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Koshares – The Sacred Clowns
By Michael Hice
Founding 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 Pueblo¹s 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 clown¹s 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 other¹s 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 clown¹s 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 koshare¹s 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 Indians¹ 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 koshare¹s 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 Skelton¹s “The Tramp”.
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 clown¹s 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 society. Two clowns¹ 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 society¹s 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 teacher¹s will come to mind. Perhaps they too were following a calling.