Print version of K. L. Nichols’ Native American Trickster
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Introduction to Native American
by K. L. Nichols
In the Native American oral tradition, the vulgar but sacred Trickster assumes many forms. He can be Old-Man Coyote among the Crow tribes, Raven in northwestern Indian lore, or, more generically, "The Tricky One" (such as Wakdjunkaga among the Winnebago or Manabozho among the Menomini), to mention just a few of his manifestations.
As will be suggested by the tales below, Trickster alternately scandalizes, disgusts, amuses, disrupts, chastises, and humiliates (or is humiliated by) the animal-like proto-people of pre-history, yet he is also a creative force transforming their world, sometimes in bizarre and outrageous ways, with his instinctive energies and cunning. Eternally scavenging for food, he represents the most basic instincts, but in other narratives, he is also the father of the Indian people and a potent conductor of spiritual forces in the form of sacred dreams.
Here is a short summary of a Nez Perce tale of Coyote as Creator-father, as told by Terri J. Andrews (click here to see the full article).
Coyote and the Monster
A long, long time ago, people did not yet inhabit the earth. A monster walked upon the land, eating all the animals--except Coyote. Coyote was angry that his friends were gone. He climbed the tallest mountain and attached himself to the top. Coyote called upon the monster, challenging it to try to eat him. The monster sucked in the air, hoping to pull in Coyote with its powerful breath, but the ropes were too strong. The monster tried many other ways to blow Coyote off the mountain, but it was no use.
Realizing that Coyote was sly and clever, the monster thought of a new plan. It would befriend Coyote and invite him to stay in its home. Before the visit began, Coyote said that he wanted to visit his friends and asked if he could enter the monster's stomach to see them. The monster allowed this, and Coyote cut out its heart and set fire to its insides. His friends were freed.
Then Coyote decided to make a new animal. He flung pieces of the monster in the four directions; wherever the pieces landed, a new tribe of Indians emerged. He ran out of body parts before he could create a new human animal on the site where the monster had lain. He used the monster's blood, which was still on his hands, to create the Nez Percé, who would be strong and good.
Both a creator of order out of chaos and a destroyer of order which represses creative energies, an animal being and a spiritual force, Coyote is contradictory and ambiguous, as can be seen in Barre Toelken's description of the Navajo conception of Coyote: "There is no possible distinction between Ma'i, the animal we recognize as a coyote in the fields, and Ma'i, the personification of Coyote power in all coyotes, and Ma'i, the character (trickster, creator, and buffoon) in legends and tales, and Mai, the symbolic character of disorder in the myths. Ma'i is not a composite but a complex; a Navajo would see no reason to distinguish separate aspects" (quoted from "Ma'i Joldloshi: Legendary Styles and Navajo Myth" in American Folk Legend, 1971).
Whatever else he may be, Trickster is also a SURVIVOR who uses his wits and instincts to adapt to the changing times. He still appears in many guises in modern Native American literature, sometimes as the trickster outwitting the whites or as the shaman-artist in Gerald Vizenor's post-modern hybrid world of native lore and contemporary technology.
The Great Spirit called all his people together from all over the earth. There was to be a change. He would give names to the people, and the Animal World was to rule. The naming was to begin at the break of day, each one having the right to choose his or her name according to who came first to the Spirit Chief's lodge. The Spirit Chief would also give each one their duty to perform in the changed conditions.
It was the night before the New World. Excitement was among the people. Each one desired a great name of note. All wished to be awake and first at the lodge of the Great Spirit Chief. Everyone wanted power to rule some tribe, some kingdom of the Animal World.
Coyote was of a degraded nature, a vulgar type of life. He was an imitator of everything that he saw or heard. When he asked a question, when he asked for information and it was given him, he would always say, "I knew that before! I did not have to be told." That was Coyote's way. He was hated by all the people for his ways. No one liked him. He boasted too much about his wisdom, about everything. Coyote went among the anxious people, bragging to everyone how early he was going to rise, how he would be the first one at the Spirit Chief's lodge. He bragged of the great name he would choose. He said, "I will have three big names to select from: there is Grizzly Bear, who will be ruler over all running, four-footed animals; Eagle, who will lead all the flying birds; Salmon, who will be chief over all the fish of every kind."
Coyote's twin brother, who took the name of Fox, said to him, "Do not be too sure. Maybe no one will be given his choice of names. Maybe you will have to retain your own name, Coyote. Because it is a degraded name, no one among the tribes will want to take it.
