The Native American Clowns Who Bit The Heads Off Live Mice

Eating animal parts way before Khaleesi.

Fear of clowns is called coulrophobia, and it’s one of the most common phobias in America. Tons of people get the chills when they see white face makeup and a red nose. But in reality, what can a clown do to you that’s worse than, say, a pie in the face?

Not much. But you’re about to meet some clowns who make people’s lives miserable whenever they want — and nobody will do a damn thing about it.

The clown as we know it dates back to the Italian commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, with their boorish fools laying the groundwork for the modern face-painted goofball.

But if you look away from Europe, you’ll discover that the New World has its own clown tradition, one replete with both mischief and meaning.

The Pueblo Indian tribes of the southwestern United States have their own clowns with a much more complex relationship to the society they live in. Pueblo clowns are a secret society of men who don masks or face paint to act out bizarre performances during tribal holidays. The Zuni and Hopi tribes are some of the best known, but dozens of Pueblo tribes have their own groups of clowns, each with their own rituals.

Their performances aren’t mere pratfalls and seltzer bottle sprays. Although the basic goal is simple — making audiences laugh — Pueblo clowns do it by flouting every social norm in the tribe. The Zuni tribe’s clowns, known as Koyemshi, have long been notorious for pushing the envelope to disturbing lengths. From the 1902 annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology:

Each one endeavors to excel his fellows in buffoonery and in eating repulsive things, such as bits of old blanket or splinters of wood. They bite off the heads of living mice and chew them, tear dogs limb from limb, eat the intestines and fight over the liver like hungry wolves… The one who swallows the largest amount of filth with the greatest gusto is most commended by the fraternity and onlookers. A large bowl of urine is handed to a Koyemshi, who … after drinking a portion, pours the remainder over himself by turning the bowl over his head.”

Every Koyemshi clown represents a different aspect of their tribe, and acts out an inversion of its qualities. The warrior Koyemshis are cowardly and inept, for example. By serving as bad examples, they reinforce the natural order of the society and act as a pressure valve for unhealthy ideas and behaviors.

Pueblo sacred clowns. | sarahzust.tumblr.com

The clowning on display here is transgressive, wild and often disgusting, involving absurd sexual gestures and bodily fluids. Although social mores have tempered their behavior in the century since that Bureau of American Ethnology report was written, modern Pueblo clowns still push the limits of what’s acceptable.

That can be tough for the people who have to deal with them. In addition to their own shenanigans, the clowns pick out people who have transgressed and publicly humiliate them. At festivals they freely steal anything that’s not nailed down, mock the vanity of young women, wrestle with young men and generally behave badly.

This act isn’t just for laughs, though. The comedy of Pueblo clowns serves as a way for their societies to reinforce the social order. By setting a bad example in the most outrageous way possible, they demonstrate the fool’s path and encourage young people to avoid it.

Documenting modern Native American clowning is a challenging affair. The tribes ban photography, and the clowns don’t really talk to outsiders. The best ethnographers can do is observe and try to intuit why they’re doing what they’re doing.

It’s fascinating that this tradition of clowning has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Even as Native American tribes modernize and assimilate into society, clowns still have purpose. Sure, they may seem like they’re just goofing around, but these performers are carrying on traditions that kept their tribes healthy and happy for hundreds of years.