03coyote-america
Photo from National Geographic

In the American West, coyotes spelled danger. Farmers attributed loss of livestock, especially sheep, to the infiltration of coyotes, and the animal gained an infamous reputation that made it the target of much persecution by settlers. In his semi-autobiographical travel story Roughing It, Mark Twain, upon seeing a coyote, deemed it “a long, slim, sick and sorry -looking skeleton, with…a general slinking expression all over.”

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While the American settlers received coyote poorly, among Native Americans he earned a more honored position. He appears in many Native American legends and myths as hero, antihero, and trickster.

Coyote the Hero [1]

At the beginning of the world, the Old Man Na-pe existed with none but his friend/enemy A-pe’si, the Coyote, and some buffalo. One day, sitting around the fire with no companion, A-pe’si and he having had a quarrel earlier, and all work done, a sharp loneliness struck Na-pe, and he determined to make a companion for himself.

For the base building material, Na-pe molded bones from clay, discarding the unsuitable ones. Using the clay bones tied with buffalo sinew, smoothed with buffalo fat, padded with clay and buffalo blood, and covered with the skin from inside a buffalo, Na-pe assembled a being that resembled himself. He blew smoke at the figure’s face, and it came to life, another man with whom Na-pe could have a smoke.

Na-pe proceeded to create several other men in this fashion, the pile of discarded bones at his doorway growing and growing. Na-pe and his tribe of men lived happily but for the nuisance of that pile of bones blocking the entrance. Na-pe considered tossing the lot in the river, but his natural laziness tossed that idea.

Some time later, A-pe’si returned, and criticized Na-pe’s work. “Why not make this heap of bones into men too?” he asked Na-pe.

Na-pe agreed, but pointed out, “They are poor bones and won’t make good men.” A-pe’si assured Na-pe that, with his help, he would make beings even better than men. They worked together, with Na-pe intending to make the bones into men but A-pe’si having other ideas. The bones rattled as they worked. At the end, a figure quite different from a man came together. When Na-pe blew smoke into its face, a woman came to life. They followed the same method to create several women, who stood and talked together.

The legend leaves the listener to wonder whether the rattling bones with which they were made or the intervention of the noisy A-pe’si caused the talkativeness of women.

Coyote the Antihero [2]

Hungry roaming beside a brook one day, Coyote encountered Opossum enjoying fruit from a persimmon tree. Heedless of Coyote’s pleas, Opossum joyfully ate the persimmons all himself and tossed the seeds to Coyote. He played with Coyote’s temper by swinging by his tail to Coyote’s level, then vaulting back on the branch just as Coyote snapped at him. At one point Opossum scampered on a dry branch that broke beneath him, and Coyote beat him and left him, supposedly, for dead. In fact, Opossum suffered no injury, and simply scampered back to the tree to taunt Coyote with persimmon seeds.

Having done with the frustrations of Opossum, Coyote continued on his way to find food. On a hillside, he beheld several young Turkeys playing a game with a bag by sitting inside it and rolling down the hill. Coyote saw his opportunity, and requested to join the game. The Turkeys let him climb into the bag and they rolled him down the hill. At the top again, Coyote offered to roll them all down the hill. A bit naive, the Turkeys crawled into the bag for the game, and Coyote tied them up and dragged them to his home.

At home, Coyote instructed his four sons to build a fire. Lacking adequate wood, he went away to gather some more, leaving his sons with the command to not touch the bag. Nevertheless, his youngest son, as youngest children will do, could not help his curiosity, and peeked in the bag. Immediately, the Turkeys flew off. Coyote returned and beat his son, but that did no good so far as turkey dinner went.

Some other morning Coyote spied a fat wild Turkey in a tree. Coyote told the Turkey, “In that tree, I could climb and catch you, but in the prairie I could not hurt you.” Taking his enemy at his word, Turkey alighted from the tree and made for the prairie. Coyote chased after him. When Turkey tired, he drifted to the ground, and Coyote pounced on and killed him.

As he licked at the last of the Turkey, Coyote thought he saw a big man with a club behind him, and took to his heels. Every time he glanced over his shoulder to check the man’s position, he saw him close behind. He ran and ran until his strength failed him and he collapsed, prepared to beg for mercy. Then, he heard a crack in his mouth – a turkey feather!

As it turns out, Coyote had been running near to death not from a man, but from the shadow of a feather that had stuck between his teeth and stood up near his left eye. Thus Coyote is known as a coward with wild eyes who is always looking over his shoulder for danger.

Coyote the Trickster [3]

One day Coyote, quite drunk from stolen whiskey with his friend Bobcat and feeling happy, howled so loud that the white men in the nearby town heard him. They captured him and locked him in the town jail. Bobcat, as good a friend as any, visited coyote now and again, and the white men eventually jailed him as well.

Outside the jail, Coyote observed white men breaking in horses, and failing with one in particular. A sly idea crossed his mind, and he remarked, “I could saddle that horse myself.” The prison guard overheard this proposition, and the white men, to humor coyote’s nonsense, released him and gave him leave to try.

Immediately, Coyote had control of the horse, but he wanted to extort the men a little before he demonstrated it. He explained that the horse demanded a fine saddle, a silver bit and bridle, provisions of food and drink, and that his rider wore fine clothing and carried pistols. All this the men brought and Coyote, when he had all that the horse “requested”, spurred the horse and rode off.

Coyote rested under a walnut tree and, cognizant that the soldiers were pursuing him, plotted to trick them. He tied a sack of money on a branch of the tree. At noon, when the men arrived, he told them, “This tree grows money. I will sell it to you if you will give me all your pack mules.”

The soldiers agreed to this arrangement. Coyote hurled a rock against the tree, and the money he’d tied in it rained down. “The tree only drops money at noon,” he explained. “I’ll keep this haul, but you may have the next.” True to their words, the men gave Coyote their pack mules, and Coyote went on his way. The next day, the men tried to shake money from the tree. When it did not come, they cut it down, but still found no coin.

Coyote moved to another county, where some of the mules grew restless. Agitated, he killed all who brayed, and in the end killed them all. From a white man in town he purchased a burro, and his mind searched again for plots to trick the white man. The idea struck him to stuff some money up the burro’s rear so that, when he kicked its stomach, the money fell out, making it as though the beast excreted money.

Coyote took the burro to the big man in town and demonstrated the burro’s talent. The burro delighted the big man, and he gave coyote much money for it. “Kick it at the same time tomorrow,” Coyote said, “and he will excrete even more money.” He then left town.

The next day, the men kicked the burro at the time that Coyote instructed, but nothing came. After much fruitless kicking, they killed the burro and cut it open, but found no money within.

Do you know any legends, myths, or folklore about Coyote? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

[1] How the Old Man made people
[2] Coyote the hungry
[3] Coyote gets rich off the white man