. . . . . . . .
Coyote went to his tepee in anger. He determined not to sleep that night. He would remain awake so as to be the first at the Spirit Chief's lodge for the name he wanted. . . . Coyote's wife (afterwards Mole), sat on her feet at the side of the doorway. She looked up at Coyote and said in a disappointed tone, "Have you no food for the children? They are starving! I can find no roots to dig."
"Eh-ha!" grunted Coyote sarcastically. He answered his wife, "I am no common person to be spoken to in that fashion by a mere woman. Do you know that I am going to be a great Chief at daybreak tomorrow? I shall be Grizzly Bear. I will devour my enemies with ease. I will take other men's wives. I will need you no longer. You are growing too old, too ugly to be the wife of a great warrior, of a big Chief as I will be."
. . . . . . . . .
Coyote ordered his wife to gather plenty of wood for the tepee fire where he would sit without sleep all night. Half of the night passed; Coyote grew sleepy. His eyes would close however hard he tried to keep them open. Then he thought what to do. He took two small sticks and braced his eyelids apart. He must not sleep! But before Coyote knew it, he was fast asleep. He was awakened by his wife, Mole, when she returned from the Spirit Chief's lodge, when the sun was high in the morning sky. . . .
Coyote jumped up from where he lay. He hurried to the lodge of the Chief Spirit. Nobody was there, and Coyote thought that he was first. . . . He went into the lodge and spoke, "I am going to be Grizzly Bear!"
The Chief answered, "Grizzly Bear was taken at daybreak!"
Coyote said, "Then I shall be called Eagle!"
The Chief answered Coyote, "Eagle has chosen his name. He flew away long ago."
Coyote then said, "I think that I will be called Salmon."
The Spirit Chief informed Coyote, "Salmon has also been taken. All the names have been used except your own: Coyote. No one wished to steal your name from you."
Poor Coyote's knees grew weak. He sank down by the fire in that great tepee. The heart of the Spirit Chief was touched when he saw the lowered head of Coyote, the mischief-maker. After a silence the Chief spoke, "You are Coyote! You are the hated among all the tribes, among all the people. I have chosen you from among all others to make you sleep, to go to the land of the dream visions. I make a purpose for you, a big work for you to do before another change comes to the people. You are to be father for all the tribes, for all the new kind of people who are to come. Because you are so hated, degraded and despised, you will be known as the Trick-person. You will have power to change yourself into anything, any object you wish when in danger or distress. There are man-eating monsters on the earth who are destroying the people. The tribes cannot increase and grow as I wish. These monsters must all be vanquished before the new people come. This is your work to do. I give you powers to kill these monsters. I have given your twin brother, Fox, power to help you, to restore you to life should you be killed. Your bones may be scattered; but if there is one hair left on your body, Fox can bring you back to life. Now go, despised Coyote! Begin the work laid out for your trail. Do good for the benefit of your people."
Thus, Coyote of the Animal
People was sent about the earth to fight and destroy the people-devouring
monsters, to prepare the land for the coming of the new people, the Indians.
Coyote' eyes grew slant from the effects of the sticks with which he braced them
open that night when waiting for the dawn of the name giving day. From this, the
Indians have inherited their slightly slant eyes as descendants from Coyote.
Manabozho and the "Hell-Diver"
[The Duped Dancers]
from Stith Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (1929)
While Manabozho was once walking along a lake shore, tired and hungry, he observed a long, narrow sandbar, which extended far out into the water, around which were myriads of waterfowl, so Manabozho decided to have a feast. He had with him only his medicine bag; so he entered the brush and hung it upon a tree, now called "Manabozho tree," and procured a quantity of bark, which he rolled into a bundle and placing it upon his back, returned to the shore, where he pretended to pass slowly by in sight of the birds. Some of the Swans and Ducks, however, recognizing Manabozho and becoming frightened, moved away from the shore.
One of the Swans called out, "Ho! Manabozho, where are you going?" To this Manabozho replied, "I am going to have a song. As you may see, I have all my songs with me." Manabozho then called out to the birds, "Come to me, my brothers, and let us sing and dance." The birds assented and returned to the shore, then all retreated a short distance away from the lake to an open space where they might dance. Manabozho removed the bundle of bark from his back and placed it on the ground, got out his singing-sticks, and said to the birds, "Now, all of you dance around me as I drum; sing as loudly as you can, and keep your eyes closed. The first one to open his eyes will forever have them red and sore."
