Barre Toelken will tell you a Navajo coyote story in January, but no amount of prodding will get it out of him in June.
"They have to be told in the winter or you will screw up the weather pattern," he says.
The traditional tribal moratorium on coyote yarns begins with the first lightning strike in the spring. Then mum's the word until the first killing frost of autumn.
Toelken, 55, has spent years collecting and studying the folklore of the Southwest--tales, folk songs and ballads that echo ever fainter down the decades. To many modern minds, his obsession is, well, puzzling.
"There is still a notion that folklore is baloney. I don't know any other field that has to explain itself any more than we do," Toelken says. "If someone says they are a doctor or a plumber, people say that's fine. But when I say I'm a folklorist, people say, 'That must be wonderful for your children, but what do you do for a living?' "
Toelken "does" folklore as a professor at Utah State University. Although his doctoral degree is in medieval literature, he became enthralled with American Indian culture in 1954 when he and a group of friends left college to mine uranium on the Navajo reservation in southeastern Utah.
"We started out driving down there on weekends and got more interested in living among the Indians than going to school," he says.
After uranium mining played out, Toelken was invited to stay on the reservation at Montezuma Creek with a Navajo family by the name of Yellowman. It was during that first winter that he learned about coyote stories, which are not all humorous but always carry a moral.
"Instead of lecturing people, the Navajos tell stories about a coyote," he says.
At first, he was simply entertained by the tales. But as his studies in folklore progressed, he returned to the reservation and made several tapes of the stories after agreeing never to repeat them during the summer.
Storytelling is an integral part of the study of folklore. For Toelken and others, it reveals elements of society not recorded anywhere else.
"Folklore is about the live part of the culture rather than the dry part you get through the books," he says. "The values and ideas important to a group of people are often too abstract to talk about, and when they are told in stories they are more vivid in their explanation."
Toelken says Navajos aren't the only people who use stories to explain themselves. Mormons, for example, tell stories about three Nephite men from the Book of Mormon who have been allowed to roam the Earth for ages, never dying. In the stories, he says, the three sometimes perform heroic acts such as saving a child's life when no other adult is around. In some versions, they appear as people in need. When the faithful help them, they are blessed.
Folklorists, Toelken says, are not in the business to determine the truth of the stories they study but focus on the purpose they serve for the people who tell them.
"Studying the unwritten vernacular of a society reveals important and mostly unrecorded facts about it," he says.
While the Nephite tales may promote faith among Mormons, coyote tales are sometimes used to explain nature. One tells that the animal's eyes are yellow because a coyote once threw his eyes high in the air so he could see long distances.
"Of course, it didn't do any good," Toelken says. "And then he had to use (yellow) pine pitch to make them stick again."
The stories often carry a health message. "From the Navajo point of view, the religion is based on health and anything out of balance creates sickness," he says.
But collecting coyote stories is not without hazard. Last fall, Toelken was asked to be a patient in a "blessingway" ceremony on the reservation aimed at promoting harmony in a person's life and warding off "skinwalkers," or witches.
"Witches take language apart and analyze it. My scholarship of Navajo coyote stories was making people nervous," he said.
After Yellowman died while being treated for Navajo witchcraft, Toelken agreed to participate in four such ceremonies to ease the minds of other family members. He will go through another later this year.