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Coyote Thoughts: A Native Explains Mental Health

A Native set out to make sense of the world, wondering why some people are happy while some struggle with troubles. He didn’t have words for the mental pain, heartbreak and anger he’d seen. Without names for these things, they’re hard to understand.

Although the wind is invisible, we feel it and sometimes see the dust and leaves it blows. Though invisible, wind can be very strong. Our thoughts are more powerful than the wind. We feel them and see them in our deeds. We can get out of the wind, but our thoughts are always with us. They bring us joy and sorrow. They store memories of the past and shape plans for the future.

The Native wanted to understand the mystery of the powerful thoughts. He went to the university to find words for these things. There they had many names for these painful thoughts. They were complex and difficult to understand. He went back to his people. He told them what he learned, but it was like he was from a place far away, no longer one of them. The university words were strange. He had no language to tell his people. His knowledge was useless to those in pain. He realized he needed to translate what he gathered for the people.

So he did.

In many Indian stories, humans are viewed as pitiful animals, without strength to walk when born, with poor hearing and sense of smell, and not enough fur to keep warm in winter. So the Creator gave the greatest gifts of all to humans: the ability to think, to talk and to care for others. In the old days, the Indians used these gifts well. They knew the secrets of life to live in harmony and keep the pain of anger and depression away. The elders taught the children how to think about problems. One day the United States government decided the Indians didn’t know enough. They put all the Indian children in boarding schools to teach them to read, write and memorize what was important to White people, leaving behind the knowledge of the Elders.

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Separation from family caused things to change for the People. The Indian children couldn’t understand being taken away to learn things that meant nothing to their lives. The children lost the knowledge from the Elders to understand the world, solve problems and live in harmony. The children would think and think, often with no answers to questions and problems. It was like running around and around a big boulder to find the answer, seeing the same things over and over again and not finding new paths to take away from the hard times. They no longer knew the secrets of life to pass down to their children.

Indians have tremendous physical courage. We know how to stand up to our enemies. Because of boarding schools, Elders weren’t there to teach children how to work problems out with others. Worst of all, the elders weren’t there to teach them how to defeat the troubles within. This left some of us with few ways but to run from problems we can’t see and don’t know how to defeat. Thinking of those problems can be like having bees in our head stinging us, with no escape from the pain. One way to escape a swarm of bees is to jump into water. Sometimes people use alcohol, drugs or worse to escape the pain of thinking.

In the university, the Native learned about cognitive distortions. It’s a curious term, meaning a thought is possible, but isn’t accurate and often it’s just wrong. He realized that it’s like your mind being tricked into believing something false. In many Indian Nations, the coyote is known as the trickster. The coyote is always trying to take advantage or mislead us. When we believe thoughts that aren’t true, it’s like the coyote trickster is controlling our thoughts, creating problems that are bigger than they really are. He decided to call them “coyote thoughts.”

One coyote thought isn’t much of a problem. A pack of coyotes will take you down. If you don’t chase the coyote thought away, it brings others. When we dwell on things the coyotes start to gather, creating bigger and bigger problems. The more coyotes we have and the more we dwell on a problem, the greater the pain. It’s hard to fight something we can’t see. Knowing the names of the coyotes brings them out of the dark into the light. Recognizing them is our best chance of ending the darkness and pain they bring.

The Native realized the people need to learn this, to be the keepers of these truths and to keep the coyotes away. Our monthly column will show you how to do this.

Dr. Beau Washington received his doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado. A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Beau grew up at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where his Father was a teacher. While researching depression, he also discovered the wide range of problems that rumination (dwelling) on problems creates in other mental problems as well. His active understanding of ruminative thought lead to developing a technique for effectively stopping the painful thoughts that plague distressed individuals. In addition, Beau developed cognitive models of depression and addiction. His therapy is being piloted in the Primary Care Clinic setting at the University of New Mexico Hospitals. Clinical trials are in the development phase to add Beau’s therapy to the short list of evidenced based therapies now used in therapy. Dr. John Gray at UNM calls his therapeutic approach innovative. Beau understands that part of the key to successful intervention is making psychology consumer friendly, for example, changing the term “cognitive distortion” to “Coyote Thoughts." He has also developed a Native suicide prevention program called “Coyote Thoughts” ©2011. Beau has trained Native mental health clinics and presented at reservations as well as regional and national conferences. Visit his website