Houston, we have a problem . . .

In yesterday’s post I had wanted to balance Barbara Tedlock’s description of the Mudheads with a quote about Zuni’s other major order of clowns, the Newekwe, but I ran out of room. In any case, so much has been written about the Zuni in the last 130 years, and their society is so unbelievably complex, it would be nearly impossible to do justice to any aspect of their culture in just one or two posts.

I should mention that my familiarity with this literature stems from a project a couple years ago when I was doing research for my book length poem Cibola. Set in the spring of 1539, the poem attempts to re-create the fateful encounter between the Ashiwi (which is what the Zuni call themselves) and the African shaman-conquistador Esteban. Shiwanna (Zuni) then consisted of six or seven separate pueblos that sat astride the main east-west trade route connecting the High Plains with the Pacific – a conduit for goods such as white shell and buffalo hides – and was also at the terminus of a north-south trade route, source of the ritually important scarlet macaw feathers. There is good reason to suppose that the trade in religious ceremonies and spirit beings (call them gods if you wish) was equally brisk. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the Zuni received a new dance from their traditional enemies and trading partners the Navajo which is still performed today. This dance was intended as a remedy for a specific disease outbreak; forgive me if I can’t remember which one (most of the materials I consulted were from the university library). And at the end of the nineteenth century, the Zuni were equally grateful for the assistance of Mormons from a nearby settlement in combating another epidemic, though no new ceremony was gleaned from this experience, as the Mormons relied on faith healing through the laying-on of hands.

Thus, the violent reception of Esteban in 1539 was a mysterious anomaly in Zuni’s history of generally peaceful interchange with its neighbors. (In brief, I believe the Esteban-Marcos expedition was correctly understood as the advance guard for a mission of spiritual conquest, based on a few accidental parallels with other such missions that may have occurred periodically in the region, beginning as far back as the rise of the Chaco/Anasazi culture in the 11th century.) What is most important to understand is the absolute centrality of healing – broadly understood as the proper integration of the individual body and the body politic with the cosmos – to Pueblo religion. Like other religious specialists in Zuni, the clowns are, first and foremost, medicine men.

And as a matter of fact, the Newekwe clowns are regarded as the most powerful among all the myriad religious orders. I believe this relates, once again, to the necessity of laughter, farce and parody as a kind of catalyst for all major transformations. Like Ghede in Haitian religion, the Newekwe command the crossroads between the human and spirit worlds. They resemble our image of a clown or jester much more closely than the Mudheads. They perform between dances in most major festivals, and every performance is a completely original skit. They are permitted to break every taboo, and do so with great glee. Such taboo-breaking very often includes the celebration of the material bodily realm – burlesques of sexual intercourse, non-faked consumption of urine and excrement. Nor is the parody of their more serious brethren off-limits. What Bakhtin described as official and unofficial religious expressions, in the case of medieval Europe, here exist side-by side or in alternation.

Newekwe (the second vowel is long, hence it is sometimes written Neweekwe) means something like Milky Way People, but their “cosmic” nature is anything but ethereal. Bakhtin would have been delighted to hear where they locate the center of the microcosmos: exactly where the carnival locates it, in the belly. “Membership [comes] when a person with a stomach ailment [seeks] help from the society. Neweekwe knowledge not only cures stomach aches but enables clowns to eat any kind, or amount, of food or garbage, including human excrement, and to engage in outrageous public behavior without shame,” Barbara Tedlock writes. By all accounts, even from observers who didn’t understand a word of the language, the Newekwe are extremely funny.

Incidentally, if I quote exclusively from The Beautiful and the Dangerous, that’s only in part because I don’t have many other sources at my elbow. It’s simply one of the best books ever written about the Zuni. It ranks with anything by the justly celebrated Frank Cushing, in fact, whose late 19th-century observations, collected in a number of monographs and anthologies, would be my only other source of corroborating quotes if I had them handy.

