Sacred Clowns of Taos Pueblo

Updated from 9/99 issue of the Horse Fly Newspaper |

For our delight, reflection and mild terror, San Geronimo Day brings forth the Sacred Clowns (Koshares), those scary black and white-striped mischief-makers who victimize all who happen to catch their ever-searching eyes. Bad attitudes and poor manners are spotted with uncanny accuracy and instantly imitated. Society at large is under the Koshares’ piercing scrutiny. 

Sacred Clowns of the Hopi and Pueblo peoples, inspired by divine spirits, teach traditional native ways. They form a bridge between the material and spiritual worlds, always contrasting the sublime and the ridiculous.Their antics impact most individuals and organizations within the Pueblo. Complex topics at Taos Pueblo (now you see it, now you don’t) make for a busy performance agenda most years.

We love clowns as amusing comic characters with painted faces, dressed in absurd costumes. The Greeks and Romans produced padded, bald-headed buffoons with gigantic dildos strapped around their waists. The Italians created Harlequin and Pantaloon, France, the tragic white-faced Pierrot, while the circus clown with baggy pants and oversized feet originated in Germany. Koshares are more in the tradition of the jester of the Middle Ages, who amused by offering unwelcomed advice while mirroring society.

Koshares appear on Taos Pueblo rooftops around 2pm. Loud, boisterous clown-talk shoots across the Pueblo Plaza as they tumble, stumble, bumble and fly across rooftops. Encounters with bystanders occur as the merry tricksters scurry toward the selling-stalls. An enduring clown theme is displaying societies passion for the marketplace. Vendors signal the impending arrival of the Koshares by covering merchandise with large blankets and heavy plastic sheets. Otherwise it will be taken by the macabre pranksters. Usually a token gift, a piece of fruit or other edibles, is placed on top of the covering, in hopes the clowns will grab the offering and quickly depart. Nobody wants a direct encounter with the masters of biting social commentary.

One year a tourist couple, decked out in cowboy hats, turquoise and silver, is shoveling food into their mouths with gusto. Suddenly out of nowhere two sacred ones appear directly in front of them. Each clown grabs a paper-plate and brings it up close to his black painted smile, imitating the tourists in detail before returning the plates empty. Off they scamper, snatching a Native American infant for the ice-water treatment., The tiny infant is held aloft like a loaf of bread as they run down to the river. Natives consider infant dunking a blessing of strength for the child.

The style of performance is improvisational interaction. The audience is a major player. The tricksters represent us, mimicking our behavior, acting like children who can’t behave. The juxtaposition of sacred impulse and pedestrian reality creates a unique and meaningful experience for careful observers. 

Newcomers to San Geronimo Day gather around the towering pole at the center of the plaza. Don’t sit there all day waiting. The clowns are all around creating a varied array of vignettes, many with ribald sexual content. Follow them as they dash from adventure to adventure. Late in the afternoon they disappear for a period. Just when you think they may not be returning, their corn-husked heads become visible in the distance bobbing toward the greased pole. 

The final act involves a slow circling of the pole. They start at the outer edge of the cleared arena pantomiming a search, ignoring the pole at the center. Their circling draws them closer and closer to the pole. The first clowns to arrive at the pole grab a rope hanging from the pole. Other clowns grab the end of the rope and lift the other one into the air and circle the pole running. It’s a riot enjoyed by all. 

At some point they find the treasures secured at the top and begin comic attempts to climb the pole. Burlap bags of unknown delights, placed next to a deer or a goat, tease the imagination. Acrobatic negotiations to climb the pole are always hilarious, filled with mockery and ridicule as they continue in their roles as keepers of the traditions. Better watch out, you may get caught with your pants down.