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 According to archeological evidence and oral history, the people of the Wampanoag

Nation have occupied eastern New England, from modern day Revere, Massachusetts

to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island for over 12,000 years.

 

 

Laughter Keepers

Exploring The Medicine Clown Tradition

of the Wampanoag

 By Mwalim

Storyteller, Playwright & Folklorist

 

If all attempts to destroy a people have been unsuccessful, can you actually say that you have destroyed their traditions as well? Or have they merely been suppressed? One such tradition was that of the Medicine Clown among Northeastern Algonquin people, particularly, the Ahanaeenun or “Laughter Keepers” of the Wampanoag Nation of eastern Massachusetts.

Medicine Clowning is a practice that exists among many Native American cultures, in one form or another. In general, medicine people among native cultures serve to provide and maintain physical, spiritual and emotional health among their respective communities. In particular, the clown’s focus is emotional and spiritual healing, serving as oracles, counselors, mediators, storytellers, teachers and tricksters. The best-known manifestations of medicine clown practice are the Hyokas of such western native people as the Hopi. Medicine Clowns are occasionally referred to as "sacred clowns," which is a bit of a misnomer. Unlike post earth based European cultures, almost all sacred and secular practices; rituals and activities are not separated. The Ahanaeenun is a little known tradition, with very little in the way of written records of their existence, surviving primarily through oral tradition and lore, with the Ahanaeenun surviving principally as storytellers.

The Ahanaeenun is a branch of the cultures medicine community, using humor and satire as a means of bring social and spiritual healing to people and the community at large. This practice in particular was suppressed upon the landing of the early European colonists who found the various spiritual practices of the Native people offensive, but this one more so, believing that the practitioners were dealing in magic, therefore making it an evil activity. Although suppressed, the tradition was kept alive in the form of oral history and folklore. Among the Wampanoag, storytelling primarily served as a means of preserving the ethics and beliefs of the people through allegorical tales of animals, people and magical beings, similar to the fables of Aesop. This form of storytelling and the tales produced through it, often called medicine stories have been a staple in Wampanoag culture as long as their have been Wampanoags.

The majority of Wampanoag writers and historians who have documented the roots and developments of their culture, are of the 20th and 21st Centuries, their information being based on oral history from elders, cross referenced with the documentation of 17th, 18th and 19th Century European writers and historians, whose writings hold traces of the Ahanaeenun’s existence. To date, many Wampanoag historians have over-looked the tradition simply because they did not know what to look for in terms of the characteristics and functions of the practice. However, just as the language of the Wampanoag was regenerated through the efforts of Wampanoag linguists and scholars, the Ahanaeenun tradition has been researched and regenerated by Wampanoag performing arts historians, folklorists and oral historians. Before we examine the tradition and the steps taken to preserve it, let us look at the people that it comes from.

According to archeological evidence and oral history, the people of the Wampanoag Nation have occupied eastern New England, from modern day Revere, Massachusetts to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island for over 12,000 years. Upon the arrival of the so-called Pilgrims, the nation consisted of over 40 tribes and bands. At present less then 12 organized bands and tribes remain. During the period of 1830 to 1875, the United States of America’s Census Department deemed over 100 Native American Nations and tribes as extinct, believing that since the arrival of the first European settlers, they had effectively destroyed the people and their respective cultures and practices. Criteria for deeming a band extinct included:

1)      Whether or not the members of the community maintained their religion, language and traditional way of life (which was never clearly defined).

2)      The level of clear and obvious intermingling between Native communities and Africans.

Although Wampanoag people maintained their communities, the practice of their religion and use of their language was rendered illegal by the European colonists and enforced through a myriad of harsh methods. As a result, the Wampanoag communities had adopted many of the customs and practices of the Europeans. In addition, many Northeastern tribal communities made it a regular practice of giving asylum to runaway slaves and indentured servants, dating back to the first arrival of bonded Africans in the region. Hence, the various communities of Wampanoags throughout the territories were not spared this administrative genocide. To this day, many government officials believe that if Native Americans do not live as they did 500 years ago, they should be considered extinct.

