Archive for the ‘Storyteller’ category

Coyote Cooks Press Presents: Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories

February 13, 2013

I started this blog soon after I moved to Arizona a few years ago. At the time I had long dreamed about publishing a book that would be a combination of a cookbook on Native American traditional and contemporary recipes, the meaning of food within the context of Indigenous cultures, and a sort of memoir of my experiences living and working in Native communities in the United States and other countries.

Icoyote-still-revised wanted to share in a way I had watched my relatives do–teaching and sharing with others in a non-threatening and entertaining way. It was also an opportunity to give people in the local storytelling community a chance to get a sense of the sort of Stories I would tell when performing. But ultimately, I thought of it as a chance to get something down I would one day show to a publisher.
More recently epublishing has revolutionized how books in various forms can be distributed to the public. Just so, I recently released Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories. The new book is now available on Amazon at
or Apple:
or Barnes & Noble:

It will also be coming out in a paperback version and as an audiobook. If you enjoy my work, it would mean a great deal to me if you were to leave a review on the site where you bought it, or on Goodreads. Thank you!

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories

by Ty Nolan, Coyote Cooks Press

Here are some Stories (Traditional Native Legends) and some stories (personal history.)
I am a professional storyteller and a therapist. Coyote Still Going retells the mostly Sahaptin and Twana traditional legends I was taught by my relatives. It’s also a memoir of how I have told these stories, from celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mr. Rogers to using the Sahaptin legend of the Butterfly at an International AIDS Conference in discussing grief and loss. Traditional Native American legends are powerful teaching tools.
The book also contains recipes. Food, spirituality, and community are always woven together—you can’t understand one without the others. I was raised with the importance of the sacredness of food and the legends that explain why we celebrate the First Salmon Ceremony, or why we understand taking a sip of water before a meal is a type of prayer.
Many Native Nations begin a Coyote legend with some variation of “Coyote Was Going There.” Trust me—Coyote? Still Going. It’s about time Ebooks caught up with that crazy Trickster.
You can also visit my Amazon Author Page:

Corn Dances And Vision(s)

July 23, 2012

ImageMy apologies for letting this site lie fallow for so long.  When I first moved to Arizona three years ago and started the blog, I had been going blind for some time. This blog was a little bit of comfort for me. Having lost the ability to drive greatly reduced my mobility. I was thankful for the laptop that allows me to increase the display size so I can more easily read the text.  Over the last two years I’ve undergone 6 major eye surgeries–the last two to reduce the scar tissue from the previous operations. This has led to what one of my four eye specialists calls a “life-changing experience.” He even provided me a letter to give to the Department of Motor Vehicles  authorizing a driver’s license.  He said, “Given your loss of peripheral vision–if I had tested you on Wednesday instead of Monday, you probably wouldn’t have passed.”

ImageAfter a great deal of thought (and a couple of very minor test drives) I decided not to apply for the license. One of my eye diseases is “Low Vision,” where I am unable to see unless there is a high contrast–for example, black ink on white paper.  One of my personal nightmares is shopping and picking up an item that has a colored label with colored ink.  If there isn’t a high contrast, I just can’t read the label. Another recent frustration–I was at the airport trying to use a self-check in kiosk for American Airlines, and the whole structure was black plastic. For someone with my visual impairment (and Low Vision is just one of three eye diseases I have) that means the places where you are supposed to swipe a card are invisible.  For me, it’s a solid lump of black. Just so, I feel I can drive at a certain time of day, when it’s not too bright and not too dim, but I would never consider driving at night again.  I’m rather at the “Goldilocks” stage of driving, where I should only go out when it’s “just right.”  Which basically means I take the bus or walk.

But this does mean after being able to see somewhat better–sadly, no eye operation can restore the blindness I already have–the surgeries slow down further vision loss–I’ve had a chance to return to work.  I had accepted I’d probably spend the rest of my life working from home, squinting at a computer screen.  While I’m most grateful for the surgeries and being able to work outside of my home again, it does mean I’ve really neglected this site, and felt bad several visitors had left comments that I had not had a chance to post.

ImageRecently someone asked for information on Pueblo Indian recipes, curious if this was something he wanted to explore (he’s non-Native). I usually don’t share as much about the southwest side of my family because traditionally, Pueblos tend to be very private. Our legends and family stories aren’t always shared with people we don’t know or trust.

ImageJust so, there’s always a fear you’ll be criticized by other Pueblo people as having “told too much” to outsiders. For that reason, it’s usually easier to say nothing, or always shape it with, “I can’t tell you what we do, but this is what they do down south,” or, “Well, the Hopi people do it this way.”

ImageOne of my relatives, Robert Mirabal, has achieved a lot of recognition for his artistry, and he’s embraced the 21st century’s use of social media. I’ll be a good Pueblo, and give him the space to share his words with you:

Corn Dance & Grandma Mirabal

Grandma Crucita Romero Mirabal, Aunt Annie and Uncle Tony
My first recollection of corn dance was that it was hot, boring and all the Grandmas danced all around the Pueblo. I didn’t like it and I thought, It’s not cool for our Pueblo to have such a boring dance in the middle of summer. I wanted all the people to see the really “cool” dances of Winter – Deer, Buffalo, and Turtle – those dances were the dances I liked. “This one is a Grandma dance,” I would tell Grandma Mirabal. I danced with her once and it was fun and very hard to get the rhythm. The old ladies would tease me. It was the only time that I would see my Grandma and her friends with their hair down dressed in beautiful mantas.
Grandmas of old
You see, for us, it isn’t a corn dance. It’s named something different. It’s like a prayer… They would say we sacrifice our bodies for our plants; all of them, not just what we planted.
We call it a “dance”, but it is much more holy than that.  It is one of the most important dances we have. The first corn dance is in the early part of May. The second and third are in June and the fourth and fifth are in July.
But it is not a performance. Rather it is philosophical, ancient, odd, old, and beautiful.
The touristas all gather in the heat of the day waiting for the dancers to come out and dance; they anticipate it as a performance but the participating dancers are all silent.
There are no descriptions of why we dance, what the dance is about, who participates in the dances, where they are held, who leads the dances, what is the role of women and girls, what are “feast days”, what do the dancers dance to, and who are their singers, their drummers?
This is not a show for tourists! Slowly they all disappear to their town of Fernando de Taos with nothing answered and more questions to ponder; nowhere in their brain have they ever been prepared to witness such a strange and unusual, yet serene and patient dance. The touristas who stay go into a type of altered state for awhile, sometimes staying more than five hours (though it feels longer, yet short – how does this happen?) But… during the corn dance time is  sacred and irrelevant at the Pueblo, especially on feast days.
Walla-Towa (Jemez) Corn dancers August 2nd
Understanding the Corn Dances would help you get to the heart of traditional Pueblo spiritual life but no one will tell you anything and so you would end up standing there in the heat of the summer waiting for something to happen.
The tension builds and drops without a clue. La touristas have been spectators since the first Conquistadores in the 16th century when they planted their saints in our cornfields and built their churches on sacred plots of land.
But that’s “ok” because we still know that we are much older than all that. We go back to the origin when blue and white corn sat down with us together face to face and said what we would do for each other.
We are older and much longer than the sundials that the Franciscans placed in our kivas; we the dancers know when the ancient beings – men and animals – lived as one, together side by side on our Mother Earth. And we dance our origin when corn was what we followed and we create a common bond today that links us to the original seed embedded in our DNA.
Secret and sacred? They mean about the same thing for us and for something to be sacred it needs to be secret. The Pueblo has stayed strong and powerful because of our secrets.
As the sun reaches its zenith the dancers still dance, regrouping in circles in and around the Pueblo walls and alleyways. Men and women shuffling their feet to an unknown rhythm and song that only they know and understand, stopping and moving to guttural chants.
Grandma Mirabal gave me my courage when I was lacking it. She gave me confidence in the corn dance even though I thought it was insane to dance in such heat. She told me, “Smile and be beautiful it makes the rain clouds jealous so they can pour their rain on us.”
Now as I walk among my corn fields I hear the songs and see them dance. Nothing lasts forever and even to us, every time we dance, we remember them and I understand just a little bit more of what it means to be Puebloan.
To my friends who watch stay if you can until your mind goes blank; until the timeless warp bends at your subconscious. Stay until you began to understand what your original dance is. Stay until you forget something as simple as where you parked your car. Heehee.
There are some places that you can only enter through singing and dancing and that’s the way ceremony is.
I miss the old grandmas but the deal we made with the corn maidens must still be replenished every year by a new generation and even in this crazy world we still dance the corn dance.
Santo Domingo (Kewa) august 4th
Love you,
If you’d like to know Robert better, here’s one way to follow him:
And as for today’s recipe? Here’s what I shared with the person who wanted to know more about Pueblo foods–Image

As a Tiwa Pueblo (father’s side of the family) one of my favorite publications is theSouthwest Indian Cookbook that is lavishly illustrated with the photography of the author, Megan Keegan. She also has interviews with a number of Pueblo people discussing the sacredness of food and its preparation. In many cases, the foods are displayed in Pueblo pottery and baskets. If you’re not familiar with her work, she’s been capturing the most amazing images of Native people for many years and doing an excellent job of letting the local folks speak for themselves.  Here’s one example of a recipe from Ms. Keegan’s cookbook:

4 lbs pork roast
2 cups tomato puree
1/2 cup raisins
1 teaspoon ground red chile
1/2 cup chopped sweet peppers
1 tablespoon onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 teaspoon dried sage
 1 teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup flour
Combine all the seasonings except for the chile powder.  Rub into roast.  Place roast fat side up in a baking pan and roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 21/2-3 hours. Reduce oven to 250 degrees.
Pour off drippings into a skillet; add onion and green pepper and saute until slightly wilted.
Combine flour and ground chile.  Add to skillet along with tomato puree and raisins and simmer for 10 minutes stirring constantly, until sauce thickens.  If sauce is too thick, add a little water, gradually, until sauce reaches desired consistency.
Return roast to pan, baste with sauce and roast for 30 minutes more, basting two or three times.
Yield: 6-8 servings
(I did a variation of this for the Pork Ribs I prepared for our 4th of July Dinner–although I added a tablespoon of honey to the pan drippings before basting.)  There are a lot of very easy recipes that can be done in a modern kitchen, as well as some more “exotic” recipes, such as the one for Wild Sage Bread.
Many of the recipes you’ll find in a book like this one or on-line are pretty much “pan-Pueblo,” where the basic  recipes are used in the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico and the 20th Pueblo (Tewa) on First Mesa on the Hopi reservation here in Arizona. There are minor variations, where for example at my father’s reservation at Taos, the breadImage
 is not just left “round” the way most other Pueblos do, but for special occasions, is shaped to look like a sun with rays, and you can then break off the “rays” for an individual serving. All the Pueblos use the leftover Pueblo Bread (it has no preservatives, and in the very low humidity of the SW, the bread goes stale/hard very quickly) to make a Pueblo Bread Pudding, but to the best of my knowledge, Taos is the only village to do what we call in our language Tsopa, where cheese is an additional ingredient.
(Taos-circa 1871) I was listening to an NPR interview and there was an expression of frustration with a chef who wasn’t able to find chokecherries to use in a recipe she wanted to do. Our Pueblo Pies  rather resemble a “poptart”–and our paperbread-Pili (the Hopi call it Piki), if you crumble it into a dish, it looks very much like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, other than the fact we use blue corn meal, so the flakes are blue-gray.Image The finished Pili/Piki is rolled up to cool and store, so they look like tubes. I’ve often suspected Dr. Kellogg was inspired by our paperbread, and now, having written this, I suspect Dr. Kellogg (or more accurately, his heirs) ripped off Pueblo Pies to create poptarts. We’ll use chokecherries or wild plums for a filling, but again, I don’t know what’s available in your neck of the woods–don’t want you to end up like that frustrated chef lady.Image