Manabozho began to beat time upon his bundle of bark, while the birds, with eyes closed, circled around him singing as loudly as they could. Keeping time with one hand, Manabozho suddenly grasped the neck of a Swan, which he broke; but before he had killed the bird it screamed out, whereupon Manabozho said, "That's right, brothers, sing as loudly as you can." Soon another Swan fell a victim; then a Goose, and so on until the number of birds was greatly reduced. Then the "Hell diver," opening his eyes to see why there was less singing than at first, and beholding Manabozho and the heap of victims, cried out, "Manabozho is killing us! Manabozho is killing us!" and immediately ran to the water, followed by the remainder of the birds.
As the "Hell-diver" was a
poor runner, Manabozho soon overtook him, and said, "I won't kill you, but you
shall always have red eyes and be the laughing-stock of all the birds." With
this he gave the bird a kick, sending him far out into the lake and knocking off
his tail, so that the "Hell-diver" is red-eyed and tailless to this day.
As he continued his aimless wandering, unexpectedly, much to his surprise, he met a little fox. "Well, my younger brother, here you are! You are traveling, aren't you?" "Yes, yes, here I am!" answered the little fox. "The world is going to be a difficult place to live in and I am trying to find some clean place in which to dwell. That is what I am looking for." "Oh, oh, my younger brother, what you have said is very true. I, too, was thinking of the very same thing. I have always wanted to have a companion, so let us live together." Trickster consented, and so they went on to look for a place in which to dwell.
As they ran along they encountered a jay. "Well, well, my younger brother, what are you doing?" asked Trickster. "Older brother, I am looking for a place to live in because the world is soon going to be a difficult place in which to dwell."
"We are looking for the very same thing. When I heard my younger brother speaking of this I envied him very much. So let us live together, for we also are hunting for such a place." Thus spoke Trickster. Then they went on together and soon they came across a nit who also joined them. . . .
Winter soon approached and not long after it began, a deep snow fell. The situation of the four now became indeed very difficult. They had nothing to eat and they were getting quite hungry. . . . Then Trickster spoke: "Listen. There is a village yonder, where they are enjoying great blessings. The chief has a son who is killing many animals. He is not married yet but is thinking of it. Let us go over there. I will disguise myself as a woman and marry him. Thus we can live in peace until spring comes." "Good!" they ejaculated. All were willing and delighted to participate.
Trickster now took an elk's liver and made a vulva from it. Then he took some elk's kidneys and made breasts from them. Finally he put on a woman's dress. In this dress his friends enclosed him very firmly. . . . He now stood there transformed into a very pretty woman indeed. Then he let the fox have intercourse with him and make him pregnant, then the jaybird and, finally, the nit. After that he proceeded toward the village.
Now, at the edge of the village, lived an old woman and she immediately addressed him, saying, "My granddaughter, what is your purpose in traveling around like this? Certainly it is with some object in view that you are traveling!" Then the old woman went outside and shouted, "Ho! Ho! There is someone here who has come to court the chief's son." This, at least, is what the old woman seemed to be saying. Then the chief said to his daughters, "Ho! This clearly is what this woman wants and is the reason for her coming; so, my daughters, go and bring your sister-in-law here." Then they went after her. She certainly was a very handsome woman. The chief's son liked her very much. Immediately they prepared dried corn for her and they boiled split bear-ribs. That was why Trickster was getting married, of course. When this food was ready they put it in a dish, cooled it, and placed it in front of Trickster. He devoured it at once. There she (Trickster) remained.
Not long after Trickster became pregnant. The chief's son was very happy about the fact that he was to become a father. Not long after that Trickster gave birth to a boy. Then again he became pregnant and gave birth to another boy. Finally for the third time he became pregnant and gave birth to a third boy. The last child cried as soon as it was born and nothing could stop it. The crying became very serious and so it was decided to send for an old woman who had the reputation for being able to pacify children. She came, but she, likewise, could not pacify him. Finally the little child cried out and sang: "If I only could play with a little piece of white cloud!"
They went in search of a shaman, for it was the chief's son who was asking for this and, consequently, no matter what the cost, it had to be obtained. . . . All tried very hard, and, finally, they made it snow. Then, when the snow was quite deep, they gave him a piece of snow to play with and he stopped crying.
After a while he again cried out and sang: "If I could only play with a piece of blue sky!"
