native americans

Shlomi Nissim

As I was reading the many myths and tales recounted in the Handbook of Native American Mythology, I wondered if I was going to find my favorite story, one I could own, and finally I did. It was listed under “Transformers.” Here it is, in its entirety, the story of a White Wolf Woman:

Sometimes the change takes place in a person’s spirit long before it is made evident by a physical transformation.

Once, long ago, a young Zuni woman was captured by a Navajo raiding party. She was tied to the back of a horse and the group galloped back to the Navajo village. The young woman was taken to the home of a Navajo man to become his younger wife. However, by the second night, she chose to sleep alone outside. Very early the next morning, when the young woman awoke, she found the older wife standing beside her. The Navajo woman offered the Zuni girl a blanket, food, and container of water, and then pointed to the east where the sky was just beginning to turn light. The Zuni girl gratefully took the items and ran from the Navajo village toward the rising sun.

She ran quickly through the underbrush and covered her tracks when she walked on sandy riverbanks. Finally she reached the top of a high mesa and looked back in the direction she had traveled. No one was following her, so she unwrapped the package of food and ate it all and drank most of the water. After the refreshing meal and rest, the Zuni girl began to run again until evening. She dug into the ground under a large tree and slept in the depression. Later, when she awoke, she was hungry again, but found that she’d consumed all of her food on the mesa. Then she tried the water container, but it, too, was empty. The girl was frightened, cold, and tired, but she got up and began running toward home again.

Another night came and she fell asleep huddled under the Navajo blanket. Snow fell and covered the ground. When she awoke, the girl pushed the cold, wet blanket away and started running again. However, exhaustion soon caught up with her and she collapsed on the snowy ground. A large, white, furry animal came to examine her nearly lifeless body. The animal looked toward the heavens and let out a spine-tingling howl and trotted off. The girl tried to sit up, but collapsed again. The white wolf returned quickly, pulling a freshly killed animal. He pulled it up over the girl to give her warmth. Then the wolf tore off a piece of the prey’s flesh and pushed it into the girl’s mouth. She ate the raw meat and was grateful for the warmth of the dead animal covering her.

When she had recovered the young girl began running toward home once more. She ran all day and again collapsed in the snow when her strength was gone. Soon the white wolf found her and lay in the snow beside her to keep her warm. For four more days the two traveled together toward the east. On the morning of the fifth day, the girl could see her village and ran down the slope toward it with the white wolf running beside her. The girl called out to the people who only stared at the strange sight. She told them her name and how happy she was to have returned home. Some men grabbed their bows and arrows and pointed them toward her and the wolf. The girl stopped suddenly, confused by what she saw. The men ordered her to move away from the wolf so they could kill it. Just then the girl realized that the men thought the wolf was chasing her. “No! Stop! This wolf saved me and brought me home.”

The men lowered their bows. As they approached her, the wolf disappeared and the girl sank to the ground. She was carried to her father’s home. When the girl awoke she was lying on the floor next to her father’s corpse. As she looked around, she realized the house had been stripped bare. Her father had died while she was gone and no one was there to prepare his body for burial. Tenderly she washed her father’s hair, dressed him, and covered him with a blanket. No one spoke to her as she made her preparations, nor while she pulled his body to the Cliff of Death. The young girl continued to live in her house alone. Occasionally food was left at her door overnight, but no one dared speak to her.

Zuni woman by John Karl Hillers

Zuni woman by John Karl Hillers

Over time the young girl became an old woman. She knew there would be no one to take her to the Cliff of Death when the time came, so she decided to prepare her body and dress in her burial clothes. Unable to stand any longer, the woman dragged herself through the village—the village that had been her home. The people watched as she made her way up the hill. They saw her turn to look back at the village and suddenly a chilling howl pierced the air. The howl came from the old woman as her body changed into a white wolf. The White Wolf Woman howled again and then with strong legs loped away over the hills. She still roams the area today and White Wolf Woman Canyon is named for her. People tell of being lost in that canyon, but White Wolf Woman shows them the way home.


