Magicians Reuben Fast Horse (Hunkpapa Lakota), Brian Yazzie (Diné) and Autumn Morning Star (Blackfeet/Choctaw) cast spells across Indian Country to both entertain and educate.
Magician Brian Yazzie (Diné). Submitted photo.
RAPID CITY, S.D.—Magic is on the rise in Indian Country.
For many Native tribes, no direct translation of “magic” exists in traditional languages. For instance, the Lakota interpretation for “magic” is wakhankhan and the Choctaw word is fahpo, which both refer to mysterious acts. And rather than a single word, the Navajo language uses a series of words to describe magic, tricks and mystery in various contexts, often with no English translation available.
Still, magic has special significance among Native people beyond entertainment value, according to its practitioners.
Here, three Indigenous magicians—Reuben Fast Horse (Hunkpapa Lakota), Brian Yazzie (Diné) and Autumn Morning Star (Blackfeet/Choctaw)—explore magic through cultural lenses to show how their illusions benefit Native people and educate outsiders.
Wakhankhan Wicasa: Magic Man
Defining magic can get complicated.
“There are illusionists, comedic magicians, closet magicians and clown magicians,” explains Fast Horse, who lives in South Dakota. “As for magic, there are different types to choose from: card magic, stage magic, restaurant magic and street magic. I chose comedy magic, as it seemed the most appropriate to fill any venue.”
With inviting demeanor and humorous energy, Fast Horse can make magic—including the ability to seemingly make crowds appear out of thin air—anywhere, anytime, with minimal props. He keeps a deck of cards, fuzzy pom pom balls, and a piece of physics-defying string in his pockets for impromptu performances.
Reuben Fast Horse. Photo by Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe).
But what sets Fast Horse apart from other magicians and illusionists, like, say, Harry Houdini or David Copperfield, is that Fast Horse imbues his work with Lakota language and culture.
“I wanted to teach as I performed,” says Fast Horse, who’s been a practicing magician eight years. “Using magic has challenged the language, as there are many words that do not directly translate from English to Lakota. But this is great because it exercises the language in a different way. It actually forces [the language] to expand, and I hope to bring it to the future. It also lets my audiences learn a language and be entertained at the same time.”
For example, there’s no direct translation for an exclamation like “Ta da!” in Lakota, so Fast Horse came up with “hunhunhi!” which means “impossible.” With the help of fluent Lakota speakers, like his father, Fast Horse has developed several magic-related phrases, including “wankal wayinkte,” which means “to simultaneously throw things into the air,” or “juggling.”
To translate the word “magic,” the only word that made sense to Fast Horse was “wakhankhan.”
“So, I am a ‘wakhankhan wicasa’—a magic man,” says Fast Horse, who’s never far from his trademark steampunk top hat.
Becoming a magic man was a roundabout process that began after Fast Horse spent about 20 years as a Lakota culture educator, flute player and hoop dancer. After Fast Horse says his knees began to give out from the dancing and performing, a chance encounter in 2008 with a disabled festival magician who used arm braces inspired Fast Horse to transform his routine.
“He used a TV tray and three walnuts and a pea,” says Fast Horse, who later apprenticed under the same magician for more than a year. “As I watched the crowd, I realized everyone was entertained, and it was then that I found something I thought I could do for the rest of my life: entertaining through magic.”
Benefiting the Native community and its people are at the heart of Fast Horse’s charming endeavors.
“I would want my audiences, especially the children, to walk away entertained and having learned some Lakota, which I hope will stimulate an interest in their culture and language, regardless of their ethnicity,” he says. “I want our people to see that it is okay to be Native and choose a way of life or career they would love and still be Native.”
Bringing Back a Lost Art
Yazzie’s journey into magic began when he was 13 years old while watching magician David Blaine’s first television show.
“I fell in love with the mystery of the art of magic after that and wanted to be just like David Blaine,” says Yazzie, who lives in Arizona.