Story of the Butterfly

November 9, 2010

Long and long ago, when the world was still new, the Creator watched children playing.  He watched their sheer joy, and enjoyed their laughter.   In the four directions he looked, he saw beauty—before him, behind, him, above him, and below him.  He smelled the sweetness of flowers, heard the song of birds, saw the bright blue of the sky, and tasted the first touch of the coming cold on his tongue.  This reminded him that time was passing…that winter would come again…that these children would all grow old and pass away as he had watched human children do over and over again.  The leaves would turn brown and fall from the trees, and the flowers would fade to replenish the Earth. 

 He decided to create something to memorize this moment, something that would be a part of all this beauty.  And so he gathered the blackness from the hair of the children’s parents.  He took the orange and reds of the falling leaves.  He grabbed bits of sunlight, and the colors of the flowers.  He took the evergreen needles of the pines.  He took the soft whiteness of the clouds, and added all these things into a bag of buckskin. He smiled and after a moment, added the songs of the birds to his bag.

 When he finished, he held the bag close to his heart, and called the children to him. He handed them his bag and told them to see what was inside.  When they opened the bag, a cloud of butterflies emerged.  They were like winged jewels.  They were all the colors of the rainbow.  It was as if flowers were flying. The spirits of the children and the adults soared like hawks, for they had never seen anything like this before.  The butterflies, light as a lizard’s lick, touched on the heads and shoulders of their grateful audience.  The butterflies swirled around and began to sing.

 But then a bird flew to the Creator’s shoulder and began to complain.  “Why have you given our precious songs to these small and pretty beings?  You have already made them wings more beautiful than ours—why give them our songs as well?  You promised us that each bird would have his or her own song.  It is not right to do what you have done.”

 The Creator looked at the small bird and nodded.  “You are right.  I promised one song for each bird, and it is not right to give them away to others.”  So the Creator made the butterflies silent, and thus they remain today.  But their beauty touches all people and opens up the songs in our own hearts.

 Further south, it is said the world is a reflection of itself…the world of dreams and the world of work.  It is taught these two worlds are like the wings of the butterfly.  The dream world is one wing, and the working world is the other.  The wings must connect at the heart for the butterfly to fly and live.  Real life – true life—happens because of the movement of the wings.  And this is what marriage is like.  It mirrors the butterfly’s heart, kept alive by the love of the husband and wife, moving together like twin wings.

A traditional Tohono O’odham story (with a Mayan coda)      

 retold by CoyoteCooks

I was asked by a friend for help in finding an appropriate story for her to tell at a friend’s upcoming wedding.  I requested more details about  those involved,  and was told this was a couple in their 50’s, and it was neither’s first wedding.  I suggested the butterfly story, for a number of reasons.  First, I wanted a story that wasn’t overly long, since the focus should be on the ceremony and celebration rather than on a performance.  I wanted a story that acknowledged a couple who are able to appreciate their experience of marrying again in a way a couple in their early 20s who have never been married can’t fully imagine.  That’s why I emphasized in the story how the Creator both celebrated the moment of joy, but also had sadness that this was the Autumn of life, rather than the Spring.

Here’s part of the e-mail I sent to her: .

I thought this might be appropriate for your needs.  I decided to do a retelling of a traditional Tohono O’odham legend.  These are the people who are Native to the general Phoenix area, so it will let you bring a gift from where you have been.  I then finished with a teaching from Native people further south—the Mayan.

 In similar situations, after I would tell a story of this nature, I would then end by giving a small butterfly image as a gift to the new couple.  I would probably then add the suggestion:  “And in the weeks to come, you will see an image of a butterfly.  Perhaps you will be at work, or perhaps you will be with the one you love.  You will see a butterfly and you will smile, remembering this precious day.”

 She responded that she felt the story was “perfect for this couple,” and that she would let me know how the event went.

 I answered,

One of the advantages of being from the southwest is the abundance of Zuni “fetish” carvings of various animals one can find at various shops.  I notice that for butterfly “fetishes” the artists often use mother of pearl or abalone shells as their media, which I suspect, is to capture the iridescence of their models 🙂  Since these small carvings usually range from $10.00-35.00, I’ve given away quite a few during presentations.  My favorite happened when I was asked to keynote the International Academy of Sex Research when its conference was held in Seattle.  The President elect was the clinical director where I was working.  She said, “I’ve never heard you talk about sex, but you say so many interesting things in the staff meetings, I’m sure you talk about sex as well.”

