top of page

Joseph Rael


Joseph Rael, whose Tiwa name is Tsluu-teh-koh-ay (Beautiful Painted Arrow), is a visionary healer and artist. He brings together in his person Southern Ute (through his mother) & Picuris Pueblo (through his father) traditions and is a citizen of the Southern Ute tribe & the United States of America. He is the author of many books, including Sound: Native Teachings & Visionary Art, Being & Vibration: Entering the New World, Ceremonies of the Living Spirit, and co-authored with David Kopacz, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, and Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. He is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and holds a master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin. He has worked for Housing & Urban Development, the All Indian Pueblo Council, and the Indian Health Service, using Native American traditions and holistic health care to help those suffering from addiction. In 1983 he had a formative vision of Sound Peace Chambers and has overseen the construction of over 65 chambers on four continents, which led to him being recognized by the United Nations for his work for world peace.


I have been working with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) since 2014. I am a psychiatrist and at the time I was working on adapting Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey concept for supporting veterans in their journey home from military service. I had read some of Joseph’s books years earlier and I stumbled across Kurt Wilt’s book on Joseph, The Visionary: Entering the Mystic Universe of Joseph Rael – Beautiful Painted Arrow. I emailed Kurt and he introduced me to Joseph via email. Joseph invited me to visit him on the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado in October 2014. I had thought I would write a chapter on indigenous approaches to initiation and healing for the hero’s journey project, but that trip turned into my own hero’s journey with Joseph!

We two have gotten on quite well, in fact, the first day we met, Joseph said to me, “You can tell that you and I are a lot alike, we’re both crazy and we love life!” Since that time, Joseph and I have written two books together, a number of papers, and we are working on a third book. We talk on the phone a few times a month, send letters and writing back and forth, and I have visited him in Colorado or New Mexico usually about twice a year. 

Joseph tells me that “we are the microcosm of the macrocosm.” This is how the ceremony works, what is done on one level of reality affects all levels of reality. He has taught me that a ceremony always has three elements, two things that are disconnected and the ceremony is the third thing that heals the division. Joseph often speaks of ordinary reality (the material world) and non-ordinary reality (the spiritual world). Ceremony moves us from ordinary to non-ordinary reality and then brings healing back to ordinary reality. Every ceremony is like a miniature hero’s or heroine’s journey, from a state of separation, into initiation, and then returning to a transformed reality. Joseph has also told me that ceremony works through “unconscious healing,” which means you do not need to explain how ceremony works, you just let it work on you. 

Interview by David R. Kopacz, MD  (2020)


"We don’t realize there are two wheels in life: one we are on and below us is the wheel of our ancestors. When you walk it...these two wheels will merge"


David R. Kopacz: We’re going to have a section of Becoming Medicine reprinted in Parabola magazine – Jeff Zaleski wants the sections, “Initiation of the Circle” and “Moon Woman Vision.” You have statements in those sections that we are “circle people” and “what comes around goes around” and that “everything eventually becomes its opposite.” You also say, “Look at how we move in a circle, but then look at it from the side and it looks like we are moving forward and backward, back and forth. It depends on your perspective of seeing.”


Joseph Rael – Beautiful Painted Arrow (BPA): That’s apropos for this time. That’s how it is – we move back and forth and back and forth. We move forward and then we spoil it by invalidating it. In order to get in tune with it, we need to use our feet. That’s why we have these physical feet and they are made for traveling. When we go forward we add something. But then we go backward and we forget it. In this life, you have to be constantly correcting yourself. 

That’s what my dances are supposed to do. They check everything on the list. When you are dancing you move forward and backwards in balance. You dance to cover the winter; you dance to cover the spring; you dance to cover the summer; and you dance to cover the autumn. You also dance to cover the North, South, East, West – the directions. 

I’m just being a book from the universe and showing you what to do.


Why should we dance forward and backward? If you walk, then eventually you

become consciously aware of what you are doing instead of it showing up in

your behavior. You see, we are going in a circle and we go around to come

around. The thing most people don’t know is that there are two circles. One

going clockwise. The other going counterclockwise. There are two different

circles, one above the other. 


DRK: What you said about making the unconscious conscious is what Jung used

to say about psychotherapy – that the purpose of psychotherapy was to make the

unconscious conscious so it doesn’t come out in your behavior.

BPA: See, the Indians were doing that too – the only difference is that we were doing it physically. 