Then they tried to obtain a piece of blue sky for him. Very hard they tried, but were not able to obtain any. In the spring of the year, however, they gave him a piece of blue grass and he stopped crying.
After a while he began to cry again. This time he asked for some blue (green) leaves. Then the fourth time he asked for some roasting ears. They gave him green leaves and roasting ears of corn and he stopped crying.
One day later, as they were
steaming corn, the chief's wife teased her sister-in-law. She chased her around
the pit where they were steaming corn. Finally, the chief's son's wife
(Trickster) jumped over the pit and she dropped something very rotten. The
people shouted at her, "It is Trickster!" The men were all ashamed, especially
the chief's son. The animals who had been with Trickster, the fox, the jaybird
and the nit, all of them now ran away.
The Origin of Eternal Death
from Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Vol. 8 (1911).
Coyote had a wife and two children, and so had Eagle. Both families lived together. Eagle's wife and children died, and a few days later Coyote experienced the same misfortune. As the latter wept, his companion said: "Do not mourn: that will not bring your wife back. Make ready your moccasins, and we will go somewhere." So the two prepared for a long journey, and set out westward.
After four days they were close to the ocean; on one side of a body of water they saw houses. Coyote called across, "Come with a boat!" "Never mind; stop calling," bade Eagle. He produced an elderberry stalk, made a flute, put the end into the water, and whistled. Soon they saw two persons come out of a house, walk to the water's edge, and enter a canoe. Said Eagle, "Do not look at those people when they land." The boat drew near, but a few yards from the shore it stopped, and Eagle told his friend to close his eyes. He then took Coyote by the arm and leaped to the boat. The two persons paddled back, and when they stopped a short distance from the other side Eagle again cautioned Coyote to close his eyes, and then leaped ashore with him.
They went to the village, where there were many houses, but no people were in sight. Everything was still as death. There was a very large underground house, into which they went. In it was found an old woman sitting with her face to the wall, and lying on the floor on the other side of the room was the moon. They sat down near the wall.
"Coyote," whispered Eagle, "watch that woman and see what she does when the sun goes down!" Just before the sun set they heard a voice outside calling: "Get up! Hurry! The sun is going down, and it will soon be night. Hurry, hurry!" Coyote and Eagle still sat in a corner of the chamber watching the old woman. People began to enter, many hundreds of them, men, women, and children. Coyote, as he watched, saw Eagle's wife and two daughters among them, and soon afterward his own family. When the room was filled, Nikshiamchasht, the old woman, cried, "Are all in?" Then she turned about, and from a squatting posture she jumped forward, then again and again, five times in all, until she alighted in a small pit beside the moon. This she raised and swallowed, and at once it was pitch dark. The people wandered about, hither and thither, crowding and jostling, unable to see. About daylight a voice from outside cried, "Nikshiamshasht, all get through!" The old woman then disgorged the moon, and laid it back in its place on the floor; all the people filed out, and the woman, Eagle, and Coyote were once more alone.
"Now, Coyote," said Eagle, "could you do that?" "Yes, I can do that," he said. They went out, and Coyote at Eagle's direction made a box of boards, as large as he could carry, and put into it leaves from every kind of tree and blades from every kind of grass. "Well," said Eagle, "If you are sure you remember just how she did this, let us go in and kill her." So they entered the house and killed her, and buried the body. Her dress they took off and put on Coyote, so that he looked just like her, and he sat down in her place. Eagle then told him to practice what he had seen, by turning around and jumping as the old woman had done. So Coyote tuned about and jumped five times, but the last leap was a little short, yet he managed to slide into the hole. He put the moon into his mouth, but, try as he would, a thin edge still showed, and he covered it with his hands. Then he laid it back in its place and resumed his seat by the wall, waiting for sunset and the voice of the chief outside.
The day passed, the voiced called, and the people entered. Coyote turned about and began to jump. Some thought there was something strange about the manner of jumping , but others aid it was really the old woman. When he came to the last jump and slipped into the pit, many cried out that this was not the old woman, but Coyote quickly lifted the moon and put it into his mouth, covering the edge with his hands. When it was completely dark, Eagle placed the box in the doorway. Throughout the long night Coyote retained the moon in his mouth, until he was almost choking, but at last the voice of the chief was heard from the outside, and the dead began to file out. Every one walked into the box, and Eagle quickly threw the cover over and tied it. The sound was like that of a great swarm of flies. "Now, my brother, we are through," said Eagle. Coyote removed the dress and laid it down beside the moon, and Eagle threw the moon into the sky, where it remained. The two entered the canoe with the box, and paddled toward the east.
