- The Sacred Clowns
By Michael Hice
editor of Indian Artist and Native Artists magazines,
SFAOL contributor Michael Hice is currently a freelance writer specializing
in Native American art and culture, other types of art, and travel
in the Southwest.
At Taos Puebloıs San Geronimo feast day, five men, bodies painted
in black and white stripes, dashed through the crowd. They wore
moccasins, loincloths and black and white striped head gear. Spectators
laughed and sidestepped the clowns as they darted among the throng.
The painted men poked fun at everyone
The clowns picked out a pretty young woman, surrounded and bowed
to her, kissing the ground as if she were a queen. Blushing with
embarrassment, she cringed yet giggled. In an egalitarian society
like the Pueblos, such treatment is the reversal of typical behavior.
Fawning over individuals is not done. This kind of reversal in behavior
is part of the clownıs cultural purpose.
One clown ran into the middle of the plaza carrying a small watermelon.
The others followed. The first clown tossed the melon to another,
and a game of pseudo football ensued. Onlookers gasped each time
the melon arched from hand to hand until the intended receiver missed,
when a loud roar rose from the crowd.
The watermelon fell to the ground and scattered into several pieces
across the center of the plaza. The comics rushed in to grab what
they considered the most succulent piece. Squabbling over a large
juicy chunk, the five plopped down to devour the melon. Their full
attention was diverted to slurping the messy fruit.
Suddenly they jumped up and began to spit watermelon seeds at bystanders
who squealed and ducked. After tiring of that, the clowns turned
to the thirty-foot greased pole planted in the ground on the west
side of the plaza. Tied at the top of the pole was a net through
which spectators could see a freshly sacrificed lamb, a variety
of melons and other delicacies. To the hilarity of the crowd, the
pudgy clowns took turns attempting to climb the pole striving for
its reward. While the mob roared with laughter, the clowns poked
fun at each otherıs chubbiness, and grabbed athletic young men
from the crowd, encouraging them to climb the pole. Eventually one
succeeded in retrieving the net with its contents.
This entertainment was staged by Pueblo sacred clowns, commonly
known as koshares paiyakyamu in Hopi. While most visitors
observe them as buffoons, relegating them to mere foolishness is
a tragic misjudgment of the sacred clownıs importance in Native
American societies. Nowhere is the role of the jokester more developed
than in the sacred clown among the Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.
Though aspects, including the name, vary from pueblo to pueblo,
surprising similarities exist among these sacred personas of the
pueblos along the northern Rio Grande River and Laguna and Zuni
Pueblos to the west.
The familiar image of the koshare is that of a man painted with
broad horizontal black and white stripes. On his head he wears a
black and white striped skull cap from which horn-like projections
sprout corn husks. Often these horns are his actual hair bound up
with husks. He wears a loincloth and dark-colored bands around his
arms and legs. His powder white face is painted with black circles
around his eyes and mouth. The watermelon is a favorite prop.
Varying tales are told concerning the koshareıs origin. Most include
important elements such as the sun, Corn Mother, corn meal, the
power of fertilization and life-giving rain. All are elements essential
to the survival, prosperity, and happiness of the people. Thus,
the clown is both adored and feared. Pueblo hierarchy allots him
a revered position. Throughout the Indiansı contact with Europeans,
the persecution of these sacred clowns has caused them to withdraw
and build secrecy around their ritual purpose. Few tribal members
discuss them. Beyond perusing anthropological papers, understanding
the koshareıs role requires an examination of the universal clown.
The concept of a ceremonial clown goes back to Egypt around 3,000
B.C. and has appeared in many world cultures throughout history.
The clown comes in a variety of forms. In medieval times, jesters
offered humor as well as disguised lessons to the royal courts of
Europe. For Northwest Coast Indian tribes the Raven represented
the trickster; for California and American Southwest tribes it was
the Coyote. Mid-twentieth century American children
recognize this image as a cartoon character
jokester. Hollywood brought us Charlie Chaplin. In Anglo culture,
one of the most recognizable forms of the character is Red Skeltonıs
One early school of Greek philosophy characterized man as the "laughing
animal." Pueblo clowns certainly substantiate that definition. Their
antics inevitably result in side-splitting laughter. Some myths
claim the clownıs principle role is to relieve the burden and stress
of daily life
Few comedians can match the wit and energy of such famous koshares
as Agapito of San Ildefonso Pueblo. In the 1930s and 40s, he is
said to have entertained people for five solid hours. Feast day
dancers even gave way to this monumental talent that could entertain
such a long time with no props, except unsuspecting humans pulled
from his audience.
Humor is the primary attribute of the trickster. On the other hand,
turning the world upside down, the clown inverts and reverses normal
conduct. Such contradictory behavior contrasts how citizens of a
society should operate. The strange idolization of the young beauty
at Taos was the perfect contrast to normal deportment in Pueblo
Two clownsı parody of tourists
A koshare might pantomime a bully, a white woman seeing an Indian
for the first time, an Indian lounging in front of his T.V. or a
child throwing a tantrum. The clown exists beyond moral and social
codes established by society. He ridicules even the most sacred.
His buffoonery may be childlike or adult but exposes our actions
unacceptable to others. By operating outside normal rules, clowns
keep people in line and provide discipline when needed. Ironically,
their outlandish exploits mirror societyıs moral values.
Koshares are a highly valued clan among the Pueblos. One is not
born into the clan or elected. Instead, becoming a member "comes
to one," like a calling. A koshare holds a semi-religious position,
honored as a powerful member of the community. All those maligned
class clowns who had a natural humor and wit and persistently subverted
the teacherıs will come to mind. Perhaps they too were following
Also by Michael Hice:
BEYOND THE MILLENIUM