DRK: What can you say about racism in this land, this split that happened from the very beginning when Europeans came to this land


BPA: There is a book, an article from the 1970s in Madison at the University of Wisconsin where somebody bombed a building. There was a Black student from Alabama who came to Wisconsin and many white people there had never met a Black man before. He wrote a book about his experience in Madison. He was one of the students, I think he got his bachelor’s degree, I’m not sure if he got his master’s degree. He wanted to be a political scientist like I did. He looked at the pros and cons – some people were nice to him and some weren’t. He decided to look at both sides and be OK with it. 

We were taught in Picuris Pueblo that if you see a Black man you would say, “Oh, he is my grandfather.” You would feel good about seeing him. You wouldn’t have disdain for him. We learned this in childhood – that is the best place to learn it, in childhood.

Why were the Europeans coming here to this land? They were coming here for freedom. First, you ask, “How do you define freedom?” The next question is, “Did you or did you not find the freedom you were seeking?” You can say, “My parents were searching for it. They came here and they saw all this land was available.” It wasn’t available, though. See, the Indians worked out a way of living long distances from each other for peace. They knew if you get too close to somebody’s property, you are going to have a fight.

DRK: Jung would say that underneath our consciousness we have a collective unconscious and where the memories of our ancestors live. We carry the past within us. Jung said that the first task of healing is to meet our shadow so that we don’t project it on to others – that is what leads to racism or fascism, projecting our own darkness onto others. 


BPA: We don’t realize there are two wheels in life: one we are on and below us is the wheel of our ancestors. When you walk it, eventually, these two wheels will merge, the upper and the lower, the higher and the lower consciousness. That’s why it is important to walk. I have always taken long walks in my life and that helps the two wheels to merge. That is why we do dancing, dancing helps the two wheels merge.

I walked from this house, here on the Southern Ute reservation, down to the new bridge I had built. You know, we have a bridge now I have told you about. I brought the head honcho from the tribe over, he was wearing a mask, of course. He said, “This is a dang good bridge.” We planted 20 cottonwood trees on the top of the hill. It’s not my land, it’s our tribal land and they’ve chosen me to care for it. 
You see, when I built that bridge and then walked across it, we are finally acknowledging and finding the metaphor of the virus. Someone has to make a bridge – physically make a bridge across the river. Otherwise, you will go down the same old road and have war after war after war. What is the sense of raising kids to die in war after war? It makes no logical sense.

I have told you the old Picuris Children’s Story of Magpietail Boy and his wife, Yellow Corn Woman. I dedicated this bridge to Magpietail Boy and Yellow Corn Woman. He created the tale where he used his tail as a bridge so that some people went to this side and some people went over to the other side of the river – that is the cause of our separation and racism. That’s why all the Indians tell the story of Magpietail Boy and Yellow Corn Woman. 

The guy that helped me build the bridge – he helped me build the old house, too – he’s Mormon. He and I have a good connection. When we are walking, I reach into my pocket and I pull out a $100 dollar bill because that is the kind of pocket money I carry to give away. I don’t expect anything in return. I’m not rich, but I’m never broke either. 

Now, the tribe is wondering if they should do the Sun Dance. It is always after 4th of July weekend with the Southern Utes. My recommendation was not to do it – let it go until after the pandemic. Same way with the Bear Dance. As an elder I can give suggestions, that’s what I’m saying.


DRK: You’ve told me about different aspects of racism that you have faced in your life. How have you lived and worked with racism?

BPA:  I don’t hate people, not even the people who stole our land. If my children end up marrying a black person, or a white person, or a yellow person – heck, maybe even there are blue people, they could marry a blue person – I’m not going to get upset. It is their choice. Now if they were marrying a bum, I might say, this guy doesn’t seem to want to work and in this life, you have to work and make money. But that doesn’t have anything to do with their skin color. 

DRK:  You’ve said that you were taught at Picuris that black people are your grandmothers and grandfathers. From your visionary understanding, why do people have different skin colors? 


BPA: The first thing you need to know is that “black” in Tiwa is pah-neh-ney, paaahhhhh-neh-ney. You have to purse your lips and blow, paaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh-neh-ney. That means “black” and that is “breath.” Breath gives us black because it blows away everything that exists so fast that we cannot see it. It looks black. What is blown – remember God in Tiwa is Wah-Mah-Chi, Breath-Matter-Movement – so what is breath? It is God. 