 I went home to the reservation and asked my mom, “What should I tell a lot of white people from around the world about sex?”

 She said–“Go talk to your Uncle Rooster.”

 So I did–and he said, “Tell them about Coyote’s Growing Medicine.”

 And so I did, and at the end of the story, I presented a small Coyote Zuni fetish to the new president.  She later told me it’s become a tradition that when the new president takes office, he or she is presented with the coyote fetish 🙂

I wanted to pair a recipe that would go well with the Butterfly legend, and thought something light and sweet might do it.  This is Brett’s Blueberry Special:     Take a cup of fresh blueberries (or thawed) and add to a cup of diced fresh  heirloom tomatoes.  Tear fresh basil into small bits to release their fragrance and add to the tomatoes and berries.  I’ve been carefully tending my “plantation” of basil plants  that I’ve mentioned before on my patio.  Now drizzle a couple of teaspoons of honey and squeeze the juice of one fresh lime onto the ingredients.    Toss and enjoy.

OH–UPDATE:  I was happy to find this in my e-mail this morning–

Many, many thanks for sharing your version of the story of butterfly.  I told this (with appropriate recognitions) at M’s wedding last Friday.  It was the perfect story for that perfect day.  M and T and their family and friends loved it – it was especially significant to M (which was my intent).  I followed your advice and gave them a butterfly fetish (Zuni) at the end of the story – the perfect touch!
Thank you for being such a wonderful storytelling friend. 

Why You Shouldn’t Whistle At Night…

November 2, 2010

She is tall…bigger than Sasquatch, and her body is covered with long, black, greasy hair. Her eyes are large like an owl’s, and her fingers are tipped with sharp claws. Her lips are formed in the eternal pucker of an eerie whistle, and children are told if they don’t listen to their elders, she will come to them at night and suck their brains out of their ears. She is called At’at’lia, Dash-Kayah, Tsonoquah, and names whispered when the time is right, and not for publication.  Children are warned not to take food that she offers.  If she catches you, she’ll throw  you inside the basket she carries on her back.  Her basket is so large she can fit 10 children in it…and that’s her favorite meal—10 children.  She is a cannibal…she eats human flesh.


Long Time Ago…there was a young boy, named after the Silver Salmon.  He woke up early in the morning and the warmth of the rising sun felt good on his face.  He sang a song to thank the sun.  The boy went out to go fishing but he went so far he realized he wouldn’t be able to return home before the sun went down, so he decided to camp where he was.

It was late at night and the moon was full.  Now White people tell us there’s a man in the moon, but our old people tell us it’s really a frog.  And so it was , the frog in the moon was looking down at him when clouds covered the moon and everything was dark.

Suddenly he heard a strange whistling, and the clouds blew away from the moon and he could see a monster standing in the darkness.

“Don’t be afraid,” she called out to him—“People make up terrible stories about me, but I’m really a very nice person.  In fact,” she said, holding out her hand, “I’m a very nice person.  I have some berries for you…I know you must be hungry.  Children are always hungry.”  And in her claw like hand he saw a pile of berries.

When he reached to take some of the berries, she took her other hand from behind her back.  It was smeared with sticky sap from the trees.  She slapped him with her hand and his eyes were glued shut!  He was blind!  She grabbed him up and stuffed him into her basket and ran through the woods whistling.

She came to a clearing and dumped him on to the ground.  She had built a large fire and all around the fire were other children she had stolen.  She was going to barbeque them.

She was so proud of herself, that she was going to have such a fine meal of young children, she started to sing and dance around the fire.

The boy was afraid, because he knew he would be eaten.  He wished he could start his day over again.  He thought of how his day had begun, with the warmth of the sun on his face.  The warmth of the fire reminded him of the warmth of the sun.  Just so, he leaned closer to the fire.  The heat of the fire began to melt the sticky stuff on his eyes, and he could see again.  As the Cannibal Woman continued to dance, he got an idea and whispered this idea to the girl next to him, who whispered it to the boy next to her…and so it went around the circle of the children.

When she finished, the monster was so tired she could hardly stand up…and that’s when the boy shouted, “NOW!”  And all the children jumped up and pushed her into the fire.  She began to burn…but she didn’t burn like ordinary things burn. 

 She burned like fireworks!  Her body burst into a cloud of sparks…and that’s where mosquitoes come from.  They still live off the blood of young children, even today. 

That was the end of At’at’lia …but she had three sisters…and those sisters are still around.  And that’s why we teach our children “you must never whistle at night…because you don’t want to call those spirit beings to you!”

A traditional Sahaptin story

Retold by CoyoteCooks

I thought I’d share the At’at’lia legend as a celebration of Halloween.  A number of years ago, I first met the Medical Director of the clinic where I would work at a Halloween Party for Medical Residents.  He was wearing a tuxedo and a gorilla mask.  My mentor, Carolyn Attneave was a scarecrow, and I had on an articulated skull mask and a button blanket I had made.  I had been cast earlier in the play Raven, based on NW Coastal legends, and was playing “Shadowman” which explained my costume decision.

The Medical Director was from Belgium, and I asked him about Halloween customs in his own country.  He said he was shocked the first year in the United States, when children suddenly knocked on his door demanding candy.  To my own surprise, he shared Jackolanterns in Belgium were made from turnips instead of pumpkins.  In retrospect, I suppose this makes sense, given the reality pumpkins are Native America in origin—they’re a type of squash.  Pumpkin seeds dating back to at least 8,000 years ago have been found in Mexico.   In fact, the word “pumpkin” in Europe refers to what would be called “winter squash” in the United States.   In a quick search, carved turnips and other root vegetables used as a jackolantern were well known in Ireland and the British Isles, but there’s not a lot written about Halloween customs in Belgium.

