Lesvos; children in camp

Clowns, Standing Rock, and Tribal Connections

Demonstrators at Standing Rock have been protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota since early April of this year. The numbers of protesters and police at Standing Rock have grown substantially, as have tensions and arrests. Frigid temperatures and snow have also arrived in full, adding a new level of complexity to the intense situation.

In September, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe held a rally of 500+ people to get the attention of the White House, which, combined with the well-organized protest and media coverage, may have helped. On Sunday, Federal officials announced they would not approve permits for construction of the pipeline in an area near scared burial rights and which would go underneath a dammed portion of the Missouri River. Furthermore, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would explore alternative routes for the pipeline by use of an Environmental Impact Statement. The following day, they denied a permit for construction of a critical section of the pipeline. Protesters, or “protectors” as some call themselves, had been ordered to leave their camp as of December 5. With the Army Corps of Engineer’s decision to deny the final easement to drill under the river, and DAPLs statement of intent to continue forward undeterred, and it will be interesting to see how this story unfolds.

Several professional performers who also volunteer with Clowns Without Borders trekked out to Standing Rock and joined other demonstrators in solidarity. All went for various personal reasons, but their reports back to us indicate that the atmosphere of the protesters is one of fellowship and unity. One clown has this to say about the experience in North Dakota:

Joining the water protectors at Standing Rock was a powerful, informative, and inspiring experience. The indigenous protectors accept others lovingly to come, pray, share, and be present. It is not a ‘protest’ but a mass protection of the water source and a mass prayer ceremony. I was put to use; chopping wood for the sacred fire, and was happy to put my heart and body into helping in such a practice. The courage and spirit of the protectors are exemplified in everything happening around the camp.

Historically, clowns have been a traditional part of indigenous peoples lives and held important roles within tribes. Clowns and their performances during ceremonies and religious events were officially sanctioned by the culture. The humor used was often therapeutic in that they helped people make light of taboo and sensitive subjects. In some cases, the clown helped “discipline” societal rule-breakers by publically embarrassing them and shame their wrong-doings. They were “delight makers” and entertaining, a trait that is common in all tribes or clown societies. Given the shared history of clowns and indigenous people, we are proud of the volunteers who joined at Standing Rock and reprised this role, albeit in a modern form, to alleviate for a short time, the discomforts felt by the people who stayed to protest the Dakota Pipeline.


Towsen, J. (1976). Clowns. Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York.
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