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The word Heyókȟa refers to the Lakota concept of a contrarian, jester, satirist or sacred clown.

Heyókȟa are thought of as being backwards-forwards, upside-down, or contrary in nature. This spirit is often manifest by doing things backwards or unconventionally -- riding a horse backwards, wearing clothes inside-out, or speaking in a backwards language. For example, if food were scarce, a Heyókȟa would sit around and complain about how full he was; during a baking hot heat wave a Heyókȟa would shiver with cold and put on gloves and cover himself with a thick blanket. Similarly, when it is 40 degrees below freezing he will wander around naked for hours 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.
John Fire Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, p250

During the Sun Dance, a Heyókȟa sacred clown may appear to tempt the dancers with water and food and to dance backwards around the circle in a show of respect. If a dancer looks into the mirrored eyes of the Heyókȟa, his or her dance is finished.[citation needed]


Social role

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. Heyókȟas 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.

In addition, sacred clowns serve an important role in shaping tribal codes. Heyókȟa's don’t seem to care about taboos, rules, regulations, social norms, or boundaries. 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. In doing so, they demonstrate concretely the theories of balance and imbalance. Their role is to penetrate deception, turn over rocks, and create a deeper awareness.[citation needed]

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.
John Fire Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, p250

Wičháša Wakȟáŋ means Holy man, not "Medicine man" or "shaman" (a term of Siberian origin). This is an important distinction. A Lakota medicine man is called pȟežúta wičháša.

Thunder dreamer

It is believed among the Lakota that if you had a dream or vision of birds you were destined to be a medicine man,[citation needed] but if you had a vision of the Wakíŋyaŋ Thunderbird, it was your destiny to become a Heyókȟa, or sacred clown.[citation needed] Like the Thunderbird, the heyoka are both feared and held in reverence.[citation needed]

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... you have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping... as lightning illuminates the dark, for it is the power of lightning that heyokas have.
Black Elk, quoted in Neihardt (1959), p160

The Heyoka are healers and have many functions, for example healing through laughter and awakening people to deeper meaning and concealed truth and to prepare the people for oncoming disaster with laughter.[citation needed]

Heyoka in popular culture

  • A recurring theme in Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods is the appearance of the Thunderbird in the dreams of the protagonist, Shadow. This is one of the events that leads to his role as a Heyoka who helps usher in a drastic change between the gods of the Old World and those of the New World.
  • In 2005, artist John LeKay founded, an environmental and art site, which includes articles on the Lakota people. He said, "Heyoka is Lakota Sioux for contrarian or sacred clown. The traditional heyoka are quite fascinating the way they brought about balance, self awareness, a kind of reality check and order by doing this in similar ways. Makes me think of Lenny Bruce and his humour which was deadly serious and lethal like a Zen slap or a bucket of ice cold water over your head."[1]
  • In a fourth season episode of Highlander: The Series entitled "Something Wicked", the Native American immortal named Jim Coltec is said to be Heyoka. He performs this task by absorbing evil into himself before it can affect his tribe. After untold centuries of doing this, he is finally overwhelmed by evil and becomes evil himself. This evil is then transferred to the main character Duncan MacLeod, who must resolve this in the following episode entitled "Deliverance".
  • In the last issues of the original run of the Tales of the Beanworld comic book series by Larry Marder, one of the Beans experiences a unique Breakout (process by which a previously ordinary hunter-gatherer Bean discovers some new endeavor such as music or art [the subjects of two prior Breakouts, the second of which was chronicled earlier in the series while the first happened off-panel and was briefly referenced in a flashback], adopts a new name and appearance, and is hopefully accepted as such by the tribe of Beans) and becomes a Heyókȟa named, simply, "Heyoka". She was last seen exploring the wonders of the greater universe that contains the Beanworld, known as "The Big•Big•Picture".
  • In their book Revelation X, The Church of the SubGenius mentions the concept of heyoka, during a section of the book dealing with interpretations of a group of satirical prophecies known as "The Prescriptures".
  • Artistic name of Andrei Olenev, musician who "is a cosmic auditory scientist found in the Bay Area noosphere, who has been blowing minds with his sonic manipulations" as stated at His hard to define collage style is described as "alienpukeglitchwhomphopdubcore" on myspace.


  1. ^ "Biography", Retrieved 23 December 2007.


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

See also

External links

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