Coyote the Trickster

After Edward Abbey died in March, 1989, a fine memorial book was published.  In Resist Much, Obey Little editors James Hepworth and Gregory McNamee complied the contributions of 25 prominent writers and friends of Ed.  One was Terry Tempest Williams, who has presented in Indianapolis on several occasions (at the Spirit and Place Civic Festival and an Indiana Humanities program last year).  “Tempest” as Abbey called her, reflected on their long walks and talks in the desert.

She concludes her piece by describing the emergence of the Coyote Clan in Southern Utah, and perhaps wherever our natural lands come under assault.

“Members of the Clan are not easily identified, but there are clues.  You can see it in their eyes.  They are joyful and they are fierce.  They can cry louder and laugh harder than anyone on the planet.  And they have enormous range. 

The Coyote Clan is a raucous bunch: they have drunk from desert potholes and belched forth toads. They tell stories with such virtuosity that you’ll swear you have been in the presence of preachers….

Members of the Clan court risk and will dance on slickrock as flash floods erode the ground beneath their feet. It doesn’t matter.  They understand the earth re-creates itself day after day.

One last promise Ed: we shall go forth with a vengeance.”

Coyote, the trickster, is an iconic mythological figure and there’s much written describing his traits and how he reshapes the world.  Here are some descriptive excerpts from selected sources. In addition to the usual tools such as public education,  perhaps we can apply some of Coyote’s provocative qualities in our work to stop dams, the wanton destruction of forests, etc.


Coyote the Trickster in literature:   

“Coyote— a mythical, spiritual, or human being living on the geographic and social fringe of a community, whose role within that community is to use humor, shock, cunning, and surprise to assist individuals in “waking up” and to prevent the community from developing self-destructive modes of behavior.

“Warrior—a protector of the people, a high distinction earned through fidelity to truth, common sense, physical and mental prowess, and personal integrity.

Source:  Coyote Warrior – One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation, Paul Van Develder, 2004

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“To decolonize our minds, we need to embrace a kind of trickster consciousness to break out of the binary thinking imposed on us by Eurocentric thinking… Trickster consciousness is a term coined by Anishinabe scholar, Gerald Vizenor, who writes about the importance of different ways of thinking and how to free the mind of the limits of the Western intellectual paradigm. Trickster consciousness helps facilitate a paradigm shift in our thinking. As Vizenor articulates, “Trickster consciousness is a comic liberator that craves chance, surprise, difference. The trickster is a healer in a fragmented world. The trickster denies singularity, monocultures, and completion. The trickster is communal, sensuous, erotic. The trickster is going to help us get to our next place.”

“We see in the dominant Western world that decisions are often based on “either/or” thinking… This binary thinking has so thoroughly pervaded our minds that it has become an unconscious reflex in thought.

“The trickster, the coyote, as an archetype, as a person, as a cultural hero in our oral traditions and stories, is a teacher and reminder of plurality, diversity, paradox, humor, surprise and humility. Trickster forces us to retain an understanding of all sides of a story by revealing them to the coexisting parts of one greater whole— interconnected and indistinguishable. …One of the ways we can invite this trickster consciousness or coyote way into our lives and decolonize our minds is through traditional cultural arts:  music, dance, weaving, carving, beading, regalia-making, sculpting, painting and other mediums…

Source:  Mending the Split-Head Society with the Trickster Consciousness, Melissa K. Nelson, 2008

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“The oldest teachers of human beings are the animals, and none of these are more clever or venerable instructors than the tricksters… Throughout world culture, tricksters such as hare and raven are honored for playing important roles in the creation of the earth. Their bluffs and schemes taught skills without which we human beings would be poor helpless animals indeed. The earliest storytellers had nothing but admiration for the trickster animals who showed people how to live with zest and cunning…”

Source:  Trick of the Tale, John and Caitlin Matthews

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“Coyote the Trickster – Long before we had television and books, before anybody wrote our language down, everything was learned by listening and doing. The spoken word was very important, and listening to stories was like going to school, to the movies, and to church, all at the same time. Then, as now, stories would talk about things like how the world was created and what our role in the world is. Indian ideas of what is considered proper behavior are reinforced by stories that poke fun at foolish misbehavior. Indian people use many kinds of stories to tell their histories and in many ways their stories are America’s only truly native literature.

A trickster hero’s exploits figure in the tales told by many tribal nations in North America. The American Indian trickster-hero may be responsible for creating parts of the world, but at the same time he often misbehaves. Different people give him different identities. He is Spider to the Sioux, he is Raven on the Northwest Coast. The people of the Great Lakes call him Hare, and to many people in the West he is Coyote.”

Source:  Coyote in Love with a Star, Marty Kreipe de Montanio

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“The tribal trickster liberates the mind in a comic discourse that reveals new signs, identities, and uncertain humor.” Robert Pelton said that “the trickster, ravenous and loutish, draws order from ordure”. He wrote that all “tricksters are foolers and fools, but their foolishness varies; sometimes it is destructive, sometimes creative, sometimes scatological, sometimes satiric, sometimes playful. In other words, the pattern is a shifting one, with now some, now others of the features presented.”

Source:  The Trickster as Liberator, Gerald Vizenor

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“An unpredictable and irrepressible figure found in stories all around the world. A liar, a thief, a clown, a troublesome meddler, and a sacred world creator, Trickster is a paradoxical creature who is wily and clever, yet also very foolish; he is both a cultural hero and a destructive influence, usually at one and the same time. Mythic tales about trickster are often funny, but don’t mistake him for a harmless buffoon. Trickster can be dark and deadly to encounter. At the very least he’ll deceive or rob you blind… Trickster is a boundary crosser, a violator of rules, an agent of change and transformation.”

“The key to spotting a mythic trickster (as opposed to a lesser con man or fool) is to remember the double aspect of his nature—he is both good and bad, wise and witless, both sacred and profane…

“Clowns, comedians, con men, and the masked actors of the commedia del’arte are all descendants of Trickster to a greater or lesser degree, using their wits to confound and astound, playing fast and loose with societies rules. Whole holidays are dedicated to Trickster’s spirit of anarchy, mirth, and misrules… Tricksters are contradictory creatures:  they are liars, knaves, rascals, fools, clowns, con men lechers, and thieves—but they are also cultural heroes whose tricks can do great good as well as great harm, and whose stories uphold the very traditions mocked by their antics.

“It is a trickster’s role to shake things up, to ignore established conventions, and to transgress traditional boundaries, thereby initiating acts of change and transformation, for good and for ill.

“Trickster can be an agent of creation or destruction, a cunning hero or a predatory villain, most often he is an ambivalent figure, shifting back and forth from one mode to the other.

“It was hard for the belagana (white man) to understand how funny stories could also be sacred stories. Coyote shows what will happen if you fail to live in harmony and to take care of your relatives. Coyote is always hungry, he’s always lazy, he’s always chasing after someone else’s wife. He doesn’t think about anybody but himself. He does everything wrong, he messes everything up. It’s funny, but it’s a warning too.”

(Navaho storyteller).

Source:  The Coyote Road—Trickster Tails edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, 2007

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