The cult of the ‘contraries’ was born out of a fear of lightning.
The Lakota Sioux were famous as people who meant what they said and said what they meant —unless they were heyokas, contrarians who said what they didn’t mean and did the opposite of what they said they would as a form of ritual obligation.
The heyokas were an aberration among people with a high regard for verbal honesty. Among the Lakotas, someone who lied was referred to as iya sintehla (“talks like a rattlesnake”), as a snake, lacking external ears, uses its tongue to take in whatever comes from the outside world as opposed to simply relating the facts. The Lakotas despised people like that, responding to them with a grimace of contempt and the sign-language gesture of two fingers thrust outward, like a snake’s forked tongue. Heyokas, on the other hand, made points by saying the direct opposite of the truth—often at considerable sacrifice to their own comfort and safety. Lightning was to blame.
Like most people who live on the Great Plains, the Lakotas knew only too well how dangerous lightning storms could be to their safety. In the absence of trees to channel the electricity from the clouds to the ground, human beings, especially if they walked tall or rode horses, were frequent casualties.
The Lakotas were great observers and understood that lightning was a force of nature, emitting from the clouds to the ground and sometimes using human beings as a conduit, with unfortunate results. The leap from practical observation to theoretical heyoka ritual may seem absurd, but Europeans and literate Asians of the same era believed that “bad air” caused a range of diseases.Whites of the Victorian age also sometimes married their first cousins—Charles Darwin did, and Adolf Hitler’s father may have married his own niece, with awful results —an arrangement the 19th-century Lakotas and most other Indians had rejected. The idea that humans could reverse the course of lightning by doing everything backward isn’t scientific, but in the long run it’s a whole lot more wholesome than incest.
“Heyokas … are sacred fools, doing everything wrong or backward to make the people laugh,” explained Black Elk, who with John Neihardt authored Black Elk Speaks, the classic explication of Lakota religion. Thomas E. Mails, a Lutheran minister who respected Indians, wrote in Mystic Warriors of the Plains that the cult of the “contraries” was “ a delightful trait designed to break the potential austerity of an overdone traditional life.” Mails had a heart for tribal societies and a great eye for detail, and his books are classics. But Indians didn’t wake up one day deciding to break the potential austerity of an overdone traditional life; they woke up in a cold sweat and decided they didn’t want to be hit by lightning, which happened quite often to bison, mustangs and Indians. Thus the heyoka tradition was born.
Black Horse (Tashunka Sapa) was an early adherent. Having dreamed of thunder one night, he decided he must become a heyoka to avoid being struck by lightning. He sought instruction from the heyoka Horn Chips. To purify himself, Black Horse endured a sweat lodge ceremony, in which cold water was poured over 100 heated stones to generate steam. Then he stood lone vigil atop a butte, extending a sacred pipe to the sun, weeping continuously, until accepted as a heyoka.
Heyokas had to shiver in hot weather and ignore frost on their bare skin. They sat naked in below-zero temperatures and huddled under heavy robes in 100- degree heat. They dipped their hands into boiling water and claimed it was cold. They had to say the direct opposite of what they meant and do the direct opposite of what they were asked or told to do. Some Indians found them delightful. Others found their presence a drag.
Take the case of Running Horse, an Oglala Lakota whose sister owned a pair of rare and priceless dentalium shell earrings. Running Horse had become a heyoka—which meant people should take everything he said backward. When his sister took pride in her dentalium shell earrings as an embellishment of her beauty, Running Horse remarked: “Sister, I have just come from the encampment up the river, and saw some straight dentalium. You ought to have yours straightened too.” Ever eager to follow fashion, his gullible sister agreed to let him try it. Running Horse used a cherry pounder—a sort of padded club for pounding wild cherries into flavoring juice for buffalo jerky—to pound the earrings straight. The precious dentalium, as valuable to his sister as pearls, instead shattered. Running Horse’s nickname soon became “Shell Straightener.”
Worse followed. After getting over the loss of the earrings, his sister made him a pair of red moccasins. (Everyone among the Indians, boys and girls alike, learned how to make moccasins out of slabs of hide, and their pattern or tracks indicated which tribe the wearer belonged to. A finely decorated pair was a considerable treasure, like a fine pair of shoes.) Running Horse’s long-suffering sister, minus her earrings, had made him an exceptional pair and handed them over with the admonition, “Hohan!” (“Wear them!”). A few hours later, Running Horse’s mother entered the family tepee to find him stoking a fire built from the charred and somewhat stinking moccasins.
“Sister gave me these fine moccasins and told me to wohan [“cook them”],” Running Horse explained. His mother, too, was disgusted—a potential problem, as Lakota women provided the only vegetables and fruit to keep a warrior, or a heyoka, healthy. Indian turnips, chokecherries and other wild fruits were a minor but vital component in a diet that largely comprised the meat of buffalo, elk, antelope and anything else that forgot to duck, supplemented in a pinch by porcupine. The fallback meat was dog. The Lakotas were actually fond of their dogs, and eating one’s pooch constituted a sort of emotional sacrifice. Unlike South American tribal cultures, the Lakotas never ate people. Fish were also out of the loop, though rattlesnakes were OK, mostly just to get rid of them.
Running Horse confirmed his status as a heyoka during a hunt, showing up in a buffalo robe that restricted his ability to use a bow. Still he gamely joined in and soon rode up even with a buffalo.
“You better take off your robe to shoot at it,” his father shouted. Father knows best. Running Horse promptly reined in his horse, whipped off his hide robe, threw it on the ground and riddled it with arrows.
The Lakotas held the most consistent heyokas in high esteem, dreading sloppy amateurs for their disruption of what was, at best, a troubled situation with too many white men and not enough buffalo. Black Elk himself had been a heyoka and described a typical ceremony. “Two heyokas with long crooked bows and arrows painted in a funny way would come to a little shallow puddle of water. They would act as though they thought it was a wide, deep river….Taking their long, crooked arrows, they would thrust these into the water, not downward but flatwise under the surface. This would make the whole arrow wet. Standing the arrows up beside them, they would show that the water was far over their heads in depth, so they would get ready to swim. One would then plunge into the shallow puddle headfirst, getting his face in the mud and fighting the water wildly as though he were drowning. Then the other one would plunge in to save his comrade, and there would be more funny antics in the water to make the people laugh.”
The heyokas went into eclipse with the arrival of the reservations, and most Lakota people have long since given up saying the opposite of what they mean to ward off wayward bolts from the sky. Now when thunder and lightning threaten, they simply clamber into the family minivan and close the doors—an adaptation far less inconvenient than groping for meat in boiling water or sleeping without blankets.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.