted in ridiculous, obscene, and comical ways, especially during sacred ceremonies. They were thought to be fearless and painless, and often dressed in a bizarre and ludicrous manner, wearing conical hats, red paint, a bladder over the head (to simulate baldness), and bark earrings. The heyoka's "anti-natural" nature was thought to be shamanistic in origin -- and as a contrary, he was expected to act silly and foolhardy during battle. Like any good trickster, the heyoka played pranks on others in his culture not to make them feel embarrassed and stupid, but to show them ways they could start being more smart.

Native American clowns: Hopi
'The heart of the Hopi concept of clowning is that we are all clowns.' -Emory Sekaquaptewa. Click here to read his article, One More Smile For A Hopi Clown.

The sacred clowns of the Hopi have the religious right to demonstrate what should not be done. Nobody is immune to their ridicule. Stripping another naked is not going too far. Misbehavior of people in the community is dramatized, and the culprit takes the hint.

The clowns are the ultimate tradition keepers. If work needs to be done the clowns recruit the workers. They cannot be denied.

White ways, such as money, missionaries, and teachers sent to the Hopi have been the subject of the clowns' derision.

Iktomi (or Unktomi, for Woodland Dakota) is a legendary trickster of the Native American Blackfoot nation. He is often associated with the spider, sometimes described as a 'spider man'. Iktomi is the subject of a series of cautionary Lakota children's tales, in which he embodies all bad qualities - his mischievous behaviour always leads to disaster, and he is often outsmarted by Coyote. (For more about the coyote as jester see the entry for Huehuecoyotl, in the South America section)

You can read the Iktomi tales as told by Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) here.

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