When they landed, Eagle carried the box. Near the end of the third night Coyote heard somebody talking; there seemed to be many voices. He awakened his companion, and said, "There are many people coming." "Do not worry," said Eagle; "it is all right." The following night Coyote heard the talking again, and, looking about, he discovered that the voices came from the box which Eagle had been carrying. He placed his ear against it, and after a while distinguished the voice of his wife. He smiled, and broke into laughter, but he said nothing to Eagle. At the end of the fifth night and the beginning of their last day of traveling, he said to his friend, "I will carry the box now; you have carried it a long way." "No," replied Eagle, "I will take it; I am strong." "Let me carry it," insisted the other; "suppose we come to where people live, and they should see the chief carrying the load. How would that look?" Still Eagle retained his hold on the box, but as they went along Coyote kept begging, and about noon, wearying of the subject, Eagle gave him the box. So Coyote had the load, and every time he heard the voice of his wife he would laugh. After a while he contrived to fall behind, and when Eagle was out of sight around a hill he began to open the box, in order to release his wife. But no sooner was the cover lifted than it was thrown back violently, and the dead people rushed out into the air with such force that Coyote was thrown to the ground. They quickly disappeared in the west. Eagle saw the cloud of dead people rising in the air, and came hurrying back. He found one man left there, a cripple who had been unable to rise; he threw him into the air, and the dead man floated away swiftly.
"You see what
you have done, with your curiosity and haste!" said Eagle. "If we had brought
these dead all the way back, people would not die forever, but only for a
season, like these plants, whose leaves we have brought. Hereafter trees and
grasses will die only in the winter, but in the spring they will be green
again. So it would have been with the people." "Let us go back and catch them
again," proposed Coyote; but Eagle objected: "They will not go to the same
place, and we would not know how to find them; they will be where the moon is,
up in the sky."
How Coyote Stole Fire
Coyote as a Mythic Symbol--short
but excellent introduction to tricksters.
The Riddle of Trickster--a general introduction referring to many cultural and contemporary examples of tricksters.
Tricksters by Terri Windling--excellent survey of the wide variety of tricksters around the globe.
The Trickster Cycle--Dieterle's retelling of the tales Paul Radin identified as composing a "trickster cycle."
Old Indian Legends--trickster tales by Zitkala-sa (Gertrude Bonnin)
Native American coyote stories/poems--many examples, plus other information on coyotes.
Transformations of the Trickster--Lock's scholarly article on many versions of the trickster.
Facts about Coyotes--the real animal resembles his mythic counterpart.
Mind: Trickster, Transformer--Moffit's scholarly discussion of Trickster as hero-savior; multi-cultural references.
Trickster [untitled]--nice discussion of tricksters, summarizing Radin's and Jung's views and modern Native American literature.
Theories of the North American Trickster--scholarly article on the changing interpretations of trickster.
Raven Trickster Tales and links
Scavengers--read about coyotes and the ecological balance in Chapter 3 of Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain.
Ortiz poetry--see my Eco-Poetry web page.
Coyote: Polymorphous but Not Perverse by Dell Hymes--several versions of the tale about coyote transforming tame deer into wild deer; parts of this essay are very technical, but the various retellings of the tale can be appreciated by most readers.
African Oral Story-telling--Tortoise as trickster
Trickster at the Crossroads: West Africa's God of Messages, Sex and Deceit--Davis' article on the trickster of the Orishas.
Eshu: An Afro-Caribbean Divine Trickster--article on another Orisha trickster.
Loki, Father of Strife --Karlsdottir's scholarly article on the Nordic trickster.
From Protean Ape to Handsome Saint: The Monkey King--scholarly article.
The Archetype of the Magician--Granrose's Jungian thesis about magician/tricksters.
Lady of the Depths: Primal Goddess of Celtic Shamanism--shape-shifting Irish goddess as the first trickster?
The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians --many trickster tales.
Tales of the North American Indians by Stith Thompson--many trickster and other tales.
Coyote, He/She Was Going There: Sex and Gender in Native American Trickster Stories --detailed scholarly discussion.
Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal --scholarly article.
NOTE: These pages are for
educational use only. The introductions were written by
K. L. Nichols and are not to be used by anyone else without the author's permission.
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