Coffee mugs created by Pueblo artists for the Starbucks at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tim Giago: Stories about the 'black medicine' that makes our world go round

Notes from Indian Country

The ‘black medicine’ that makes our world go around
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

In the Lakota language coffee is called wakalapi or pejuta sapa (black medicine). The plants were first introduced in the Americas around 1723.

The United States imports more coffee than any other nation. The per capita consumption of coffee in the United States in 2011 was 4.24 kg (9 lbs.), and the value of coffee imported exceeded $8 billion. As of 2015, Americans consumed approximately 400 million cups of coffee per day, making the United States the leading consumer of coffee in the world.

With that little bit of history in mind let me get on with my stories about wakalapi.

For the past 30 years I have had in my possession two plastic containers with Gevalia written on them. Below the Gevalia is the word Kaffe. While moving some items around in the kitchen I came across the containers and opened them to discover they were filled with coffee beans. The beans had to be at least 30 year old and luckily they were stored in these containers that are air tight. Now what does one do with coffee beans that are 30 years old?

Obviously you make a pot of coffee. I dug out a coffee bean grinder I had stored away for a few years, poured the beans into it, and voila! The beans soon were ground into coffee. I suppose that why they call them coffee grounds. Sunday morning I poured the 30-year-old fresh coffee into a coffee filter, filled the pot with water and made myself a pot of coffee. I would have to say that this is coffee was not made to just drink: One had to savor every sip.

As I sat sipping on my freshly brewed coffee beans my mind drifted back to my personal history with coffee. I recalled that when I was a boy my father used to put a big coffee pot on our wood burning stove, drop in a few egg shells, and dump the pure coffee directly into the water and sit back and watch it boil. He loved his morning coffee and on days when he didn’t have to go to work at the Wounded Knee Trading Post he kept the pot on the stove all day.

My uncle Joe was visiting one day and my dad poured him a cup of coffee. My older sister Sophie was watching and she took her cup and held it out for some coffee. Uncle Joe told her she was too young to drink coffee and added, “It will turn you brown.” Sophie responded, “Do you mean brown like you Uncle Joe?”

When I was sent to the Holy Rosary Mission Boarding School in about 1940 the World War II was already raging in Europe. Rationing of sugar, gasoline and coffee was just beginning in America. Our overseers at the mission took all of this in stride and when we went to breakfast in the dining hall we were greeted with pitchers of chicory coffee.

What is chicory coffee? Chicory coffee is a beverage prepared with roasted and ground chicory, or a blend of chicory and coffee. The ratio of coffee to chicory can be as high as 3 to 1, or as low as 1 to 3. Chicory coffee is made of the roots of the cultivated plant Cichorium Intybus Sativum, by roasting and grinding them.

When you put a couple of table spoons of sugar in it and some cream from our own dairy, it wasn’t that bad.

When I joined the military at age 17 I found that coffee was the life’s blood of our company. Our DI (Drill Instructor) had a permanently crooked finger from walking around holding a cup of coffee. He was unrecognizable without the cup of coffee. For those of us unfortunate enough to draw the mid-watch (guard duty from midnight to 4 a.m.) coffee was the thing that kept us from falling asleep on watch and being shot by a firing squad.

The cooks had big kettles in the galley (they were called galleys even on shore) where they placed cloth bags filled with coffee. The bags were secured by heavy string and lowered into the boiling water. Just before you went on mid-watch you would go to the galley, get a ladle and dip it into the black coffee and pour it into your cup. It was so strong one could stand a spoon up in it and it wouldn’t touch the sides.

When you were out in the field you learned how to build a fire and set your blackened coffee pot just above the flames and brew a masterful cup.

I have daughters now who would surely die if there wasn’t such a place as Starbuck’s. They know every brew that is offered and have tried all of them. Coffee is the essence of life to them. Without their cup of morning coffee the world would, indeed, be a dark and terrible place.

My son who is 36 years old is just starting to learn about coffee. He will soon find out that a completely new world awaits him. When he goes to his favorite “café” he will learn that the word “café” is actually a French word that means “coffee.” Bon appetit!

Tim Giago can be reached at