John (Fire) Lame Deer

The different religions confused me


“Which was the right one? I tried to figure it out but had no success. It worried me. The different Gods – Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Mohammedan – seemed all very particular in the way in which they expected me to keep on good terms with them. I couldn’t please one without offending the others. One kind soul solved my problem by taking me on my first trip to the planetarium. I contemplated the insignificant flyspeck called Earth, the millions of suns and solar systems, and concluded that whoever was in charge of all this would not throw a fit if I ate ham, or meat on Friday, or did not fast in the daytime during Ramadan. I felt much better after this and was, for a while, keenly interested in astronomy.” ― Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer – Seeker of Visions

The Upside-Down, Forward-Backward, Icy-Hot Contrary

“I am going to tell you a story about clowns, but it won’t be a funny story. For us Indians everything has a deeper meaning; whatever we do is somehow connected with our religion. I’m working up to this part. To us a clown is somebody sacred, funny, powerful, ridiculous, holy, shameful, visionary. He is all this and then some more. Fooling around, a clown is really performing a spiritual ceremony. He has a power. It comes from the thunder-beings, not the animals or the earth. In our Indian belief a clown has more power than the atom bomb. This power could blow off the dome of the Capitol.


I have told you that I once worked as a rodeo clown. This was almost like doing spiritual work. Being a clown, for me, came close to being a medicine man. It was in the same nature. A clown in our language is called heyoka. He is an upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no man, a contrary-wise. Everybody can be made into a clown, from one day to another, whether he likes it or not. It is very simple to become a heyoka. All you have to do is dream about the lightning, the thunderbirds. You do this, and when you wake up in the morning you are a heyoka. There is nothing you can do about it.

Being a clown brings you honor, but also shame. It gives you a power, but you have to pay for it. A heyoka does strange things. He says “yes” when he means “no:’ He rides his horse backward. He wears his moccasins or boots the wrong way. When he’s coming, he’s really going. When it’s real hot, during a heat wave, a heyoka will shiver with cold, put his mittens on and cover himself with blankets. He’ll build a big fire and complain that he is freezing to death. In the wintertime, during a blizzard, when the temperature drops down to 40 degrees below, the heyoka will be in a sticky sweat. It’s too hot for him. He’s putting on a bathing suit and says he’s going for a swim to cool off.

My grandma told me about one clown who used to wander around naked for hours in subzero weather, wearing only his breechcloth, complaining all the time about the heat. They called him Heyoka Osni-the cold fool. Another clown was called the straighten-outener. He was always running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy things, makin~ them straight, things like soup dishes, eggs, balls, rrogs or cartwheels. My grandma had one of those round glass chimneys which fits over a kerosense lamp. Well, he straightened it out for her. It’s not easy to be a heyoka. It is even harder to have one in the family.”- John (Fire) Lame Deer – Seeker of Visions

Led by the medicine men,

the dancers made a solemn march from the sun-dance tipi to the dance circle. The medicine man who acted as intermediary to the Great Spirit walked ahead along a marked trail carrying a painted buffalo skull. This was placed upon the altar facing the sacred pole together with a loaded peace pipe. Before the men underwent their ordeal it was the babies’ turn to have their ears pierced. A space had been covered with sage, and here the mothers sat with their little ones calling to this or that brave and wise man to perform this task. While the men pierced the tiny earlobes with an awl they told of their brave deeds and reminded the parents to bring up the children in the right way-the Sioux way. This was supposed to influence the minds of the children, but not right away, I think, because there was much crying and squealing among the little ones.”- John (Fire) Lame Deer – Seeker of Visions