Archive for February 2010

Why Bluejay Hops…

February 18, 2010

One of the last times I heard my relative Sobiyax (Bruce Miller) tell a story was at a conference in Las Vegas. He was in a wheelchair and looked frail.  I still thought of him as being so large and strong.  He had once punched out a horse.  He broke his hand.  When our van was blocked by a car that had parked too close, he managed to push it so hard, it tipped enough for us to back out. 

Diabetes had taken away one of his legs; a stroke would take his life a few months later.  At the conference, Sobiyax told the Twana story of “Why Blue Jay Hops.”



Long ago, long before the coming of the Great Flood, Blue Jay was hungry.  He was excited to hear Bear inviting people to his Longhouse for a feast.

 image courtesy of

The food was placed in the proper ceremonial way, but there was no oil.  Now in those days, one would dip one’s food in oil, much the way today you might spread butter on your bread, or put dressing on your salad.

When the people saw there was no oil, they started to mutter, “Why Bear doesn’t even know how to give a feast!” 

Another commented, “No Oil! How Rude.  We should just go home.”


Bear heard what they said, and laughed.  “You want oil?” he called out.  “I’ll give you oil!”  And he danced out to the middle of his Longhouse where the fire was burning and the salmon was roasting.

He sang his Song and as he sang he rubbed his hands together.  Now bears have a lot of fat underneath their skin, and the heat of the fire started to make the fat melt, and it dripped out in the form of oil.  This was caught by his relatives in a large wooden bowl and passed around to his guests.

Someone was watching this and that someone was Blue Jay.  He envied the Power and magic of Bear.  Before the people left, Blue Jay called out, saying, “Next full moon, I invite all of you to my Longhouse for a feast!”

The following moon, the people gathered at the home of Blue Jay.  Once again, they were shocked to see there was no oil. 

“Blue Jay doesn’t even know how to give a feast!” 

“How rude!  No oil!  We should just go home.”

            Blue Jay laughed and shouted, “You want oil?  I’ll give you oil!”  And he danced out to the middle of his Longhouse, where the fire was burning.  He sang the Song of Bear, and began to rub his hands – really his feet – together over the fire in the manner of Bear.

            Now our Old People teach us that everyone has a Song. Part becoming an adult is learning what your Song is, so you can become all that you can be.  A Song can be given; a Song can be shared.  But a Song must never be stolen.

Someone was watching.  And that someone was the Creator.  The Creator was so angry, He made the fire jump up and it burned Blue Jay’s feet.  And that’s why even today when you see a Blue Jay, his feet are dark and twisted, as though they’ve been burned in a fire.

image courtesy of v4vodk    A Blue Jay can’t walk like a normal bird.  He can only hop.  Even today, Old People will say, “He hops like a Jay,” which means the person they’re talking about is a thief.

The Trickster best known to non-Natives is Coyote, but if you continue further up in the Pacific Northwest, Native people will tell Raven stories that sound very similar to those of Coyote. Among some of the Native communities in between, the stories will focus on Blue Jay, and the Winter Spirit Dances are sometimes called Blue Jay Dances.  In one story, Blue Jay rescues light, but in doing so, a door slams shut on his poor head, resulting in its odd flattened shape.

 image courtesy of vidterry

A resource I would suggest, not only for Native American material, is the NPR program, Sound & Spirit. Fantasy writer Ellen Kushner is the host and co-producer, and the program frequently features mythological themes. Click here ( and then scroll down through the archived programs to discover a terrific show on Tricksters, as well as one on Native Americans, and yet another on Storytelling.

If you are looking for some written Native American resources, you might try a curriculum ( created for the U.S. National Park Service.  In a number of Parks, staff will do “interpretive” work interacting with visitors, particularly children.

            One of my relatives, Elaine (“Choppie”) Miles, used to work summers portraying Sacajawea.  She became better known a few years later on the television program, Northern Exposure, playing the nurse, Marilyn. 

And finally—you might enjoy reading the words of Sobiyax, discussing ecology and the story of trees…


As for this post’s recipe, I would suggest a tasty smoked salmon spread.  Sobiyax was very fond of this and would often sit watching television while sharing a version of this with friends and relatives, usually dipping into it with potato chips.  I’ve also used it as a sandwich spread with various other items.

Take about ¼ cup of mayonnaise or miracle whip—oh, who am I kidding…use real mayonnaise…the salmon deserves it.  Mix in at least 6 ounces of Smoked Salmon.  For me, canned Smoked Salmon was always “handmade.”  Sobiyax and others would work hard putting away dozens of jars to use through the year.  When I was teaching ethnic cooking, I would suggest Whole Foods, which carries small jars of Copper River Smoked Salmon  This  is about the closest I’ve been able to find commercially to what I would enjoy on the reservation.  Again—we live in the age of internet shopping, so I’m sure you can easily track Smoked Salmon down.  Squeeze in about a teaspoon of lemon juice.  I also sprinkle in a few drops of Frank’s Red Hot, but hey—I was shaped by years in the American Southwest.  Add a teaspoon of diced garlic, and mix in about as much Parmesan cheese (the canned stuff will do) as you did the mayonnaise.                                                                                                                  image courtesy of If it’s a little too thick, you can add a splash of heavy cream, although I suspect Sobiyax would have just added some more mayo.  Blend or mix it up – and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m not a big fan of smoothing everything out.  I much prefer to see (and taste) chunks of the Smoked Salmon rather than having it all come out to the consistency of cream cheese.