A Lesson in Healing a Soldier’s Heart

First Nation title 1 from 38This is the third installment in a series of blog posts about the making of Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on the soldier’s experience, and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers cleanse themselves of war.

Gary Robinson is Partnering Producer for the project, and has been collaborating with Taki since early this year. Gary is a Native American author and filmmaker who has worked with tribal communities for more than 25 years to tell the stories of Native peoples in print and television. As part of the production of Healing the Warrior’s Heart, he traveled to Joshua Tree, California, to videotape portions of a Soldier’s Heart training session for therapists and pastors.  The Soldier’s Heart non-profit organization was created by Dr. Edward Tick and therapist Kate Dalstadt as a means of disseminating their work and helping to heal war trauma suffered by many veterans and their families.

“As an American Indian writer and filmmaker, I’ve been working with tribal communities for many years to shine a light on the struggles, accomplishments and cultural truths of American Indian peoples. Some of my recent work has focused on the history of American Indian service in the U.S. military and provided a means of sharing the incredible achievements of Native soldiers and their cultures.

Although I’ve participated in tribal ceremonies and veteran recognition activities on reservations across the country for years, I was not prepared for the profound teachings shared by Ed and Kate in this training session. I was only present for one day of the four-day training, but experienced an exhilarating sense of eye-opening hope in that circle of non-Native people.

Drawing on the discoveries of Joseph Campbell and the cultural teachings of traditional Native American warrior leaders such as Sitting Bull, Soldier’s Heart has mapped out a valid model that successfully heals war trauma (known to most as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) and gives the military veteran the tools for productive reintegration into society. Dr. Tick and his colleagues realized long ago that for a “warrior’s return” to be successful, the veteran’s family and community must be brought into the process. They’ve identified the elements missing from American society that prevent our nation from being able to truly help and heal our emotionally and mentally wounded warriors.


One exercise conducted during the weekend training called for non-veteran participants to imagine themselves being deployed to Afghanistan with three of their closest loved-ones (friends or family). This parallels what soldiers experience as they bond with their band of brothers (or sisters) as they go through training and head off to war. Then, as the exercise continued, they were to imagine watching each of those people killed in action before their very eyes. In the final step, these workshop participants were then shipped back home without any opportunity for emotional cleansing after those devastating losses. Once home, they’re expected to “get over it” and “move on” with their lives. Such is the condition of every person who has experienced combat. This was but one of the many first-hand lessons taught through the Soldier’s Heart training to help future counselors learn to better serve the needs of veterans suffering from post-war trauma.

Part of what excites me about the Healing the Warrior’s Heart project is its potential for transforming America’s understanding of our responsibilities to our veterans and our indebtedness to the very tribal cultures we once attempted to exterminate. But most of all, I am proud to be associated with this project for its potential for putting effective healing tools in the hands of more counselors, therapists, pastors and chaplains who work to heal our veterans’ wounded hearts.”  Gary Robinson

Healing the Warrior’s Heart: Turning Ancient Ceremonies Into Cutting Edge Therapy

First Nation title 1 from 38This is the second installment in a series of blog posts about the making of  Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on both the soldier’s and the veteran’s experience. The program reveals the central role that military service plays in Native life and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers reintegrate into society and cleanse themselves of war. Western Folklife Center Media Producer, Taki Telonidis, is heading up the production team and blogging about his experiences.

PlaneSunset“This was the view from my window seat as I headed back to Utah from Massachusetts after collecting the latest piece of the Healing the Warrior’s Heart story: an interview with a psychotherapist and author named Ed Tick.  More than a pretty sunset, it seemed a fitting coda for a conversation that dealt with spirituality and the soul.”

“I had decided to fly out and meet Dr. Tick after learning of his unique approach to treating veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and reading his book War and the Soul. Tick’s methods rely heavily on the healing traditions of Native Americans and other tribal peoples, which he has studied extensively over more than 30 years. His work with veterans began not long after the Vietnam War when he was a young therapist and a veteran walked into his office seeking treatment. When their eyes met, they did a double-take as they realized they’d been classmates in high school. But Tick’s friend was almost unrecognizable; his experiences serving in Vietnam had transformed him both physically and emotionally.”

