Coyote is a fascinating figure in Native American myth and folklore because he embodies so many roles. Among the Plains tribes, he is the Creator and name-giver1. Among other tribes, he is a trickster and a glutton2. In some stories, while he isn’t the Creator, he is just as powerful.3 He also sometimes takes on the role of a messenger.
His motives run from the heroic to the villainous. He either takes or gives out of a sense of justice or because he’s proud, greedy, and gluttonous. His powers are often that of transformation, travel, and trickery. He is often clever and cunning. Wherever he goes, no matter his motives, Coyote brings change that either leads to proper order or chaos.
All in all, he’s a very ambiguous character whose motivations and roles are fluid. My favorite story is how Coyote stole fire:
Long ago, when man was newly come into the world, there were days when he was the happiest creature of all. Those were the days when spring brushed across the willow tails, or when his children ripened with the blueberries in the sun of summer, or when the goldenrod bloomed in the autumn haze.
But always the mists of autumn evenings grew more chill, and the sun’s strokes grew shorter. Then man saw winter moving near, and he became fearful and unhappy. He was afraid for his children, and for the grandfathers and grandmothers who carried in their heads the sacred tales of the tribe. Many of these, young and old, would die in the long, ice-bitter months of winter.
Coyote, like the rest of the People, had no need for fire. So he seldom concerned himself with it, until one spring day when he was passing a human village. There the women were singing a song of mourning for the babies and the old ones who had died in the winter. Their voices moaned like the west wind through a buffalo skull, prickling the hairs on Coyote’s neck.
“Feel how the sun is now warm on our backs,” one of the men was saying. “Feel how it warms the earth and makes these stones hot to the touch. If only we could have had a small piece of the sun in our teepees during the winter.”
Coyote, overhearing this, felt sorry for the men and women. He also felt that there was something he could do to help them. He knew of a faraway mountain-top where the three Fire Beings lived. These Beings kept fire to themselves, guarding it carefully for fear that man might somehow acquire it and become as strong as they. Coyote saw that he could do a good turn for man at the expense of these selfish Fire Beings.
So Coyote went to the mountain of the Fire Beings and crept to its top, to watch the way that the Beings guarded their fire. As he came near, the Beings leaped to their feet and gazed searchingly round their camp. Their eyes glinted like bloodstones, and their hands were clawed like the talons of the great black vulture.
“What’s that? What’s that I hear?” hissed one of the Beings.
“A thief, skulking in the bushes!” screeched another.
The third looked more closely, and saw Coyote. But he had gone to the mountain-top on all fours, so the Being thought she saw only an ordinary coyote slinking among the trees.
“It is no one, it is nothing!” she cried, and the other two looked where she pointed and also saw only a grey coyote. They sat down again by their fire and paid Coyote no more attention.
So he watched all day and night as the Fire Beings guarded their fire. He saw how they fed it pine cones and dry branches from the sycamore trees. He saw how they stamped furiously on runaway rivulets of flame that sometimes nibbled outwards on edges of dry grass. He saw also how, at night, the Beings took turns to sit by the fire. Two would sleep while one was on guard; and at certain times the Being by the fire would get up and go into their teepee, and another would come out to sit by the fire.
Coyote saw that the Beings were always jealously watchful of their fire except during one part of the day. That was in the earliest morning, when the first winds of dawn arose on the mountains. Then the Being by the fire would hurry, shivering, into the teepee calling, “Sister, sister, go out and watch the fire.” But the next Being would always be slow to go out for her turn, her head spinning with sleep and the thin dreams of dawn.
Coyote, seeing all this, went down the mountain and spoke to some of his friends among the People. He told them of hairless man, fearing the cold and death of winter. And he told them of the Fire Beings, and the warmth and brightness of the flame. They all agreed that man should have fire, and they all promised to help Coyote’s undertaking.
Then Coyote sped again to the mountain-top. Again the Fire Beings leaped up when he came close, and one cried out, “What’s that? A thief, a thief!”
But again the others looked closely, and saw only a grey coyote hunting among the bushes. So they sat down again and paid him no more attention.
Coyote waited through the day, and watched as night fell and two of the Beings went off to the teepee to sleep. He watched as they changed over at certain times all the night long, until at last the dawn winds rose.
Then the Being on guard called, “Sister, sister, get up and watch the fire.”
And the Being whose turn it was climbed slow and sleepy from her bed, saying, “Yes, yes, I am coming. Do not shout so.”
But before she could come out of the teepee, Coyote lunged from the bushes, snatched up a glowing portion of fire, and sprang away down the mountainside.
Screaming, the Fire Beings flew after him. Swift as Coyote ran, they caught up with him, and one of them reached out a clutching hand. Her fingers touched only the tip of the tail, but the touch was enough to turn the hairs white, and coyote tail-tips are white still. Coyote shouted, and flung the fire away from him. But the others of the People had gathered at the mountain’s foot, in case they were needed. Squirrel saw the fire falling, and caught it, putting it on her back and fleeing away through the tree-tops. The fire scorched her back so painfully that her tail curled up and back, as squirrels’ tails still do today.
The Fire Beings then pursued Squirrel, who threw the fire to Chipmunk. Chattering with fear, Chipmunk stood still as if rooted until the Beings were almost upon her. Then, as she turned to run, one Being clawed at her, tearing down the length of her back and leaving three stripes that are to be seen on chipmunks’ backs even today. Chipmunk threw the fire to Frog, and the Beings turned towards him. One of the Beings grasped his tail, but Frog gave a mighty leap and tore himself free, leaving his tail behind in the Being’s hand—which is why frogs have had no tails ever since.
As the Beings came after him again, Frog flung the fire on to Wood. And Wood swallowed it.
The Fire Beings gathered round, but they did not know how to get the fire out of Wood. They promised it gifts, sang to it and shouted at it. They twisted it and struck it and tore it with their knives. But Wood did not give up the fire. In the end, defeated, the Beings went back to their mountain-top and left the People alone.
But Coyote knew how to get fire out of Wood. And he went to the village of men and showed them how. He showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. So man was from then on warm and safe through the killing cold of winter.4
1“Coyote”, Tamara Kazakova, Encyclopedia Mythica, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/coyote.html
2“Coyote”, Encyclopedia Brittanica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Coyote-mythology
3“Coyote”, Tamara Kazakova, Encyclopedia Mythica, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/coyote.html
4“How Coyote Stole Fire”, http://www.ilhawaii.net/~stony/lore06.html