Newekwe healing can be seen most clearly in the way they help the tribe to adjust to the shocks of change, acting as interpreters for the often very threatening world that presses in from every side. For example, from the time of the Sputnik launch onward, Newekwe performances began to include burlesques of white men in space. And with the moon landing of Apollo 11, Zunis were faced with a “new threat to their religious beliefs. If what the studio cameras recorded was true and not merely a studio fiction, then the Moon Mother, who together with the Sun Father is the ultimate source of all light and life, had been violated by two crew cuts in a metal space capsule. Not only did these men fail to practice sexual abstinence and make offerings of jeweled cornmeal and prayer feathers before they visited the Moon Mother, but they tramped around on her, planting a TV camera, seismometer, mirror array, solar-wind detector, and a permanently curled plastic American flag in her belly. And then, just before departing, they removed nearly fifty pounds of soil and rock, her sacred flesh, without offering her so much as a prayer.” Tedlock’s informants described the whole space program as Exhibit A to support the general contention that white men are all witches, or spiritual adversaries – “harbingers of the coming of death to the world.”

One afternoon shortly after the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, Tedlock joined the rapt audience as “an astronaut clown climbed up on the tallest building in the Old Pueblo and, making a round ball of himself, was tossed aloft in a blanket by a group of clowns. When he landed on the plaza below, he was surrounded by clowns bearing a stretcher. They hauled him over near the central kiva to a group of nurses and doctors, who examined him carefully with their stethoscopes, pounded him all over with their rubber hammers, took his blood pressure, made him pee into a paper cup, gave him a series of shots in both arms and buttocks with a giant hypodermic syringe, then asked him what it was like on the moon. He reported that there were people, animals, mountains, volcanoes, lakes and watermelons – all to howls of laughter.

“Over and over clowns dressed as satellites, rockets and astronauts ran madly around the village, threw one another into the air, and fell off roofs. Finally, in a wonderfully risqué skit, a clown from Houston Control telephoned the moon to talk with ‘The Man in the Moon Mother.’ Audiences laughed and laughed at the absurdity of space exploration . . . ”

The other Newekwe skits Tedlock describes in detail parodied the annual Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, making fun not just of other Indians but, more incisively, of Indians who play Indians and the white people who love or hate them. Role reversal and travesty abounded: the “Indians” put drunk “Whitemen” in jail; a transvestite sang “Indian Love Call” in a screeching falsetto; make-believe Plains Indian fancydancers rotated on their bellies in the dirt. And to cap things off, the newly elected members of the tribal council were forced to participate in a blasphemous skit mocking their office and parodying their supposed greed.

“Neweekwe clowning, because it revolves around a continuing discovery, or rediscovery, of religious and secular boundaries, provides an anticreed for a religion that lacks any formal creed, or codified body of doctrine. Beyond creeds and anticreeds, the clowns, by their burlesques, display their ultimate detachment from the particulars of religious beliefs of all kinds. . . . In their gluttony the clowns even violate the boundaries of their biological being: not satisfied with saying the unsayable, they eat the inedible.

“Their path is finally that of the Milky Way, arching clear across the night sky. From this perspective, they see boundaries, of whatever sort, as easy hurdles rather than as walls. Which is why they never laugh at their own jokes but, by causing others to laugh at the leaping of a boundary, share a moment of shamanic detachment with the uninitiated.”

Clown societies such as the Newekwe have probably played a central role in the cultural survival of the Pueblo and Din&#233 peoples. As Aldous Huxley seemed to recognize with his portrayal of Zuni in Brave New World, it is quite possible that we will ourselves fall victim to the on-going spiritual conquest of the Americas – and the world, and worlds beyond – long before these wise and good-humored people ever lose their sense of balance – or their bounce.
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Barabara Tedlock’s The Beautiful and the Dangerous remains in print. As a Penguin book, it should be easy to order from your local independent bookstore. But here are the links to Amazon and Powell’s for those who, like me, lack that option.

Unlike the Rio Grande pueblos (which were much more traumatized by Spanish rule), Zuni remains open to tourists during its frequent ritual performances, though photography is strictly forbidden. As the official website of the Zuni Tourism Department says, “there are restrictions in place for non-Zunis wishing to witness our religious activities. We ask that visitors respect our cultural privacy by following the appropriate etiquette and guidelines.” Hiring a guide (necessary for any real exploration of the reservation, including ecotourism) should help visitors avoid giving inadvertent offense. Finally, if you can afford it, please be aware that your support of the Zuni arts is vital to the maintenance of their rich ceremonial life. Cottage-industry production of high-quality arts and crafts helps support around 80% of Zuni households, which allows Zunis to maintain control over the single most endangered resource essential to communal spiritual health: time. Throughout Indian Country, the time-pressures of wage labor have been as much if not more injurious to the practice of native religion than all the efforts of missionaries put together.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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