ETick“Doing therapy with his former classmate connected Tick with the community of Vietnam veterans in his corner of upstate New York. Many of them were suffering, and the Veteran’s Administration (VA) system and other therapists didn’t know what to do with them. Tick told me the story of how the head of this group was so desperate for someone to help his comrades, that he “drafted” Tick to be their doctor. Tick came to see helping vets as a calling, although it wasn’t long before he realized that his training had not adequately prepared him for the task at hand. The diagnosis of PTSD (which at that time had recently been coined) didn’t adequately explain the suffering of these veterans. And the treatment protocols addressed only the symptoms, not the problem at its core.”

“So Tick decided to look at how other cultures defined and treated the trauma of war. His quest took him first to Greece (homeland of my family!) where he studied the ancient wars, learned about citizen soldiers, and found references to war trauma and healing in classical writings. His quest then led him back to America and to an examination of the healing traditions of our nation’s first warriors: Native Americans. He discovered that for thousands of years, American Indians, like tribal peoples around the world, have been dealing with the problem we now call PTSD, but in a very different way. Suffering warriors were people whose soul and spirit had been tainted by what they had done and witnessed; so they were cleansed and purified through rituals. There were other ceremonies intended to transfer the responsibility of a warrior’s actions to the entire community, relieving him of the burden of his deeds. Another step was the honoring of veterans by the community, an important rite of passage that put them on a life-long path of service to their people.”

“Learning about the healing traditions of Native peoples convinced Dr. Tick that they hold clues for America as it struggles to better assist its suffering veterans. In fact, Tick and his wife and partner Kate Dahlstedt have incorporated much of what they learned into retreats they conduct for veterans through their nonprofit organization, Soldiers Heart. Their work has caught the attention of the military, which last year hired them to conduct trainings for chaplains that incorporate the lessons of Native American healing.”

Untitled“Dr. Tick’s work has become important to the Healing the Warrior’s Heart project. His book War and the Soul deconstructs how tribal cultures define war and the emotional trauma it inflicts on soldiers. It also discusses Native American healing traditions at length, and identifies their key elements and how they contribute to healing at the core level. Tick’s forthcoming book, Warrior’s Return, maps out how those elements can be applied in a non-native context, and used by chaplains and other professionals in treating veterans who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“The interview with Tick was a powerful experience, as the information and passion poured out of him; it was a lot like drinking out of a fire hose. Now the challenge will be to absorb it all, and figure out how best to use it in the documentary.”      Taki Telonidis

Healing the Warrior’s Heart: On the Road in Montana

First Nation title 1 from 38The Western Folklife Center’s Media Producer Taki Telonidis and his production team recently returned from a 2-week shoot on the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana for the documentary Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on both the soldier’s and the veteran’s experience. The program reveals the central role that military service plays in Native life and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers reintegrate into society and cleanse themselves of war. In addition to Taki, the production team includes partnering producer Gary Robinson, videographer Doug Monroe and sound engineer Paul Maritsas. This is Taki’s first blog entry about his experience shooting the film.

“The film shoot on the Blackfeet reservation was an intense experience, and one that served as a reminder of the poverty and tremendous need that exist among Native populations, as well as the power and hope that reside within traditions and spirituality. The Blackfeet Nation is a place where warrior identity is very much alive in our time, even though many current soldiers have lost the connection with the healing traditions practiced by their ancestors. Yet there are others for whom those traditions remain relevant both during their deployment and as they re-enter society.


Vietnam veteran Marvin Weatherwax presents an eagle feather to Martin Connelly.

“We spent a couple of days with one young man named Martin Connelly who recently returned from Afghanistan, was suffering acute symptoms of PTSD, and is now finding relief through ritual and spirituality. It seems that warrior ceremonies at Blackfeet were largely ignored as recently as 15 years ago, but are now re-emerging as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to help soldiers who are having a difficult time when they come home.

“We attended a sweat lodge for two returning veterans (one of whom was Martin), and witnessed an honoring ceremony for them in which an elder veteran/spiritual leader presented them with an eagle feather and warrior name, an important rite of passage for combat veterans.