Yazzie and his deck of cards are a staple at events throughout the Southwest. From powwows to fashion shows, he enchants crowds with a low-key and fun approach.
At a live art event in Phoenix earlier this year, Yazzie wowed a crowd of random onlookers with a twist on the old “pick a card any card” shtick in which he brought up the card number and suit using a piece of paper, a lighter and invisible ink. He calls the trick, “Receptive.”
Though no one Navajo word exists to describe what he does, Yazzie says magic has always existed for his people. In fact, he often performs for crowds speaking only in Navajo.
“When you read the Navajo creation story, that book is full of magic. I believe magic is a big part of who we are as Native Americans; medicine men to this day are magicians, too, but they practice magic in a different way,” Yazzie says. “The magic is all around us. I'm now opening people's eyes and their minds to something amazing and new and really inspiring our people in a different way. Magic gives us a sense of wonder and intrigue. I enjoy astonishing my people.”
A member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Yazzie’s goal is to let the audience walk away believing they experienced the impossible.
“Magic is about giving people a sense of wonder and really opening their [minds] to something different, something new,” Yazzie explains. “Magic inspires all of us and brings out the child in all of us.”
Yazzie uses his magic to break barriers.
“Magic is all about body language, and it’s all visual,” he says. “I’ve performed magic for people from all over the world, including many countries and cultures. Some of these people don’t speak English. When I perform for them in Navajo, their reactions are all the same.”
Yazzie’s goal is to open his own magic theatre one day to try and put magic on the same level as any art taught to youth, especially in Native communities.
Above all, Yazzie strives to be a positive role model for his people, much the same way David Blaine was for him.
“Growing up in a volatile home, I always looked up to David Blaine, and he is the reason I do what I do today. … [S]eeing many of our youth growing up in [an] environment I am familiar with, I thought … I could be their David Blaine. That’s really what I’m on: to inspire a nation through the art of magic. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.”
Storytelling: The Real Magic
Magic took hold of Morning Star when she was 5 years old, after a magician plucked a quarter from her brother’s ear.
“After I saw that, I pulled my brother to the side of the house and tried to pull more quarters of his ear—only to get caught by my mother, who suggested if I wanted to find out how to dig quarters out of someone’s ear, to go and learn from a magician,” Morning Star recalls. “And I did.”
Autumn Morning Star. Photo by Stephanie Jerome (Turtle Mountain Chippewa).
Morning Star, an award-winning illusionist who’s been practicing her craft for more than 30 years, uses magic to illustrate traditional Native stories, including from her Blackfeet and Choctaw background.
“The stories help us connect with the teachings of our past and bring these teachings into the present,” says Morning Star, who lives in Colorado. “Our stories help us find our community strengths, recover positive patterns, embrace ancestral connections and so much more.”
Morning Star’s performances combine magic and illusion with storytelling, sign language and traditional Native music. Morning Star says it’s important her audience knows she doesn’t use any sacred or ceremonial items in her acts and she has permission from tribal elders to share the stories she tells. She says she strives to always bring balance, respect and integrity with her up on stage.
“When stories and ways of life are disrupted, human beings struggle with issues of connection, identity and wellness,” Morning Star says. “I believe magic brings these stories to life. Magic enchants and engages every audience, and, combined with traditional storytelling, it cultivates physical balance and spiritual and emotional well-being.”
Add a traditional story to a performance trick, she says, and real magic ensues.
“Magic saved my life,” says Morning Star, who is a member of the Hollywood Magic Castle, the International Brotherhood of Magicians and Camelard College of Conjuring of Chemmis. “It helped me survive by believing anything is possible, and it is my intention to always share this with people.”
Darren Thompson (Ojibwe/Tohono O’odham) is a writer, flute player and educator from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin. He is a contributor for Native Peoples magazine, Native News Online and Powwows.com. He is also the media coordinator for the Black Hills Unity Concert. Contact him at www.darrenthompson.net.
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