Still on the topic of Native Americans, I took to a more somber publication: James S. Frideres’s First Nations in the Twenty-First Century . Even though I am pretty much aware of the history of exploitation on the part of the European settlers, the facts I am learning now still are chilling. Take this, for instance:

Once reserves were established [turn of the 19th century], the well-being of the First Nations was largely ignored by the Canadian government, except for the presence of local Indian agents whose principal task was to see that federal rules and regulations were followed. The promised provision of animals, agricultural equipment, and seed, in numerous instances, was not forthcoming for the prairie First Nations.  . . .  And when some communities were able to successfully circumvent those barriers, white neighbouring farmers objected to First Nations people placing their goods on the market, citing unfair advantage. Consequently, revisions to the Indian Act made it illegal for First Nations farmers to sell their produce on the open market. The deputy superintendent-general of the Department of Indian Affairs at the time concluded that Indians could not make an ‘unnatural’ leap from ‘barbarism’ to a nineteenth-century agricultural environment. First, they would have to become ‘peasant’ farmers, with Indian Affairs as their feudal lord. While Indians might want to emulate the whites, federal officials felt that this could not take place too quickly or too soon. Indian agents were instructed to discourage Indians from engaging in potentially lucrative grain farming and, instead, encouraged them to cultivate small vegetable gardens without the help (or cost) of plows and draft animals. In short, First Nations people and communities who had become successful and competitive were defined as ‘unnatural’ because they had achieved success in only a few years rather than through the slow process of evolution that the whites had experienced. (14)


Source: Archives of Manitoba

Source: Archives of Manitoba

The author also makes interesting points about the legal aspects of the entire Native American “problem” – definitions, botched treaties, the “we are the chosen people, we are progress” bias, the blatant discrimination:

 “In 1927 the federal government decided that one way to stop First Nation tribes from expressing their disagreement with the government over land issues was to make it illegal for them to hire a lawyer (or any other third party) to initiate legal claims against the government. This law was not revoked until the 1950s.” (13)

The law, the governments, the monstrously petty bureaucracy have inflicted nearly unimaginable violence with white gloves on.

At the same time, we are witnessing a true First Nations renaissance right now, and it is impressive. There is incredible activity, A Tribe Called RedMoe Clark and others rock the boat, there is Idle No More, there is Quebecoisie, in which a couple of young Quebeckers are moved to reevaluate their identity by taking an honest trip into the province’s interior. There is hope and pride visible in the recent reaction to Ellen DeGeneres’ ill-informed plea to ban seal hunt. It all makes me optimistic.


In other news, I have registered to participate in an online conference, Recovery 2.0: Beyond Addiction. It is free to participate in live, but downloading the lectures costs about $100. I am going to try to take in as much as I can live. I am looking forward to hearing Gabor Mate, Krishna Das and Ram Dass. I don’t know other people on the list but I am sure I will learn much. I have come to see addiction as the defining malaise of our time, its pattern underlying most destructive human behaviors. The more I learn about it, the more I understand, as well, that it takes a strong spiritual stance to face it in naked honesty and to lead a good life. I am still not used to writing and talking about it, but I believe that it is all good that the words don’t turn all smooth and glib in my mouth. I appreciate the stumbling, the humility.

I have recently re-watched my favorite documentary in the world: 1 Giant Leap’s What About Me? You can follow the link to watch the entire thing on YouTube. I swear you won’t regret it. You might dance. You might cry. I’ll finish with this quote from Krishna Das:

That there is going to be enough to make us happy in this world is one of the basic illusions that carries us through life. We’re born hungry in every level. We’re hungry for everything. All our senses are hungry for input and when you don’t get enough you think that there is enough somewhere. And until you get enough and realize that it isn’t enough it will keep coming back. You keep dreaming that romantic image that this will be enough. This relationship, this car, this thing that you know. Cause wanting doesn’t stop. No matter how much you get. In the west we kind of like live as if we’re supposed to be all of us, kings. All the time. And all have everything we want. And when we don’t there’s something wrong with us. And we get angry . . . We take our suffering so personally. How could this happen to me!