“We also conducted interviews with two directors at the Veterans’ Administration who’ve been instrumental in establishing Native Healing ceremonies at several VA centers including here in Salt Lake City. They expressed frustration with how slowly the VA system has incorporated Native healing into its programs, and also told us that they’ve documented a decrease in the use of medication by both Native and non-native vets who take part in sweat lodges and other Native ceremonies.

“We did an interview with the head of the Crazy Dog society, who are the keepers of Blackfeet spirituality, and who include many veterans in their ranks. We were able to record some of the preparations for their annual Sundance or Okan.


Three horses and a mule

“In strategizing about what visuals could best accompany a section that discusses how the healing traditions of today are carried over from warrior history and ceremony that reach back hundreds of years, we decided to do a warrior reenactment with young riders from one of the local ranches on the Blackfeet reservation. After rain forced us to postpone the reenactment twice, the weather cooperated on the third day and we were able to shoot a very nice sequence of warriors going off and returning from war. Incidentally, this reenactment was organized by a veteran of Desert Storm and the 2nd Iraq war who was given the title of War Chief after his return home.


A scene from the Blackfeet warrior reenactment

“We came home from our trip with more than a dozen interviews, and well over 1,000 video clips which we are now labeling and organizing. Right now the thought of boiling down this mountain of video into a coherent story seems daunting, but most big projects feel that way in the early stages of editing.”

Healing the Warrior’s Heart is a production of the Western Folklife Center in collaboration with Tribal Eye Productions and KUED Channel 7, Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate. The program will premiere in 2014. You can support this project with a stakeholder donation to Western Folklife Center Media Programs.


The intrepid crew scans the horizon: Paul Maritsas (Sound), Taki Telonidis, Gary Robinson (Partnering Producer), Doug Monroe (Director of Photography)

Cowboys and Accordions in the Rear View Mirror

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Monday, February 3, 2013

Cowboy Poetry is over but the friendships continue. On a balmy Monday morning, it’s a bittersweet trip to the airport to send off  my sweetie Chuck back to New Zealand for several months. The parting is sweetened by an impromptu accordion serenade and mini-reunion in the airport lounge with Italian musicians Marco and Gianluca, chef Valerio, and Cowboy Celtic’s Keri and Nathan.  Chuck and I dance a waltz and a schottische, seeing the beaming faces of our new friends as we whirl past. As everyone heads to the plane, my mood lightens a little to see Valerio grinning ear to ear back at me.  A few minutes later, still wrapped in the  afterglow of the Gathering and melancholy of parting, I bask in the sun while listening to Hot Club of Cowtown and watching the aircraft take to the sky.

For those of you also suffering from “post-party depression” like me – or who missed this year and are looking forward to the 30th – you can recapture a bit of the mood on the Western Folklife Center’s YouTube channel at  Share your remembrances and photos with us at And please tag your Facebook photos with Western Folklife Center, so we can see what memories you’re taking home with you from the Gathering!

Written by Amy Mills, Programs Coordinator, Western Folklife Center

Another Year, Another Reunion

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Sunday, February 3, 2013

As the gathering comes to an end and Elko steadies itself after a rambunctious week, we are reminded how special this event is. This year was particularly great as so many different pieces came together creating the family reunion that we look forward to the other 360 days. Its sad to say goodbye to friends (both new and old), but these relationships will blossom year after year as long as people take time to visit. Get home safe, and keep in touch.

Written by Mike Gamm

Gathering the Future

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Saturday, Thursday 2, 2013

Early this morning artists, annual Gathering goers, and new comers came together in a round table discussion focused upon the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering’s future. The group focused specifically upon the growth and success that we would like to see over the next few years.

Without filling the page with meeting minutes, I have taken the liberty of selecting a few topics from array of subjects that came to light as voices were heard and ideas were shared. The following is a bit of a jumble, and in some ways so was the meeting, so take what you want from it and let the rest wash over.

