Susan Strauss

Susan Strauss is internationally recognized as a storyteller, author, and keynoter and for her signature book, Passionate Fact Workshops: Storytelling Science. She has performed for Smithsonian Natural History Museum, U.S. National Park Service, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh, National Geographic Society, and the National Gallery of Art and the Oregon Symphony.  She is the author of three other books, Coyote Stories For Children, Wolf Stories: Myths & True Life Tales, and When Woman Became the Sea: A Costa Rican Creation Myth, and has produced six recordings and original narratives for museum exhibits and a National Forest Service restoration project. She also teaches Eurythmy movement at Linden Waldorf School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Heyoke Brings Water to Sundance


It was in the fourth year of attending the Sundance ceremony at Mt. Hood that I experienced a Heyoka...a contrary...a sacred fool...for the first time.  

Every year at the Sundance, the leading Medicine man let it be known that there were certain things that we should or should not do in order to support the prayers of the Sundancers. That year, we were not to wash ourselves with water.

Already, on the first morning of this four-day ceremony, I, a suburban girl, was feeling the sacrifice. Hey, I was used to my morning shower. I thought to myself, “If I can just throw a little water on my face.” So, I carried a small bowl over to the kitchen tent to fill it with a little water. 

“Hey!” Came a low voice from along the path behind me. I turned to look back and saw the gentle smile of an older man coming along the way. He spoke directly to me, “Not even for your face!”

This is how it began and this is how the days passed. We would go in and out of the sweat lodge ceremony without washing. It always seemed to be my luck that just as they opened the flap to the sweat lodge, a small gust of wind would pick up some earth and blow it into my face. This is how the ceremony got on me and in me.

For the Sundancers, inside the sacred ceremonial center of the arbor, things were harder. They drank no fresh water for four days. No fresh water for the four days leading up to the Sundance and no fresh water during the four days of the Sundance.  They would die with no water for eight days, so they drank sage tea, bitter sage tea.  

On the fourth day, my friend, Gloria, looked very weak. When the Sundancers came out from their shady rest under the arbor and danced in their various formations around the great tree at the center, Gloria looked weakly past the crowds of us who danced and sang in support of the inner circle from our shady place in the surrounding arbor.

On the fourth day he came. The Heyoka dancer, or should I say, the one who had a vision to dance as a Heyoka. He braided his hair tightly, like Pipi Longstockings.  The other dancers let their hair loose in the wind. He painted one side of his hair royal blue. That side of his face he painted white, and the other half, royal blue. All of the Sundancers were bare-feet or wore moccasins; he wore white Nike tennis shoes. The Sundancers wore ceremonial dresses or wraps, mostly made of red cloth; Heyoka wrapped his waist in burlap.

The Sundancers were all in a formation facing south when Heyoka came jumping and dancing into the circle. He carried a bucket of water and a small bowl. He danced wildly before them, flinging scooped up bowls of fresh water. The Sundancers softly kept their eyes and thoughts beyond him on the horizon. He spilled water out of the bowl before their eyes as he danced between them—sweet, clean, pure water. The water would fly up and hang in the air like a vision of clear glass birds, an ice sculpture of birds, taking flight before their eyes and then, sinking into the dusty, dry skin of Mother Earth.   

By the end of the ceremony, by the time I had to pack up, get into a car and drive back to civilization, I had become quite fond of the dust and the dried sweat on my skin.  Slowly, I began to pack my camp. Slowly, I moved through the air, the atmosphere of camp like just another leaf or particle of earth blowing about. Then, I began the drive home.

Down, down the mountain to Portland, leaving one world and entering another. I passed mini-marts, Taco Bell, McDonalds, Taco Bell, mini-marts, McDonalds, mini-marts. When I arrived home, I hung around a bit, not wishing to wash the ceremony off. I had to work the next day so, eventually, I moved toward the shower, slowly, reluctantly, undressing, slowly, like an initiate entering ceremony; and then, the first threads of clear, cool water rushed down my face and draped over my head and down my shoulders. My heart sank like an old woman kneeling before the alter. My hands reached up to cradle the cascading flow like some monk feeling weight in his begging bowl. I opened my mouth and received the water like a thousand sacrament wafers made out of melted snow. Like manna from heaven, that water came for me. Imagine that, manna from a shower stall.

Reprinted with permission on page 64-65 in the 2017 Honoring Our Rivers. “Heyoke Brings Water to Sundance,” originally appeared in Birds of Fortune: Blessing Stories from the Book of Nature.