Most cultures possess the essential balancing of the sacred clown whose role is to poke fun at the prideful, clarify cultural boundaries and rules by overstepping them, deflate pomposity, inflate absurdity and say what everyone else is afraid to say. In North American tribal cultures, there is a long tradition of the sacred clown, the extreme version of which is the contrarian whose speech, habits and gestures, in fact, whose very existence, poses the difficult questions about life and its challenges, daring you with laughter and humorous intent to find the answers. True contraries do and say everything in reverse. The contrary in the film Little Big Man demonstrates the actions and role of a heyoka.
The Lakota word heyoka, which translates as clown or opposite, serves as a collective title for these institutionalized forms of contrary behavior of the Plains Indians. The internet has made loose associations of sacred clowns and contraries possible, connecting specialties such as warriors, gays, exhibitionists and inverse speakers. Heyokas stand out at pow wows.
I don’t take pictures at pow wows. Neither of these pictures are of heyokas. I found this elder deep in trance and the young man behind him still looking online.
Five times, between 1995 and 2001, I attended the annual pow wow at Standing Buffalo First Nation in the Qu’Appelle Valley, west of Fort Qu’Appelle, SK. Held in a roofed, open-sided pow wow circle on the flats between Pasqua and Echo Lakes, the event always attracted over 400 dancers in full regalia. In fur and feathers, metal jingles and fringe, belled and beaded leggings, reed breastplates, feather bustles, leather and painted skin, the disparate Sioux Nations from neighbouring provinces and states gathered to celebrate, compete, renew and acknowledge the continuum of their being.
In addition to the dancers, six to eight Sioux drumming and singing groups performed, taking turns around the pow wow circle, singing songs that are hundreds of years old, pounding the heartbeat drum. I would camp in Echo Valley Provincial Park just up the valley from the pow wow and hear the drums and voices waft up the hill into the warm summer night. It was a special condition only Spirit could sustain.
Another of Spirit’s creations at Standing Buffalo Pow Wow was the transcendent moment when the setting sun poured into the circle, flooding the dancers with red light causing their already
Male dancer wearing a fine feather bustle.
flamboyant colourful display to take flight into the surreal for a few minutes before the sun sank below the valley wall. I always felt suspended in spiritual balance as the sun set at one end of the valley and the moon, close to full, rose at the other while pelicans performed aerial tai chi overhead in the twilight.
I looked back through my travel journals and found the entry about the contrary at Standing Buffalo Pow Wow on August 7, 1998. Here’s what I wrote:
“There is something I haven’t seen here before – a contrary, in this case a young man, featherless, wearing robes and shawls not unlike the women’s dress. On the front of his outfit is a long prayer to Great Spirit tooled into leather. He holds an unused drumstick in one hand and a small round unplayed drum in his other hand. He has his registration number upside down on his back. While the dancers all travel in a sunwise direction, he dances very slowly in the opposite direction at the periphery of the circle. A string of black beads across his forehead and over his nose form a kind of raccoon mask. When the dancing stops, he stands apart from everyone. When the Grand Entry is over and he leaves the circle, I introduce myself and ask to read his prayer, a well-known one. He is from Prince
Albert area, his first time at Standing Buffalo and he said his name was Dave. He spoke so softly it was hard to hear him. This is the first expression of open gay sexuality I’ve seen at this pow wow. We talked briefly and Dave says we’ll talk more over the weekend but he’s gone before I am able to say I leave tomorrow. The dancers and various site organizers treat him deferentially; his presence is not just tolerated but welcomed, though without much social contact.”
Along with his sexual statement, there was an element of jester and satirist in Dave’s aura, a subtle campy posturing. Things undone, the drum unbeaten, the disguise to confuse, the prayer of hope worn not spoken, understated but obviously contrary.
Modern day examples of sacred clowns in the arts must include the Kipper Kids, ceremonial buffoons of the highest order.