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About Coyote

Sam D. Gill and Irene F. Sullivan


Coyote is the figure who appears most widely in Native American stories; he is without doubt the best known. The preeminent trickster, he may also take the role of culture hero, although the aspects of culture and life he introduces often have a negative side to them. To the Chinook he is Italapas. The Navajo term for Coyote is Ma?ii; the Lakota word, Mica. He is Skinkuts in Kutenai and Isil in Cupeño. The Crow call him Old Man Coyote.

Coyote's origins are not often told, but the Pima consider him the off-spring of the moon (see Tcu-unnyikita). He often travels with a companion, sometimes a brother, or with his family. Perhaps his most common companions are Fox (see also Achomawi Silver Fox, who is a cocreator with Coyote) and Wolf (see Wolf Creates the Earth, Paiute; and Sunawavi, Ute). Coyote also travels with the Alsea creator Suku, a bear, with whom he names all the things created. Coyote plays an important role in the Navajo emergence. The Kawaiisu team him with the bald-headed Pikagoyu, the Cheyenne with Wihio, the Kutenai with Yaukekam. Woodtick (Coeur d'Alene) wants to marry Coyote. The Kiowa figure Sendeh is capable of transforming into Coyote. Coyote often mistreats his companions (see Ciciyogozi, Kawaiisu), but is himself often tricked, as in the Huron tar baby story that depicts Pitch (Sanopi) as Coyote's antagonist. His trickery leads to Badger’s limitations. When Coyote offends Rolling Rock, as told in a Pawnee story, the rock crushes him.

Coyote is always male, and his masculinity is exaggerated through frequent references to his penis, often depicted as being so large that it requires a pack to carry it in. Coyote's lust is expressed in his desire for Changing Bear Maiden and by his efforts to have sex with women by becoming a baby (see Penis Baby, although he forgets to transform his penis. Coyote's sexual desires even lead him to have incest with his mother-in-law or his daughter (see Hummingbird). In the Kawaiisu story this act leads to the departure of his children, who go to the sky and become stars in the Big Dipper. In the Navajo story of Big Star Way, Coyote tricks Younger Brother in order to sleep with Younger Brother's wife. He often exchanges skins with an unsuspecting hunter so that he may sleep with the hunter's wife (see Ajilee). Coyote is often credited with making pleasurable sexual intercourse by removing the teeth of vagina dentata (see Korawini?i, Paiute) or by moving the genitals to their present locations on the body. Coyote's appetite for menstrual blood determines practices in the Lakota girls' puberty rite, Ta Tanka Lowanpi. In a Kawaiisu story, Coyote chooses to eat carrion (see Food Choices of Animals).

As a culture hero, Coyote is widely held to be responsible for the finality of death (see Nagaicho). According to the Maidu, he also introduces work and suffering (see Earth-Initiate, Earth-Maker). The Apache believe Coyote had a role in the origin of Europeans (see Europeans, Origin of). The Kawaiisu tell a story in which Coyote gambles for the release of game (see Inipi), and he figures strongly in stories that tell of the release of salmon. In a Nez Perce story he kills Mosquito (Wawa) by gorging him with nose blood. The Zuni credit him with creating pubic hair (see Paiyatemu), while the Kawaiisu refer to Coyote's hair by the name used for moss (Pazimora). The Kawaiisu describe his creation of the Pazimora, a people who live to the north of them. He accompanies the Maidu creator Kodoyanpe, and is credited by the Pomo with stealing the sun, thus making the world dark (see Madumda, who is Coyote's brother, the creator).

Coyote is often depicted as a curious fellow who wants to do what everyone else does, regardless of his limitations. This often gets him into trouble, as in the widely told Eye Juggler story (see Eyes, Substitution of). In some cultures, Coyote is not only the wily trickster or the unpredictable culture hero, he is also a feared, malevolent shape shifter, as in the Navajo Yenaldlooshi. See also Coyote and Eagle Steal Light, but Cause Winter and Coyote and Moon.

Coyote and Eagle Steal Light, but Cause Winter
Zuni, Southwest

Coyote and Eagle are hunting companions. Coyote complains it is so dark he is unable to find any game and suggests to Eagle that they travel west in search of light. Coyote nearly drowns trying to cross a river over which Eagle easily flies. Eventually they come to Kachina Village, where the kachinas have light. They keep it in a box, opening it whenever they want light. Coyote and Eagle decide to borrow the box so they can have light with which to hunt. Eagle carries the box, but Coyote argues that as a chief, Eagle should not carry it. Eventually Eagle entrusts Coyote with the box. Curious to examine its contents, Coyote hides in the grass and opens it. The moon and sun slip out, taking the heat of the earth with them to the sky. This is why there is winter (see Winter, Origin of). See also Light.

Coyote and Moon
Coeur d'Alene, Plateau

Coyote is originally chosen by the first humans to be the Moon, but they become dissatisfied because he takes advantage of his position in the sky to watch people on earth and divulge their secrets. He is replaced in the sky by Old-Man Chief (SpoxanitcElt), who travels about the world inspecting things Coyote has left undone. Coyote becomes angry because the Sun has killed some of his children. He cuts out the Sun's heart, and at once the earth becomes completely dark. Coyote attempts to carry the Sun's heart home in the dark but keeps failing. Finally he realizes he is getting nowhere. He puts Sun's heart back and light returns to earth.

From Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Oxford University Press, 1992. Copyright © by Sam D. Gill and Irene F. Sullivan.

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