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Without Reservations

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4/20/04: Zebras on My Mind

"What is that Zebra-striped figure hanging on the wall there? What does that represent?" The customer was referring to a traditional carving of the Koshare clown. I smiled as I thought about how misunderstood these colorful characters sometimes are - and by colorful, I obviously mean in personality. Earlier the same week another woman had spotted a Kasaile clown by Lowell Talashoma and commented on how appealing he was to her, and with a quick glance she said, "Oh, and that one too!" referring to a piece by Neil David Sr.. However, she suddenly withdrew her comment when she noticed he was grabbing for his loincloth, by saying, "Oh no, no… he's rather lewd." It's usually the first impression of most visitors unfamiliar with the Hopi culture and the special role that the Koshare play within the society. I brought the figure forward where she could see it from a better angle, when she discovered that the clown was in fact being harassed by a dog that had ahold of his shorts. She seemed relieved, and, with the element of embarrassment reduced, she asked me what their function is.

I always enjoy having the opportunity to talk about the clowns. I explained to her that they represent humanity - or humankind. Their public display of ignorance and folly is a satire depicting our frailties and imperfections. Onlookers will hopefully see some of themselves in the Koshare's erratic behavior and learn from it. One of their primary functions is to show the people what not to do - by doing it! Everyone has a hilariously good time when the clowns show up, and the Koshare take advantage of every opportunity to act foolish and misbehave. It's an important outlet and a venue for behaviors that would otherwise be taboo. But this is how the Katsinam view the people - imperfect and in need of teaching. Uninitiated visitors will often mistake the Koshare's antics as crude and embarrassing.

My wife was just such a visitor when she saw the clowns in one of the first plaza dances she had the opportunity of attending. When we returned home later that evening she asked me if I had noticed what "those black and white striped kachinas" were doing. I didn't immediately know what she was referring to, but it donned on me in almost an instant that they were probably imitating certain reproductive rites - common to the Koshare repertoire during certain times of the year. Like many, and most likely as a result of her western-laden values and upbringing, she assumed this was unnecessary and inappropriate. It wasn't until after I had explained to her the sacred function of those actions (bringing fertility to the land and the people - thereby ensuring their survival) that she could accept what she had seen.

Much like their human counter-parts, you never know what the Koshare will have in store. Pranksters by nature, it's not uncommon to see them teasing nearby observers, especially Pahanas who usually have no idea what's going on and almost always stick out like a sore thumb. In spite of this, I thought it would be a good idea to take some of my extended family that was visiting over the Easter holiday to see one of the first plaza dances of the season at the Tewa village of Hano. We arrived just in time - just in time for the Koshare to single me out and drag me into the center of the plaza. At first I tried to turn tail and depart, but it was to no avail. They weren't going to let me get away that easily. My wife was again nervous and afraid of what might happen. Although I wasn't really afraid, I did suspect that I was about to be humiliated in some way. Maybe it would be a pie in my face or mud in my hair. Whatever was about to happen, I resolved to be a good sport about it and have fun.

To my surprise, I was offered a seat in the center of the plaza and the clowns heaped food upon my lap with the familiar Hopi gesture, "sit down and eat, eat!" I still didn't know what was going on, but I thought I had better do as I was told. In an exaggerated fashion they bestowed gifts of food upon me until I could barely keep the pile from spilling over. They found my wife and brought her to join me. We partook of some of the offerings and were escorted to the sidelines - after having endured a few obligatory jabs of course. My wife and I both came away from the experience having a new light shed on the Koshare. Prior to this, we both had some degree of reluctance, which uncertainty seems to be a major ingredient for misunderstanding and prejudice all over the world.

Like the woman who needed to see the carving from a new angle in order to properly appreciate and understand, perhaps we can reserve our own judgments until we have the proper perspective on various aspects of our own lives. In addition, we might do well to see a little of ourselves - and our own frailty - in the world around us and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from it.

 See our current clowns here:

The Permanent Rezident

Without Reservations: Index

Clowns from today's update:

Derrick Hayah   Neil David Sr. a Lauren David
"Ho'e Clown"   "Eatsa Pizza"   "Hardly Workin'"

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