Clap your hands, Blue Jay

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy (The Library of Congress)

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy


Native American myths and legends often deal with death, and I often wonder how today’s children would like them. When I was little, my mother thought that H. C. Andersen’s or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were too cruel, so she’d change the endings as she read them to me. She feared I was too sensitive. I don’t think so; I would have just probably pestered her with questions she wasn’t sure how to deal with. I remember finding a collection of Inuit stories in my parents’ large library and being absolutely terrified and yet drawn to their stark universe, in which life and death coexisted, not peacefully, but not at polar opposites either. Last night I read the story (not Inuit; this one’s from the Pacific Northwest) of Blue Jay and his sister Ioi, who married a ghost. Blue Jay went to visit her in the land of the dead, where he had a grand time switching skeletons’ bones, ripping them off, and being generally wicked. The story ends thus:

Eventually, the ghost people complained about Blue Jay’s tricks, and Ioi’s husband told her to send him home. At first he didn’t want to go, but he finally left. On his way, he came to a prairie that was ablaze, and Blue Jay burned to death. Then he went back to the land of the ghosts. His sister met him at the river and went over to him in her husband’s canoe. . . . When they came to the village, the people were playing games and singing. Blue Jay shouted at them, trying to get them to fall into piles of bones, but the people just laughed at him. He kept pestering them to no avail until finally his sister told him that he was dead, too. And then he became quiet. (72)

I like how there is justice and there is logic to the story, but also this soft transition from the living to the dead, the consciousness of illusion, and the life that goes on, regardless of death.

Interestingly enough, the day after writing skeptically about “the power of storytelling” and feeling terribly bold about it, I read a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist I’d just discovered. Here is a passage that made me prick up my ears :

SP: One of the things that most resonates for me in “On Balance” is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?

AP: You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. . . .  Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. . . .

People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.

There is something about this idea that makes my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because I have tricked myself into believing my own story, and playing the character I imagined I was with laughable zeal and conviction. It’s true that words have a life of their own. The ease with which they come to me is deceitful, because it also signals that I am always up for one hell of a ride. Fiction writers often describe how, in the middle of the book, characters seem to take a life of their own and, at some point, almost hijack the story and dictate it back to the writer. I think this might be true in life as well. I wish I could meet Blue Jay and see if, when he claps his hands, I’d really turn into a pile of bones? Or not yet? 

Lastly, Phillips’ statement that “there is more to life than the stories we tell” and his call for incoherence of narratives reminded me of this brilliant documentary by Sarah Polley. You can watch it here. It is so worth it.

Silver spring

The participatory photo exhibit went well. I was kind of relieved to see a small group attending and I am happy to move on to other things. I got to ask a couple of people involved in film making how to proceed with the documentary, now it’s up to me to make it happen. I have all it takes – except the microphone, but it’s on the way. I’m stoked again. What I needed.

I’ve finished the full engagement bible and, again, it is implementation time. The toughest and the most desired.

Yesterday, in the Metro, a black boy sitting next to me was reading Krishnamurti on his iPhone, in French

As for me, I think I’ve had enough self-help for the moment (mind you, I might change my mind again tomorrow). Right now I’m treating myself to two books: Handbook of Native American Mythology” by Dawn E. Bastian and Judy K. Mitchell, and “The Illustrated Guide to Native South American Myths and Legends: Tales from the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Amazon Peoples,” compiled by Geraldine Carter.

I have been fascinated by Native Americans ever since, as a kid, I discovered suitably themed adventure novels (in Polish, many of them by Polish authors). I soon realized that no happy ending ever came to stories of noble warriors and their tribes. They were always tragic. I remember that it made me sad and angry at the white man’s, my, destructive civilization. I think I never quite got over that anger.