(Traditional Irish Jackolantern)

 While it was certainly traditional to use fire to celebrate the harvest time, apparently jackolanterns are a relatively late addition.  Nathaniel Hawthorne is reportedly the first to mention them in 1837 in his Twice-Told Tales, making reference to making a jackolantern, and a magazine article from 1885 is the first to mention Americans introduced the idea of carving pumpkins into jackolanterns—much easier than carving a turnip.

By the way–here’s what the Trick or Treat crowd found when they rang my doorbell–

For dinner, I took a small sugar pie pumpkin, and did the standard scoop and clean, saving the seeds for planting and roasting.  I washed out the inside and rubbed in butter, with a sprinkling of garlic, ground black pepper, and salt.  I put the “lid” top back on and microwaved it for four minutes to cut off time in the oven.  Let’s face it, when you live in Arizona and it’s still hovering in the 90’s, you really don’t want your regular oven on any longer than necessary.  This is also something I often do with other squash. I  then took four slices of bacon and cut them into smaller pieces.  Plopping them into a skillet, they provided the grease to sauté chopped onion, carrots, and celery.  I also took out one of the sweet Italian sausages I’ve been enjoying, and sliced it up to add with the rest.   I seasoned the mixture with Italian herbs, and a few sprinkles of Worcestershire sauce.   When the veggies had softened and the meats were done, I added breadcrumbs, a handful of parmesan cheese,  and enough water to have a soft consistency dressing.  (btw–in re-reading, I should mention I’m not giving specific measurements, because I was “eye-balling” what would fit into the pumpkin, and that would vary based on the size of pumpkin you might use.  Since I’m always thinking a meal or two ahead, the leftover stuffing I had went into a freezer bag to be used to stuff portabella mushrooms in the next couple of weeks.)  I stuffed the little pumpkin with the dressing, placed the top back back on and wrapped it tightly with aluminum foil and placed it on a cookie sheet in a 350degree oven.  This results in a pumpkin softened to the point you can eat everything (Hey—in my family, we were raised to eat the skin of the salmon and the “outside” of a lot of vegetables) and the dressing is extremely moist.    I had also prepared chicken kabobs, and after spending about an hour in the oven, I removed the pumpkin and then used the oven to grill the kabobs.  A knife piercing the pumpkin let me know it was done, but it was easy to just look at it and know it was ready.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting recent study in China on the use of pumpkin extract which shows it may regenerate pancreatic cells.  This could have a potential beneficial impact on pre-diabetics, although American researchers stress it’s too early to know if the animal study can be directly applied to humans.  Apparently, however, pumpkin is traditionally used in Asia in alternative medicine for the treatment of diabetes.

Update:  I had some leftover stuffed pumpkin, and on a whim, I prepared some angelhair pasta, and microwaved the pumpkin (cut into cubes) with the bacon/sausage dressing, and a few tablespoons of leftover fresh salsa, since I didn’t have any tomato sauce.  When tossed with the angel hair, this was so good I think next time that’s how I’ll serve it–as the entree,  rather than using it as a side dish.

A Story Is A Type Of Medicine

October 17, 2010

This is a different post than I normally do on this blog.

  Someone I know as an on-line friend recently shared with me that she’s been going through a really excellent period of her life.  She and her husband have 2 young girls with autism.  I urged her to share her story with an on-line support group in which she participates.  She indicated her hesitation was around members of the group wondering if her experience was a fantasy—she emphasizes it was real and meant a great deal to her, but worried about not being believed.  I thought I’d share my response with you, since it touches so much on Storytelling  and the recent suicides of gay and lesbian young people:

My Dear S,

I was trained as a traditional American Indian Storyteller.  I’ve used traditional legends in my work as a Family Therapist.  We’re taught that sometimes, people need stories more than they need food.  A story is a type of map that tells you where you’ve been and where you need to go.  Sometimes a story is so powerful…the story tells you.

To put it less poetically, a story can be understood as a “script” that directs your action in the theater of Life.  That’s why one of the first questions I’ll ask of a new couple who come into therapy is about what sort of role models they had for being part of a couple.  In a nation where about half of all marriages end in divorce, many young (and not so young) adults don’t have the experience of a healthy, happy set of parents (or grandparents).  They don’t have modeled for them how to argue—or indeed, how to fight, in a way that’s healthy or loving.  What many have modeled is how to be resentful, how to be constantly angry, or how to consistently blame.

While some therapists say “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” it’s difficult to go back and “reprogram” a person’s personal history.  But one of the things you discover as a therapist, is the “story” (model) doesn’t have to come from a person’s parents.  A story is like water…it seeks its own level.  It goes where it needs to go.  A model of a viable couple may come from a movie, or a book, or from me telling them, “Well, last week this is what a couple who were sitting exactly where you’re sitting, told me about how they solved a problem similar to yours…”

To put it another way, American Indians consider stories to be a type of “medicine.”  For American Indians, our meaning of “medicine” combines the idea of “healing” and “holy.”  Just so, the other thing I have tried to teach my university students and professionals in training—the only difference between medicine and poison is the dosage.

Just as there are Stories that can be used in healing, there are Stories that can be used in poisoning.  Some Stories can kill.

