(American Great Plains: Pre-Columbian -- Present)
Elizabeth Hoffman Nelson
The heyoka, or thunder dreamers, are found throughout the Sioux Indian nations of the American Great Plains. These sacred fools/clowns participated in vision quests in which they dreamed of the Thunder-beings. Such visions gave the individual (usually male) great power and an equally great fear of thunder and lightning. If the heyoka neglected his vision and the duty that came with it, he and/or his people would be struck down by the powerful Thunder-beings. The thunder dreamers were obliged to perform a heyoka ceremony for the benefit of the people. In this ceremony, the heyokas "played the role of Thunder's messengers, acting clownishly, doing all things backward, making themselves the objects of the peoples' laughter" ( DeMallie 6).
Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux and perhaps the best-known heyoka, details his role as heyoka in Black Elk Speaks. There he describes the rationale of the heyoka ceremony: "Everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them" ( Neihardt 159). The great truth of the heyoka's vision is bestowed on the people after they are made happy. This is the opposite of the order of a thunderstorm -- the terror of the storm rolls through; then people are happy. The heyoka reverses all things to please the Thunder-beings.
The contrariness of these Plains Indian clowns "is too widespread and too old to fix any center of origin or to work out definite lines of diffusion" ( Steward 50). Such fools are also found in other Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne Contraries, Ponca Heyoka, Arikara Foolish People, and Arapaho Crazy Lodge.