I’ve often wondered how it is possible that, as kids, we are taught very clearly what is right and wrong by so many books and films: we learn that greed and war and destroying nature is evil – we all do! And then we grow up, rationalizing that, after all, grades, productivity, efficiency, jobs and economy and this thing called “progress” are the most important. We need to make more money, people! Screw the forests, we need to build highways; fuck the mountains, there’s precious stones inside them! And stinky liquid under the ocean floor! And gases trapped in the Earth’s belly! We’ll have fuel and fighter jets and space shuttles and no oxygen! Won’t it be grand. And so we deride the same values we should have absorbed and followed through, calling them “idealistic,” or “utopian,” or “unrealistic.” Is this a naive rant? Oh yes, very. And very, very true. And everybody and their gut knows this to be true. But there’s no happy ending for us either, I’m afraid.

This is what makes me wonder about the value of stories and “storytelling” as such. It’s one of the words used so much today, and it’s been commonly accepted that it’s good and important because hey, that’s how we think, that’s how we understand the world, right? True, no doubt. But, as Krishnamurti points out, if we look at our model of knowledge critically, including the storytelling part, we see that accumulation of facts and narratives did not make us a better humanity. It is actually this greedy, agglutinating paradigm that makes us continue in our suicidal ways. Maybe we don’t need more stories, you know? Maybe we need to really listen to some old stories, and really learn them, and live them through, in silence. Again, I realize I am contradicting myself here, because I carry on with this blog, and I have plans of writing this, and filming that, but really, I think I want to do all that mostly to validate my existence. To show that I have something to offer. I feel forced to show, to prove, to be deserving. I wish I could just sit down, shut up, and be, and I wish that were enough. But I’m not ready to be homeless.

I’m clearly oversaturated with language and verbalized thought processes. So why do I read Native American stories? I think it’s the mystery that attracts me. Elements that will never be known or explained; sequences that escape my logic; unfathomable, and yet strangely relatable, gods and goddesses with as much to lose as us humans. Just listen to this Aztec myth:


Itzpapalotl, the horrible “obsidian-knife butterfly” is a supernatural being who combines attributes of the butterfly, or soul, with the knife of sacrifice. The butterfly in many mythologies is the ghost of the dead, and in this ghostly creature it is associated with the horror of the altars of blood. She is one of the Tzitzimime – “the demons of darkness.” Her dreadful face is tricked out with the cosmetics of the Mexican court ladies – rubber patches and white chalk. Her claws are borrowed from a jaguar, and sometimes she is represented as having a skull instead of a face.

The Expulsion of Itzpapalotl from Heaven

Itzpapalotl was expelled from heaven because, as she pulled up some roses in a garden of great delight, the tree suddenly snapped and blood streamed from it. As a consequence of this action she was deprived of that place of enjoyment and was cast into the world. (36)

Simple, almost familiar, and yet so foreign. The above excerpt comes from the “Guide to South American Myths,” indeed beautifully illustrated. It’s the first time I’ve actually taken a close look at Diego Rivera’s murals. Genius.

All in all, fascinating as these stories are, the language used to transmit them in the books seems inadequate. Maybe it’s the oral tradition that dies in the writing. There is definitely a big SOMETHING lost in translation. Something eludes me, like a beautiful fish I see swimming in shallow water and cannot name, even though I Know it. Actually, I’ve decided, I don’t even want to know its name any more. Seeing is enough. The “Handbook” is on to something when it explains that

Long before Newton, Kant, Einstein, or Minkowski, ancient cultures around the world understood that there was a relationship between time and space. They understood that an event happening right here, right now could be imbued with a sacredness that not only set the event apart from the mundane, but also set apart the time and the place where it occurred. In the remembering of the event, whether by telling and hearing oral narratives, or by participating in or viewing various ceremonies, people were able to transcend the present and become part of the sacred. . . .

Native American people believe that time is cyclical and dynamic, and that this cyclical time functions not only in the spiritual realm, but in the day-today existence of all living things. One Hopi scholar has called this relationship “mythic reality.” In other words, the truth of this present, physical world exists simultaneously with that of the mythic, spiritual world. (36)

The past and the future coexist with the present. There was no bing bang. There is just this constant growth and death and overlap. And we within it. And I am just beginning to feel this pulse.

Malinche by Diego Rivera

Malinche by Diego Rivera