In the past few weeks, there have been a number of stories of young gay and lesbian people who committed suicide because of treatment by others of their sexual orientation.  Even more disturbing to me is the knowledge these are only the needless deaths that have been picked up and made known by the major media.  There are deaths like these that happened in silence, or happened and were silenced. 

This is an example of the Power of Story.  Children who grow up with a message that they are damaged…that they are “bad”—that they are a mistake and an “abomination” can learn to believe such a Story.   A Story can kill.

A few moments before I read your e-mail, I was watching this video:

It’s about a little boy who enjoys “pretty” things.  It’s about how much he enjoys dressing up in sparkly dresses and dancing.  It’s about how his family and 8 year old brother think his behavior is fine because it makes him happy and they want him to be happy.  It’s about the mother going to his school to be “pro-active”—that instead of waiting for school children to make fun of her son or bullying him, to ask about how his school teaches respect for difference.  It’s about the whole school being involved.  It’s about the mother writing a children’s book about her son being a “Princess Boy” so her child’s Story could be used as a teaching tool in the school.  The book is now being sold in bookstores.

A Story is like water.  It seeks its own level.  It goes where it needs to go. This is the story of this little boy in Seattle, who likes to dress up in sparkly dresses and dance because it makes him happy.  But the reality is…the Story of a little boy is a “real” book.  The Story of a little boy is a “real” video clip that was shown to viewers of a program on a major television station, which has since been seen by hundreds of thousands of people on Youtube, and may eventually be seen by millions.

Should you tell your story?

There’s a wonderful storyteller from Chile.  Her name is Isabel Allende. In an interview on National Public Radio, she laughed and said, “Of course I’m a liar.  A storyteller is a type of liar.”  A real storyteller is able to tell an audience the truth it needs to know.  A Story is often a type of lie.  Does a hero always win in “real” life?  Will the Princess Boy always be greeted with love and respect in “real” life?  Stories are a type of map.  In the “real” world, there is a great deal of chaos.  Awful Things Happen.  Stories are tools that can help give a person a meaning to chaos.  Stories can tell people to look at tragedy, at pain, and to continue going forward. Sometimes people need stories more than they need food.

I taught for many years in the clinic of a medical school.  Do you know what a placebo is?  Most people use the word in a dismissive way—“It’s just a placebo.”  One of the most common references is that a placebo is a “sugar pill.”  A provider gives it to a patient instead of “real” medicine.


The word comes from the Latin for “I please.”  But here’s the “real” part of the placebo effect.  Pharmaceutical companies hate placebos.  Do you know why? Because the FDA requires them to test their new drugs in a double-blind way against placebos.  This means the persons doing the testing and the patients don’t know if they are about to get the “real” drug or the placebo.  Why do the pharmaceutical companies hate the placebo?  Because over and over again the patients get better results from the placebo than they do from the “real” drug.

A Story is a type of Medicine.  A Story can heal.  A placebo is a type of Story.

I was once on a panel with Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained physician famed for his work in Alternative Medicine.  This is what he said about placebos—that we were missing the whole point of them.  A placebo proves there is nothing that can be done by a pharmaceutical intervention that the human body can’t perfectly duplicate on its own.

Will members of your group believe your story, even though it may seem by some to be a “fantasy?”  You know what I think?  I think that even if your experience didn’t happen…it should have happened.  It should also happen in the future, where another good couple, where another good set of parents…get a taste of happiness. 

I have worked very hard to give couples the stories they need to become better couples.  I need your story as an additional tool to help couples to become better couples.

Do I need your story to be true?  Your Story is already true.  Did it need to happen exactly the way it was Told?  No.  Most Stories don’t.  That is why a Storyteller is a type of liar. 


To put it another way, a Storyteller is like a weaver who takes the dirty wool from smelly sheep and makes a beautiful cloth from it.


  Is the cloth the “lie” of the dirty, smelly sheep?







  Or did the weaver reveal the beauty and usefulness of what a sheep can be—the Truth of Sheep?  As a Storyteller do I take the raw resources of what “really” happened? 






 You bet.  But I don’t hand an audience those raw resources anymore than a weaver hands someone in need of warm clothing a handful of unwashed wool.

A Storyteller does not always tell human beings about what they are…a Storyteller tells people what they can be.  A Story is a type of map.  It can show people where they should be going.

I am privileged and I am honored by the story you have shared about you and your family. 






I feel better having heard it. 

 I thank you.

Why Dog (and Horse) Is So Special

July 20, 2010

My most profound apologies to those I offended by the recent post “Why Dog Does Stupid Things,” who felt I did not respect the nobility of Dog.  In fact, it was suggested American Indians did not appreciate dogs to the extent non-Natives do.  I think it would be better understood the story I shared earlier is reflective of how some American Indians try to make sense of why, when Dog, who normally is so loving and caring….well, sometimes does stupid things.  When an Elder laughingly says, “Oh, why did you have to choose Dukwaps,” it’s an expression of affection in the same way when a mother has an extra cocktail (or two) at her daughter’s wedding and gets a bit silly; the response is not of condemnation, but affection.  I think one of the things it teaches is how one balances love with reality.  Those you love don’t always behave as you’d prefer…but you still love them.  When I was much younger, there was an American Indian man who was very much respected for the work and achievements he had accomplished in Native Journalism.  Unfortunately he had a problem with alcoholism.  He once told me, when he went home to his family on the reservation, “Even if you fart in their faces, they still have to take you in, because you’re family.”  There’s never a question about the love one has for Dog.  No matter what Dog does—you still love Dog.

