Heyoka

The Upside-Down, Forward-Backward, Icy-Hot Contrary

“I am going to tell you a story about clowns, but it won’t be a funny story. For us Indians everything has a deeper meaning; whatever we do is somehow connected with our religion. I’m working up to this part. 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 Capitol.

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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. A clown in our language is called heyoka. He is an upside-down, 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.

Being a clown brings you honor, but also shame. It gives you a power, but you have to pay for it. 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, makin~ them straight, things like soup dishes, eggs, balls, rrogs or cartwheels. My grandma had one of those round glass chimneys which fits over a kerosense lamp. Well, he straightened it out for her. It’s not easy to be a heyoka. It is even harder to have one in the family.”- John (Fire) Lame Deer – Seeker of Visions