You see, I’m putting gates and fences on the land. You have to draw a line, otherwise, everything will just go everywhere with the wind and the breath. Kids will be looking for a place to drink beer and maybe they’ll make a bet on who can drive to Durango the fastest and they’ll know I built a bridge here and they’ll take it to win a bet, they’ll try to go as fast as they can.

Paaahhh-neh-ney. It moves so fast it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t have placement because it is moving so fast. Anyone who is Black, this suggests they don’t have placement. Without placement, you can’t have the Breath of Life. The words, Wah-Mah-Chi [the Tiwa word for God] tell us that the very thing that gives us life is the dark. That is what dark is, that which gives us life. Wah – that means we are Awake & Dancing. 

Everyone is trying to find out what life is. They explain it very well in any number of books, but nobody really knows what it is. That is because it does not exist and that is why it exists because it does not exist.

[silent pause]

What are you thinking?

DRK: I’m trying not to think – just to feel what you said in the emptiness of my heart. 

BPA: Look at children’s stories. You have them in every culture. Little children’s rhymes. Did your teachers teach you children’s rhymes


DRK:  Like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat?


BPA: Yes, and how does that song go?

    Row, row, row your boat
    Gently down the stream
    Merrily, merrily, merrily,
    Life is but a dream.

See, that is what I say all the time, La vida no mas un sueño es – Life is but a dream! Life is not real, but we make it real when we solidify it. We solidify it as if it was there. If we say it, we create it, because we are the creators, our creation concretizes it and it becomes solid. Then someone comes along and says, “This is solid – you can take it to the bank!” Every individual on the planet has it, we are all creators. 

Then after we have created it, we get frustrated with it because it is too solid and it won’t move. The frustration reveals itself against what we have created and then the frustration leads to killing it. Any authority figure, like a policeman, you get frustrated and then people want to kill them. But you have to ask, who put it there? Who created this concretized creation? Well, it was us. We created it. Wars will stop when people stop killing each other, but how long is that peace going to last? 

Well, anything else before I get going?

DRK: This is such a chaotic time and some people say the chaos is an opportunity for the future and that there is hope in the chaos and other people say there is no hope for the future.

BPA: That’s it! Look at the word, “hope.” Ho- means “it’s over,” “it’s dead.” A-ho. A means You and ho means “it’s over, you killed it.

[DRK: I meant to circle back around to the end of the word hope as Joseph didn’t speak about the -pe sound – oh, I get it, I follow his train of thought now, -pe is the sound of deer as below peh-neh].


We do the Deer Dance at Picuris in winter, when everything is sleeping. I will give you an example with the bridge. The deer, especially during hunting season, they can come across this bridge now and get away from the hunters and are safe on the Reservation. They don’t have to battle the cold water to get across. And what is the metaphor of the Deer? It is peh-neh, peh-neh. It means, “those who have insight, those who have vision, visionaries.” When we do the Deer Dance, that’s what we are doing it for – vision. The bridge was built by us two-leggeds to allow the deer to cross. That is beautiful! That’s where Beautiful Painted Arrow exists – building bridges. We talk about it, but no one ever does it. No one ever gets the gosh dang bridge built in the physical world. No one has guts enough to build a dang bridge so deer can cross one side to the other. So Pueblo people can cross to the Plains Indian side and Plains Indians can cross to the Pueblo side. The river is coming from the heart, the river is coming down from the mountain and it goes past us and we miss our chance and it goes down to the ocean. Then it is Oceanus’ problem. [Joseph often speaks of Oceanus, the Greek god of the ocean, whom he saw in a visionary state and has told him to do ceremonies for the purification of the oceans]. Did we deal with it? No. We lost our chances – we let the darn thing go by! But somebody like me – well, people say, that SOB what right does he have to build a bridge? But they can’t touch me. I didn’t do anything wrong – I was just improving the land. After I die, I can’t take the bridge with me, I can’t take the land with me, I can’t even take my body with me. I don’t look to cause problems, but the things I do create problems.
That is why they can’t touch me because I am a philosopher! A philosopher is something you are in your being. As you walk through the trail of life, each moment you are a philosopher. 

DSC_2667 (1).jpg

Dr. Kopacz and Joseph Rael 

Credit: Karen Kopacz, 2018

Dr. Kopacz and Joseph Rael 

Credit: Karen Kopacz, 2018

< back to humanities                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 next >                                                

bottom of page