From childhood, we are taught to not have a lot of love for the coyote. I mean, look at the ways Wyle E. Coyote tried to torture the poor Roadrunner. Personally, I always felt great satisfaction when an Acme anvil fell on his head. Call it cartoon karma, because the guy had it coming! Yet the coyote is an important part of many Native American tales, so I figure Mr. Coyote merits his own blog post. I’ve been doing some research on the subject, and do you want to know something funny? I haven’t even come across a single mention of an anvil.
Wyle E. Coyote
Looney Tunes and Native American stories generally agree on one thing—the wiliness of the coyote. In Native American tales, the coyote is almost always portrayed as cunning, selfish and opportunistic. That sounds about right. The coyote’s reputation is grounded in reality. As the Navajo proverb says, “Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry.”
Most people living in the West have a healthy respect for, if not an abiding affection toward, coyotes. They are adaptable creatures that will do whatever it takes to survive. They will eat pretty much whatever is available—rabbits, rodents, frogs, fish, deer, insects, fruit, and the list continues (although there is no indication that they actually eat roadrunners). Seriously, coyotes will dine on just about anything—including the family dog, cat or livestock. Uh, yeah, that last part has done nothing to improve the coyote’s reputation among the masses. Maybe that’s why cartoons and Native American legends have incorporated so much truth about the character of the coyote.
He isn’t always portrayed as the bad guy, but there is, for lack of a different term, always a sense that the coyote has “street smarts”. Perhaps the reason the coyote is so often portrayed as anamorphic is because, for better or worse, we humans see our own strengths and foibles in him.
Coyote often plays a role in Native American creation tales. In Nez Perce creation tales, Coyote plays the lead. Yes, he plays the Creator. If you think that is going against type, just wait until you hear the details. In a time before mankind, it took Coyote’s wiliness and keen powers of observation to outwit a monster that had consumed the animals.
Coyote disguised himself so that the monster would eat him, as well. Once consumed, Coyote searched for the monster’s heart. While performing this task, he encountered his animal friends who were inside of the monster. Coyote started a fire near the monsters heart. He told the animals to prepare for escape. (Trust me; you do not want a more detailed version of this story!) Meanwhile, Coyote managed to cut out the monster’s heart. When the monster died, the animals escaped, followed by Coyote.
Coyote declared that he was going to create a new animal, in honor of the whole monstrous ordeal! Yep. He was going to make people. He flung pieces of the monster to the four winds. Wherever a monster piece landed, a new tribe was born.
Realizing that he had failed to populate the area where he stood, Coyote washed the blood from his hands and shook the drops on the ground. Clever Coyote declared,
“They will be few in number, but they will be strong and pure.” And that was how the Nez Perce tribe came into being. Talk about a good day’s work!
Many tales of Coyote serve to teach us that our actions have consequences to others. Such is the case in the Zuni tale of how Coyote stole the sun and the moon. Wow! Is there anything that guy won’t take? In that story, Coyote was a bad hunter who wanted to team up with Eagle to ensure that he would have enough meat. At that time, the sky was still dark and Coyote was at a distinct disadvantage. Eagle was feasting on meat, while Coyote caught insects. When Coyote complained about the darkness, Eagle took him to find light.
Eagle took Coyote to a tribe who had two boxes, which contained light. The larger box contained the sun and the smaller box contained the moon. Coyote convinced Eagle that they should steal the large box. Eagle flew off carrying the box, while Coyote chased after him. Four times Coyote asked to carry the box. Finally, Eagle relented, even though Coyote had a reputation for not doing anything right. Eagle told Coyote not the open the box. Yeah. Guess what he did?
Coyote took a peek in the box and discovered that Eagle had placed the moon inside the box, as well as the sun. The sun and the moon escaped and rose high into the sky. Oh, sure, there was light, but the earth became very cold. The plants shriveled and Coyote shivered as snow began to fall. If not for Coyote’s problems with impulse control, the world would not have winter. Yes, Coyote, your actions have consequences. And now I will know who to blame for my icy feet this winter!
Howling at the Moon
There are many lessons to learn from the coyote. The traditional symbolism portrays him as intelligent, playful, conniving and resourceful. The Navajo refuse to kill the coyote because they believe he accompanied the first man and woman into the world. The Shoshone consider Coyote to be the bringer of death—of natural disasters, illness and times of hunger.
So, you see, the coyote has much more to teach us than to beware of falling anvils. He is the best and the worst this world has to offer. What a great reminder that life isn’t always black and white.
Once I got the “meep meep” sound of an animated roadrunner out of my head, I’ve had the haunting sound of Don Edwards singing “Coyotes” running over and over in my mind. I hope you’ll join me in a Stargazer Mercantile sing-a-long!
Happy Trails, y’all!