How’s the Artist Selection? There was a resounding belief that the selection of artists has been well thought out and chosen by the Western Folklife Center‘s staff. And in addition to having artists that are fun to watch, this selection of artists does not see the Gathering as a focus upon them, but instead a focus upon the people that make up Western folk culture. (They are here to see friends and meet new people just like the rest of us). Simply put, the Gathering retains its roots.

With that said…

Are we an event based upon inclusivity or exclusivity?  There was an emerging dichotomy regarding what audience the NCPG should be focusing upon; ranch families that make up much of the area West of the Mississippi or people from urban centers all over. The Gathering started in the late 70s and early 80s by bringing local ranch families together to share and enjoy art, music and poetry. Today, ranchers and other hard working people continue to set aside time in their lives to get off the ranch and head to Elko. The Gathering has experienced changes and lulls in attendance over the last few years that have caused enthusiasts to worry about its welfare (making this one of the most important topics to address).

Is this a Business or a Social Event?  There are so many more fun events and strange happenings that many visitors either aren’t aware of, or don’t know occur. On any given evening you’ll stumble across jam sessions, late night dance parties and even personal heroes.  These are the parts of Western folklife that many find important.  I for one, implore that each and every visitor sit down at a table filled with strangers or approach artists that you otherwise wouldn’t, because this is exactly the right place to do it and we want to continue these traditions for years to come.


The Western Folklife Center is not in the best position to  support this event in the longterm without a good long look at how the business side of this event is related to its survival.  Of course, much of these questions will need to be answered by Western Folklife staff.

How do we bring new people in? Word of mouth and bringing a friend to visit the Gathering is simply not cutting it anymore, and the importance of getting the NCPG community involved in welfare and growth was a recurring theme. As well as keeping in mind that the local community and people whom work so hard getting this event going each year have a vested interest in the Gathering’s continuing success. If you are one of those people traveling hours or even days to get here, you’re a part of an effort to get the NCPG moving forward. Getting involved with other events and forums in your hometown may be the way to assure that the Gathering remains in Elko over the next 29 years.

There is a question about whether we should focus our efforts on social media (such as Facebook, Youtube or even this blog site).  Much of this boils down to what audience we would like to pull into Western folklif.  Sure, kids use these technologies but western folklife is all about focusing on arts by getting your hands dirty and meeting people.  Grass roots conversation is how all of this got started, perhaps there is a way to keep this part of the event in tact.

Is Our Focus Education or Entertainment? There is also a discrepancy with what age group we want to focus our efforts in developing the next generation of artist and visitors. Perhaps the “next generation” isn’t what it seems (such as young children or teens) it could be college twenty somethings that are ripe for new experiences or single 30 somethings looking for something familiar. This is difficult to define, but is a critical question facing the Western folklife center and the people that love Elko.

In Conclusion. There is a fear that if we reach out too far, we will lose what makes the NCPG and Western Folklife special.  Artists are open minded and forward thinking when comes to understanding that the social environment we live in today (and Elko itself) are changing entities. Perhaps, this year’s success will bring together an array of new ideas that will help expand our future.

The NCPG is a truly amazing place, a place to meet family that you never knew you had. People from all walks of life are able to come down to Elko, making it a great place to not just see artists perform their craft, but also take the time to create friendships that last a lifetime.

The Western Folklife Center wants to know what you have to say, please leave comments below. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

What is it that brings people to the NCPG year after year?
Who is the target audience at the NCPG?
How do we keep our community roots, while keeping a focus on entertainment/education?

Written by Mike Gamm

Something Else To Do: Rodeo Swing

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Saturday, Thursday 2, 2013

imageToday, dancers and would be dancers gathered in the High School gym to learn rodeo swing. The event began with an informative yet simple introduction by Craig Miller and Amy Mills that got people up and moving in no time. Some attendees may have been intimidated by the dancing prospect, but Craig instilled confidence by explaining that there is “no right way to do these steps.”


A class like this allows smiles, laughs and mistakes that result in a bunch of great dancers. Craig gives the tools needed to move feet in the right direction, and allows you to fill in the rest. If you plan on attending one of these classes be sure to leave all your bashful baggage at home because its time to dance.

Written by Mike Gamm