One of the suggestions was that I tell an additional legend that’s also part of our tradition—that explains why there is so much fondness as well as respect  for Dog.  I should also mention that some of the coastal traditions report a nobility connection with Dog.  A High-Class woman had a secret lover who would only come to her at night.  When she shared with her closest friends she wondered who he was, they suggested she cover her hands with red ochre (paint) and smear his back when she next had relations with him.  They told her, “Look at the back of those you see in the village the next day.”  To her surprise, the next day, she saw Dog with smears of red paint on his back.

Now, depending on which Native Nation’s legend you know, when her father, the Chief, found out she had been having sex with Dog, some say Dog was killed (others say Dog later took on a human shape and went with her), and she was set adrift in a canoe.  Some say her brother went after her to protect her.  When she gave birth, her babies were puppies.  She and her brother watched over them.  But when her brother went hunting to provide for them, she discovered the puppy children would wait until they weren’t watched, and they would take off their puppy skins and turn into human shaped children.  Eventually, the mother and brother hid and when the children took off their puppy “robes,” the brother ran out and gathered their puppy robes and threw them into the fire.   Some say one of the puppy children was able to snatch his skin out of the fire and remained in that form.   The destruction of their puppy skins forced them to retain their human shape.  Various Native (American and Canadian) Nations trace their lineage from these children.  Of interest to Twilight-Eclipse  novel/movie fans, at least as many Native Nations claim their heritage is from the Wolf.


Long and long ago, Human Beings were created after the Animal People.  The Creator called the Animal People together and asked them to help the new Humans.  “They are weak and soft.  They will not be able to survive without your help.”  The Creator asked the Animal People to instruct the Human People how to gather and prepare food, the way Wolf and Bear and the others did so well.  The Creator asked others to teach them how to run and move; how to do weavings and how to build things with the skill of Beaver and others.


But to the surprise of the Animal People, the Human Beings not only learned quickly, but adapted their teachings to their own advantage.

The Animal People gathered together.  Many called out: “Human Beings will soon surpass us with the knowledge we have so generously provided them.  Soon they will overtake us and treat us badly.  We must kill them now so they do not dominate us!”

Only Dog and Horse argued on behalf of the Human Beings.  They asked the other Animal People not to kill them.  But the Animal People fought with one another, and Dog and Horse realized they could not win.  With great bravery—knowing the other Animal People might indeed kill them as traitors—Dog and Horse went to the Human village and warned them of the danger.  The Human beings fled and hid.

When the Animal People attacked the Human village, they found the Creator waiting for them.

“I asked you to help the Human Beings, and you responded by choosing to kill them.  To punish you, I will take away the power of universal language from you.  No longer will you be able to speak to one another as you have.  Because Dog and Horse sought to protect the Human beings, I will let them retain their Power of Communication.”

  Just so, even now, Dog and Horse are able to “speak” with Human beings in a way no other Animal People can.

A Sahaptin legend retold by CoyoteCooks

In the Sahaptin language, the name for Horse is “kusi” and the name for Dog is “kusi kusi.” Depending on how you think of things, this means a dog is a small horse, or a horse is a large dog.  As a child, I was always told in school we weren’t “really” aboriginal—that we just “beat” Europeans to North America by a few generations (if 50,000 years or more are considered a “few” generations) via an ice bridge from Siberia.  But the same science that tells us this also states Horse is originally from the so-called “New World” and crossed over exactly the same land bridges from North America to Siberia.  It seems to me bridges work both ways.  I don’t see why it isn’t just as possible American Indians crossed over the land bridges to start up communities in Siberia and elsewhere, following the hoof prints of Horse.

  According to current science, Hippidion, an early form of Horse, persisted in the so-called New World, until historic times.  A Cherokee elder told me it was her tradition Native people had Horses long before non-Native people arrived, although they were smaller and hairier than contemporary horses.  Many non-Native historians claim American Indians were only exposed to horses when the Spanish got careless and their horses ran away to become “feral.”  Looks like paleontologists give more accurate information than historians.

  American Indians had dogs long before non-Natives arrived.  Most of these Native dogs are “lost,” having interbred with the newcomers non-Natives brought with them (just as it’s been suggested the surviving Native Horses interbred with the newly arrived European horses).  For example, Elders in the Pacific Northwest talk about small wooly dogs—their fur was used to weave blankets.  “Finally, there’s the question of what makes people and dogs such inseparable friends. Using a number of behavioral experiments–most of them involving finding food hidden in scent-camouflaged boxes–a team headed by anthropologist Brian Hare of Harvard compared the ability of wolves, adult dogs and puppies to pick up subtle cues in human behavior. Both puppies and dogs showed a talent for finding the food using nonverbal signals from the researchers–even something as subtle as gazing toward the hiding place. That doesn’t surprise Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. Dodman says dogs can read “a look, a facial expression, a tone in your muscles.” Wolves, by contrast, are dolts when it comes to reading such signs–suggesting that the trait arose during domestication.”,9171,1003802-2,00.html#ixzz0u7UTkdL5

Roots and Wings

July 15, 2010


Long and long ago, there was a great Chief. 

He had a son, and loved him very much.  “One day,” he always told others around him, “my son will not only grow up to be a Great Chief, but a powerful Medicine Man as well.”

  The boy heard this, but did not think anything of it.