One of the practices among Native people that the Puritans found most offensive was that of the Medicine Clown, whose activities and practices were considered demonic. In the writings of Edward Winslow of the Plymouth Colony, particularly his text “The Glorious Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England” (1649) we find references to riddlers and tricksters among the Wampanoag people who were portrayed as individuals who got in the way of the colonists efforts to convert the Wampanoags to Christianity. Under the stringent rules and regulations of the Puritan’s version of Christianity, theater and its related practices were considered an abomination. A lingering example of the puritan attitude is the fact that Harvard University, to this day, does not offer any form of theater arts as a degree-granting major because theater is not considered to be a gentleman’s profession.

In exploring the history of the expansion of Christianity as an organized religion, we find that all earth-based spiritual practices have posed a threat to the churches ambitions for exclusivity on providing emotional and spiritual guidance. One of the recurring rhetorical tools was to demonize the deities, spirits and clergy of a group’s practice. For example, the horned god of Europe’s pre-Christian pantheon became the image of the devil in the 13th Century, as did Ellegba, the trickster god of the Yoruba in West Africa. With this campaign, the spiritual elements of the theater and clowning were suppressed into simply becoming a form of entertainment. With the growth of fundamentalist forms of Christianity among the Protestants, theater and clowning were outlawed.

With this history it would be only natural that the Puritans would be threatened by the spiritual practices of Native people. One such tale, which is purported to be a true story, was often told by the late Chief Sly Fox (Vernon Pocknett, Sr.) of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is “Weasel Man”. So the tale goes, many Mashpees had gathered in the meetinghouse one Sunday to hear the gospel of a white pastor. As the pastor preached, a weasel ran into the meetinghouse, looking at the people and running all about the meeting. It was not unusual for animals to wander into meeting, so nobody saw it as unusual, until the weasel ran up to the pulpit and stood next to the pastor. The weasel then transformed into a man. The man was somebody that was known to the Mashpees as a medicine man who lived off by himself in the woods. He asked the assembly if their preacher could do that too, then changed back into a weasel and scurried out of the meetinghouse. It was said that the pastor quickly changed his sermon to a discussion about the demons that exist among us. Some medicine clowns are known to be amazing acrobats and contortionists, not unlike the Yogi’s of the Far East. The oral history and lore of the Wampanoag also contains many tales of shape shifters and changelings, including the fore mentioned “Weasel Man.”

Why should we believe that the Ahanaeenun existed? With very little in the way of documentation to go by, a small team of Wampanoag historians, both traditional and academic, utilized a combination of sociological profiling and oral history to identify their clown. First, let us consider the fact that the word exists in the Wampanoag vocabulary. Why would the Wampanoag have a word for a person if the person did not exist? Second, we have to consider that several aspects of community structure bear close similarities across Native American cultures and communities, for example, clan systems, chiefs and chief councils, medicine people, elders councils, warrior societies, etc. Third, we must also consider that many western and several southern Native American cultures have maintained a form of the medicine clown. Fourth, we must also recognize that some form of clowning and/or theater have always existed throughout the world, in all cultures and societies. As a result, the hypothesis became one of: It makes sense that the Ahanaeenun exists.   

Another cross-referencing fact is one of nature: No society can exist and thrive without a release. All living things require a means by which to purge themselves. Theater and clowning have historically been the means by which societies have emotionally, and in some cases spiritually, cleared themselves of issues and tensions. As mentioned before, theatre and/or the clown have existed in all societies and civilizations in one form or another. For example, many West African cultures have traditions that are collectively called the griot tradition, whose functions and activities are similar to the general functions of a clown. According to Metu Neter, by Ra Un Nefer Amen, the priests in the temples of Memphis would enter a trance and embody the spirits of ancestors and deities and act out tales and events from history and lore as a healing and guidance ritual for those attending. It is believed that this ritual was the basis for Greek theater. The Japanese have Kabuki and Europeans had the various traditions of minstrels, troubadours, jongleurs and jesters who served similar functions to those noted above.

From this hypothesis, the team examined the general profile of a clown as well as the general profile of the medicine clowns in Native American cultures. The term clown is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and applies to a practice among certain members of a community who are tricksters, riddlers, jokers as well as teachers and healers using their antics as a means of bringing and maintaining spiritual and emotional balance among the members of that community. Clowns are considered the embodiment of super natural beings and spirits who would bring blessings or curses to people based on their words and or deeds. Not unlike the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” the ability to bring emotional relief from intense events, issues and conflicts is viewed as a sacred activity. The emotional and spiritual healing that came from these rituals and performances is similar to what Aristotle referred to as the catharsis in his text The Poetics, relating to the purpose and impact of theater in Greek society.

