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Coyote Thoughts: Indian Mad or Trickster Mad?

Everyone gets mad from time to time. Often it is justified. But not all mad is created equal.

A friend introduced me to the phrase, “Indian Mad. Mad for life.” I laughed when I first heard it, knowing that many people don’t let go of anger. You might think Indian Mad hurts others more than it hurts ourselves. But anger wears us out, changes our behavior and keeps us from enjoying life. Sometimes we see the person who made us mad at the grocery store and our hearts jump as if we’d spotted a snake. So we avoid them and go down another aisle.

There are many things out there that justly make us mad. However, Trickster Mad is different. Take a friend of mine I’ll call Kay, who is a supervisor at a tribal office. Kay was grieved that Susan, a fellow employee, had filed a complaint that she (Kay) had given her a “bad look.”

I wondered how bad a look it was. The term stink eye, for example, refers to a vicious look you give a person who offends you. It has the potential to bring someone to their knees, turn the sky black and make the birds stop singing.

Well, not really, but it’s a very bad look nevertheless. I wondered if this was what had crossed Kay's face.

So I asked Kay if she didn’t like Susan. “I like her just fine,” Kay responded. “I don’t know her outside of work. She does a good job and I respect her. I don’t have any reason to dislike her.”

Ah, I said to myself—a Trickster caused the trouble. Here is how the Trickster Thought works: Let’s say Kay is walking down the hall and meets Susan. Susan says, “Hi.” Kay has a problem on her mind and responds with a “Hi.” But her problem shows on her face, giving Susan a less than friendly look.

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What happened between Kay and Susan probably wasn’t the stink eye. Otherwise, the two would have gone at it right away, rolling around on the floor, kicking and screaming. Nope, it was nothing more than just an unpleasant look.

The two Tricksters at work here are called Jumps to Conclusions and Mind Reader. Kay jumps to the conclusion that Susan doesn’t like her and thinks she knows what Susan is thinking. The two Trickster Thoughts open the door for other thoughts to rush in—like, “She thinks she is better than me.” Or “She thinks I am doing a bad job”. Or “She doesn’t like me.” All are possible but none are necessarily true.

Jumps to Conclusions and Mind Reader are sly. They trick you by giving the quickest, easiest explanation, fooling the person who doesn’t know Tricksters. Because they are possible explanations, they lead you down the wrong path. Other possible causes of the look could be that Susan was thinking about an unpleasant work situation, or she had a fight with her boyfriend, or her kid got in trouble at school. If we believe Jumps to Conclusions or Mind Reader, it’s a good chance we’ll be wrong. The result? Trickster Mad.

In the old days, tribes had to rely on each other to survive. They didn’t have the luxury of indulging in Indian Mad. So how do we sort through this today? Admittedly, it’s not easy. If somebody gave me a bad look that bothered me, I’d need the courage to say, “I may owe you an apology. I notice that when I said, ‘Hi’ yesterday, you gave me a bad look. Did I offend you?”

By saying “I may owe you an apology” first, it keeps the conversation nonthreatening and gives the other person an opening to say what was wrong. Most likely the bad look had nothing to do with me and was just a carry-over from another problem. If the problem was me, we get a chance to work that out. A soft approach is much more productive than blurting out something like, “What the heck, you gave me the stink eye yesterday, jerk.”

It’s easy to be mad. But gathering the courage to work out problems is worth it. Don’t be fooled by Trickster Mad.

Beau Washington, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, received his doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. His therapy is being piloted in the primary-care clinic setting at the University of New Mexico hospitals. He has also developed a Native suicide-prevention program called Coyote Thoughts © 2011. Visit his website at