  When it was time, the boy was prepared for his Vision Quest.  For a girl this is when she is usually first tied to the Moon, and for boys, it is often when their nipples turn out.  Traditionally, the Vision Quest will take place on the top of a mountain, or by running water.  A child is taken to the place of the Vision Quest, mentored by a Medicine Person.  The Vision Quest helps a person discover who they are meant to be…a purpose and a reason for being.

  “My son,” called the Chief, “will become a powerful Medicine Man.  For that reason, I summon seven Medicine Men from the four directions to watch over him—to prepare him for his Vision Quest.” And so seven Medicine Men came, some from very far away.

In the traditional manner, they painted him with red ochre.  

This is considered to be a type of protection.  When someone is involved in spiritual things, he or she will shine, and it will attract the attention of things of the spirit.  Some of these are indifferent, some are dangerous and some are kind.  The red paint is to keep away those things that are not kind.

A Vision Quest will traditionally take 4 days and 4 nights.  During this time, the Seekers will not eat.  He or she will fast, and take only as much water as they can hold in their mouths at one time.  The first day went by, and there was no vision.  The second day…no vision.  The third day…no vision. 

 On the fourth day, when nothing had happened, the Medicine Men returned to the boy’s father.  “Perhaps he is not yet ready,” one said.  “There is no shame in this.  Different people grow in different ways.  Let us bring him back and have him try again at a later time.”

  “No,” the Chief replied.  “You know, and I know that the longer it takes for a vision to occur, the more powerful it will be.  That is why he has not received his vision.  Paint him again!”

  And so it was the Medicine Men returned to the boy, painting him again with more of the red paint.  A fifth day went by without a vision.  A sixth day.  A seventh.  The Medicine Men returned to the boy’s father.  “No one has ever fasted this long,” said one.
“We fear this is not his time,” said another.  “We ask that you let us bring him back.  Let him continue his Vision Quest at another time.”

“No!” said the Chief.  “You are all jealous because you know that he will not only one day be a Great Chief, but one day he will be more powerful than any of you!  Paint him again, and let the Vision Quest continue!”

The Medicine Men returned to the boy.  They repainted him.  Nine days went by without a vision.  Then ten.  Then eleven.  On the twelfth day, the Chief went himself to the place of the Vision Quest.  His son was gone.

Frightened, he ran through the woods, calling out his son’s name.  A small bird followed behind him.  Finally, exhausted, he sat down on the stump of a tree, his eyes full of pain—for he truly loved his son.

The little bird approached him.  “I was your son,” the small bird said. 

“All my life you would tell other people that I would one day be a Great Chief.  That I would one day be a powerful Medicine Man.  But never once did you ever ask me what I wanted.  I did not desire to be a chief.  I did not desire to be a Medicine Man.  I just wanted to be myself.  The Creator took pity on me, and gave me this shape to wear.  It is to teach parents that they must not force their own dreams on their children.  They must give their children roots and wings.  They must help their children become who they are meant to be.”

 In English, we call that little bird the Robin.  And so it is even today when you see a Robin it still wears the red paint from long ago.

A Sahaptin Legend retold by CoyoteCooks

This was a legend my Aunt Prunie used to tell.  One time I asked her to paint me for a powwow, and she took red paint and marked my forehead solid, and then used her thumb to remove the red ochre in four small and equal circles.   When I do traditional dancing, this is the way I continue to paint my face.

In the Pacific Northwest, the red ochre (and other colors) are often mixed with elk marrow used as a base, so the paint can be easily applied.  The elk marrow was also a salve that speeded up healing of the skin.  For example, an elder used it on me when I had developed some blisters from constant drumming while helping someone being initiated into Winter Spirit Dancing.  It was amazing to me how quickly the blisters vanished.

The tradition for many Native Nations is to have the first Vision Quest take place around puberty, but there are certainly stories of younger children who did this.  Over the years, when the American and Canadian governments attempted to suppress Native traditions, some people had to wait until later in life to be initiated or to go for a Vision Quest.  For some people, a number of Vision Quests might take place during a lifetime.

I was very happy with how the salmon turned out tonight.  I realize I keep mentioning several ways of preparing salmon, but I try to eat it at least three times a week, so I enjoy a variety of options.  For today’s marinade, I whisked together 2 tablespoons of teriyaki sauce, a tablespoon of soy sauce, the juice of half a lemon, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a couple of spoonfuls of sesame seeds.  I had wanted to add some roasted sesame seed oil, but was disappointed to discover I was out of it.   Given the fact it was supposed to hit 114 degrees (and the next two days it’s going to be 116…) I decided I could live without running to the store to pick up some more roasted sesame seed oil.  I wanted to add more honey, but I was also low on that so I sprinkled in another tablespoon of raw sugar into the mix. I left the salmon dressed in this for a few hours.  The sesame seeds seem to provide a nice thickening agent.  When I placed the salmon into a shallow Pyrex roasting pan, I shook out more sesame seeds on the top.  Popped it into a 400 degree oven until it was done, spooning the marinade over it again before serving.

To compliment the salmon I took fresh broccoli and spinach leaves and added salt, pepper, and crushed garlic.  I used a large skillet, adding water to the veggies and brought it to a boil.  After a few minutes, I used a slotted spoon to remove the broccoli and spinach into a bowl of water, and added ice.  This keeps the veggies a bright green and doesn’t let them overcook.  When I was ready to serve, I added them back into the water of the skillet and heated everything up again.  I then plated the veggies, sprinkling them with bacon crumbs and more sesame seeds.   I  placed a serving of salmon on top of the veggies. The smokiness of the bacon mixed wonderfully with the flavor of the salmon.