As oracles and counselors, community members would consult clowns to help put concerns and issues into perspective. One such activity would be dream interpretation: the analysis of people’s dreams, as well as their own visions, as a means of understanding the present and the future. It was also used as a method of detecting issues that might be damaging to the persons emotional and spiritual well-being. This is similar to the services provided by clergy and mental health professionals who counsel those with issues and concerns that are impacting their emotional and spiritual well-being.

Another principle function of the clown is mediator, providing assistance in conflict resolution. A clown’s ritual for conflict resolution is similar to a theater or storytelling performance in the round, where the community would assemble in the round, particularly including the parties who were having or causing the conflict. If there is a social conflict in a given community, or between different communities (tribes, nations, etc.) the clowns will bring the community together for a session to address the conflict. Using a forum similar to theater, the clowns will act out the situation or events, using humor and satire to ridicule the situation until

they have everybody laughing about it. Once the laughter has begun, they can actually address the conflict directly and guide the community and/or parties towards resolving it. This is not unlike the traveling theater companies in Europe who would venture from village to village, town to town often presenting plays and performances that would address and often satirize the policies, attitudes, behavior and activities of those who ruled and/or administered over the land.

Medicine Clowns also provided advising and counsel to sachems (chiefs) and clan leaders. Ironically, clowns and jesters also provided services to the rulers of Ancient Europe, using their antics and jokes to investigate and reveal the acts of enemies and traitors to the rulers. As storytellers and tricksters, medicine clowns are among the wise people of the community, capable of memorizing thousands of years of history and hundreds of tales. In many Native American cultures, tales are the keys to the traditional philosophy and ethics of a community. According to Traces of a Hidden Tradition in Masonry and Mediaeval Mysticism, by Isabel Cooper-Oakley, it was the troubadours that preserved hundreds and thousands of years of history and arcane wisdom in their songs and tales. Likewise is said about the role of griots in the book The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities, edited by Isidore Okpewho, Carole Boyce Davies, and Ali A. Mazrui.

According to the lore of various Native American cultures, including the Hopi, Cherokee, Apache, Navajo and Cheyenne people, medicine clowns were also often viewed as shape-shifters and changelings. Among some medicine clown traditions, clowns did things backwards, such as walking, dressing and speech (e.g., saying goodbye, for hello or vice versa, etc.) the belief being that doing things backwards would help to correct problems caused by the deeds of regular people.

Some contemporary examples of Hyoka’s activities include: A Hyoka in New Mexico hosted a sweat lodge (A purification ritual similar to a steam bath, using hot rocks and water). As the other attendees entered wearing shorts or loincloths, the Hyoka sat in the lodge wearing heavy wool pants, a winter snorkel coat and a scarf. As the others sat in the lodge sweating, he sat there huddled up and shivering. At the 2002 Sundance Gathering of Nations, a Hyoka attended, but instead of dressing in traditional Hyoka garb and giving tobacco to the elders, as tradition dictates, one Hyoka wore a barrel with suspenders and handed out candy.

In the lore and oral history of the Wampanoag, tales and legends of tricksters abound, including people and events that are documented in Wampanoag history. While not documented in such an official capacity as Ahanaeenun, their actions and behaviors fit the profile of what an Ahanaeenun would do: addressing and resolving conflicts with humor and satire, providing counsel to people in need of guidance and serving as storytellers. Another common characteristic among those who would be considered of the Ahanaeenun is that they are often very intelligent people who are often considered odd and/or peculiar to their contemporaries.

Some examples would include: The legendary medicine man of the Wampanoag people during the 1920’s and ‘30’s, Robert James seemed able to communicate with animals and plants. There was also Harold Tobey, who on a dare was able to bring a sudden rainstorm to Boston’s Government Center in 1973 through prayer. Another legendary medicine person of the Wampanoag people is Granny Squanit, is said to have lived during the 18th Century and was a tiny woman, whose moccasin prints resembled rabbit foot prints in the dirt. Known for her advanced knowledge of herbs and spiritual matters as well as her quick temper and favor of seclusion, Granny’s legend among the Wampanoag people became one used to scare poorly behaved children, who were told that they would be magically carried off in the night by her.  One keeper of the Granny Squanit tales is Joan Avant-Tavares, a Mashpee Wampanoag elder and the Beaver Clan mother. A favorite activity of Mashpee children on Halloween is to walk through the woods in the Noisy Hole Road area of Mashpee (The location of Granny’s home) where they are greeted by Mrs. Tavares, dressed as Granny.

