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For the jesters in Hopi mythology, see Pueblo Clowns.
A ledger art by Lakota artist Black Hawk representing a dream of a thunder being. c.1880

Among the Lakota people, the heyoka (heyókȟa, also spelled "haokah," "heyokha") is a contrarian, jester, satirist or sacred clown. The heyoka speaks, moves and reacts in an opposite fashion to the people around them. Only those having visions of the thunder beings of the west, the Wakinyan, and who are recognized as such by the community, can take on the ceremonial role of the heyoka.

The Lakota holy man and medicine man, Black Elk, became heyoka after being visited by the Thunder- beings, the Wakinyan[1] (Thunderbirds).

Social role[edit]

Heyókȟa are thought of as being backwards-forwards, upside-down, or contrary in nature. This manifests by doing things backwards or unconventionally — riding a horse backwards, wearing clothes inside-out, or speaking in a backwards language. For example, if food is scarce, a heyókȟa may sit around and complain about how full he is; during a baking hot heat wave a heyókȟa might shiver with cold and put on gloves and cover himself with a thick blanket. Similarly, when it is freezing he might wander around naked complaining that it is too hot. A unique example is the famous heyókȟa sacred clown called "the Straighten-Outer":

He was always running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy things (soup bowls, eggs, wagon wheels, etc.), thus making them straight.

The heyókȟa symbolize and portray many aspects of the sacred, the Wakȟáŋ. Their satire presents important questions by fooling around. They ask difficult questions, and say things others are too afraid to say. By reading between the lines, the audience is able to think about things not usually thought about, or to look at things in a different way.

Principally, the heyókȟa functions both as a mirror and a teacher, using extreme behaviors to mirror others, thereby forcing them to examine their own doubts, fears, hatreds, and weaknesses. heyókȟa also have the power to heal emotional pain; such power comes from the experience of shame — they sing of shameful events in their lives, beg for food, and live as clowns. They provoke laughter in distressing situations of despair and provoke fear and chaos when people feel complacent and overly secure, to keep them from taking themselves too seriously or believing they are more powerful than they are.[3]

In addition, sacred clowns serve an important role in shaping tribal codes. Unbound by societal constraints, heyókȟa are able to freely violate cultural taboos and critique established customs.[4] Paradoxically, however, it is by violating these norms and taboos that they help to define the accepted boundaries, rules, and societal guidelines for ethical and moral behavior. This is because they are the only ones who can ask "Why?" about sensitive topics and employ satire to question the specialists and carriers of sacred knowledge or those in positions of power and authority.

For people who are as poor as us, who have lost everything, who had to endure so much death and sadness, laughter is a precious gift. When we were dying like flies from white man's disease, when we were driven into reservations, when the government rations did not arrive and we were starving, watching the pranks and capers of Heyókȟa were a blessing.

Vision of thunder beings[edit]

Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.

In Lakota mythology, Heyókȟa is also a spirit of thunder and lightning. He is said to use the wind as sticks to beat the drum of thunder. His emotions are portrayed opposite the norm; he laughs when he is sad and cries when he is happy, cold makes him sweat and heat makes him shiver. In art, he is depicted as having two horns, which marks him as a hunting spirit.[6]

References in popular culture[edit]

In 2013, Half Acre brewery in Chicago, Illinois released their Heyoka IPA, which became one of their signature beers, and later won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in October, 2014. After complaints were lodged by members of the American Indian Movement, Half Acre renamed their beer Senita (perhaps after the Senita cactus found in the American Southwest that is depicted on the formerly Heyoka beer can).[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Gneisenau Neihardt (1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 3–. ISBN 0-8032-6564-6. 
  2. ^ a b Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Richard Erdoes. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Simon and Schuster, New York, New York (1972). Paperback ISBN 0-671-55392-5. p.250
  3. ^ Nelson, Elizabeth Hoffman (1998). "The Heyoka of the Sioux". Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook (1st ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 246–248. ISBN 0-313-29785-1. 
  4. ^ Swann, Brian (1996). Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America (1st ed.). New York: Vintage Books. p. 433. ISBN 0-679-74358-8. 
  5. ^ Black Elk; John G. Neihardt (16 October 2008). Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press. pp. 149–. ISBN 978-1-4384-2540-5. 
  6. ^ Borges, Jorge Luis. (1969). The Book Of Imaginary Beings
  7. ^ "Half Acre Beer renames Heyoka as Senita after complaints", Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 6, 2015.


  • Wilson D. Wallis. Heyoka: Rites of Reversal. Lakota Books, 1996 reprint.