In 2000, under the guidance of the Mashpee Wampanoag Elder’s Council, a handful of Wampanoag storytellers, oral historians, singers and dancers, formed the Wampanoag Medicine Clown Society or the “Ahanaeenunash”. Until this time there has been no known organization or order of Medicine Clowns among the Wampanoag. However, after conducting the research into the practices and existence of clowns in the community a strong need of an organized effort to preserve and continue the tradition was recognized. Of course, with the documentation of the tradition (much of which is not available to the general public) also came recognition of the activities, objectives and practices of the contemporary Ahanaeenun. Such contemporary issues included community, lifestyle, and language.

In 1870, the Mashpee territory was taken by the commonwealth of Massachusetts and incorporated as a town. Up until the mid 1970s, tribal members ran the town government and it’s various departments. As the fastest growing town in Barnstable County, Mashpee Wampanoags now account for less then 15% of the total town population. In spite of this, the Mashpees have maintained a community with traditional tribal leadership, including a Satchem, Satchem’s council, elder’s council, clan system and medicine people. The Medicine Clown Society, as tradition dictates, is accountable to the elder’s council. The society consists of about ten principle members who were approved by the elders. The society also has several apprentices, selected by the society members and approved by the elders as well.

All contemporary Wampanoag people speak English, with a small number currently studying the Wampanoag language under the instruction of Wampanoag Linguist, Jessie “Little Doe” Fermino. All members of the Ahanaeenunash are required to study the language, recognizing that preserving the traditional aspects of the practice would require a working knowledge of the language that the practice existed in. Such things as the principles and rituals of the society for example are written in phonetic Wampanoag and cannot be translated into English.

With the influence of European society and culture, the division of the sacred and the secular has worked its way into the world of the Medicine Clown as well, with their work dividing into public activities and those activities limited to tribal community and closed rituals. Public activities include such things as storytelling and “clownings.” Clownings are public pranks with a message.

Some examples of recent clownings include:

¨      A group of clowns, dressed in traditional Wampanoag regalia, entering a supermarket that was built on traditional hunting grounds and proceeding to hunt for food with bows and arrows (suction cup tips) in the meat, frozen food and canned good sections and claimed the food under aboriginal hunting rights (All food hunted for was paid for prior to the stunt).

¨      A group of clowns were asked to come to a multicultural festival and sing “authentic” Wampanoag songs. The group arrived with their drum and proceeded to sing songs in a Native fashion, but the lyrics were by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley. Traditional dances were also augmented with break-dance moves. They also stated that the songs were authentic because all of the singers were on a tribal roll under the Wampanoag Nation.

With the introduction of technology and the written word, the tools of the Ahanaeenun have also increased. Contemporary Ahanaeenun are exploring such avenues as the Internet, interactive software, film and video production and the publishing of books and documents as a means of conducting their work and developing a self-sustaining mechanism for their order’s activities. Ahanaeenun are also actively engaged in developing a form of performance that will incorporate both traditional Ahanaeenun styles of storytelling and conventional theater. The works produced through these means would in no way exploit the traditions of the practice, but provide the public with examples of the contemporary arts and culture of the Wampanoag.

In spite of several hundred years of the impact of European based American culture, Wampanoag people have succeeded in maintaining their culture and traditions, using aspects and tools of the impacting culture to preserve many traditions and restore others. Although many traditions have been suppressed, they have not been completely destroyed and there is enough information, through conventional academic means as well as traditional oral histories of the people to allow those traditions to resurface and thrive. While these traditions must be restored in their historic context, their ability to continue requires an understanding of how to put them in context of the contemporary society and world. In this particular case, we have explored how a clown tradition that was suppressed has been restored and reactivated by members of the community and culture. While the tradition has been altered, due to the impact of other cultures, it must be recognized that all cultures and their respective traditions have been altered due to similar contact. Either way among the original people of Massachusetts, the Ahanaeenun still exist and still labor to maintain the spiritual and emotional well-being of their community in a modern society.

Mwalim is a Historian of performing arts traditions, folklorist and keeper of the Wampanoag Medicine clown tradition  / mwalim@gmail.com  / http://www.mwalim.com

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