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

the stream of life and a needed “delegation for the four-footed”

For we free-flowing-rivers fans, I thought I’d pass along a poetic “stream of life” passage (contained in the following inspiring video For the Beauty of the Earth) and the related reading from the same UUI service last November.

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.”

Here’s the video link– hope you’ll watch

Here’s the reading:…….

From “The Sacred Depths of Nature”

By Ursula Goodenough

The outpouring of [the Earth’s] biological diversity calls us to marvel at its fecundity. All of us humans are but a tiny part of an enormous context. We are one of perhaps 30 million species on the planet today, and countless millions that have gone before.  We occupy, temporarily, the very last moment of the animal radiation; our species appeared only some 130,000 years ago and the cave painters 35,000 years ago. And while we animals were radiating, so too were all the other lineages of the biosphere, generating a veritable sunburst of the biosphere.

We are called to acknowledge our dependency on the web of life both for our subsistence and for countless aesthetic experiences:  spring birdsong, swelling tree buds, the dizzy smell of honeysuckle.  We are called to acknowledge that which we are not: we cannot survive in a deep-sea vent, or fix nitrogen, or create a forest canopy, or soar 300 feet in the air and then catch a mouse in a spectacular nosedive.

[In this spirit] Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, spoke these words to an assembly at the United Nations:

“I do not see a delegation for the four-footed.  I see no seat for the eagles.  We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation.  We must continue to understand where we are.  And we stand between the mountain and the ant, somewhere and there only, as part and parcel of the Creation.  It is our responsibility, since we have been given the minds to take care of these things.”

Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons is one of my contemporary heroes. His call for a “delegation for the four-footed” resonates.  He was an All-American lacrosse goalie circa 1950. As Bobby Kennedy, Jr. (Waterkeeper Alliance) has noted: “A strong defense begins with a strong offense“. 

More landscape subjugation (in Indianapolis) courtesy of the Veterans Administration

Crown Hill cemetery is located near White River in Indianapolis.  It has sold 15 acres of pre-settlement forest to the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Just as the people of the Heart of the River coalition have devoted and expended a lot of heart into the defense of the river from the planned dam in Anderson, the folks of the Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors have lent heart to their fight to preserve the forest.  More info at and

I was recently reading Scott Russell Sanders’ 2016 novel Divine Animal.  He poignantly describes our “subjugated landscape” in Indiana as follows.

“… he looked over the fields on either side of the highway…  The terrain was flat here, leveled by glaciers as far as he could see it was planted in corn and soybeans… It was a subjugated landscape. He knew that almost every acre within sight had been covered with hardwood forest when the first white settlers arrived, yet now the only scraps of forest remaining were spindly woodlots here and there.  Across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, there were millions of such acres once covered with great trees, nearly all of them cleared in a few decades with hand tools and muscle power.  And cleared not only of trees.  Passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, wolves, bison, bears panthers, and lynx were all driven from this part of the country or driven to extinction, along with the Shawnee, Miami, Piankeshaw, and other native tribes. Once we had exploited the continent from sea to sea, we began sending our soldiers anywhere on Earth that possessed something we wanted.  This bullying was an old habit, ingrained in us over three centuries, since the Pilgrims arrived in the New World with their muskets and their writ of ownership from God and king.

How could he explain this view of his nation, which he had arrived at slowly, reluctantly, through reading and reflection, and which ran so contrary to what he’s been taught in school, where the subduing of land, Indians, and beasts had been portrayed as the triumph of civilization over wilderness, where every U.S. venture had been justified as a crusade by the powers of light against the powers of darkness.

Scott Russell Sanders, Divine Animal, 2016



Reservoir maintenance, especially dredging, is costly


Citizens Water of Indianapolis recently applied to IDEM for authorization (a Section 401 Water Quality Certification) to dredge a large area of Morse reservoir over the next 20 years in order to regain a portion of the original reservoir capacity.   Morse turned 60 years old in 2016 and sedimentation from its tributary stream inlets and adjacent/upstream land disturbances (mostly urban development and agricultural operations) have significantly diminished water-storing capacity.  Citizens proposes to dredge 93 acres plus 4 acres of emergent wetlands.   Over the 20-year project period, it will remove upwards of 360,000 cubic yards of sediment.  Morse has a total surface area of approximately 1500 acres.

I asked Citizens about the cost of the dredging.   It reported:  For Morse, it budgeted $62,000 in 2016, $400,000 for 2017, and $650,000 for 2018.   No estimates available yet for subsequent years’ budgeted costs.   

For Geist reservoir, Citizens spent $504,000 in 2016 and has budgeted $400,000 for 2017.

Citizens Water should be commended for reversing this deferred maintenance and addressing the cumulative problem of capacity loss.  Citizens Water’s predecessor Veolia Water (a private operator), which operated the system under nominal city supervision by a Waterworks Board and staff for about 8 years during the Peterson administration, conducted no capacity dredging at all.   It does not appear that the Indianapolis Water Company/IWC Resources, Inc. which operated the utility throughout much of the 1900s, dredged much if at all.   Update:  Here is Citizens Water’s response to my inquiry– “IWC did dredge 121 acres of the reservoir in the mid-1990s to restore 788,505 gallons of capacity to Geist Reservoir. We do not believe Morse was ever dredged by IWC or Veolia.

Maintenance dredging to preserve capacity should be done periodically/selectively.  The summer drought and heat of 2012 caused precipitous and unsustainable drawdowns of the reservoirs (ridiculously, mostly for suburban lawn irrigation).  In addition, despite the fact that the reservoirs were built as water supply reservoirs, Citizens is bedeviled by the complaints of wealthy and vocal reservoir property and boat owners when water levels fall to the point of impeding boating.   Of course, these recreational reservoir users pay nothing to support the dredging.

In the future, public policy review of any proposed new reservoirs should include close consideration of the full costs of long-term maintenance.  Reservoirs once constructed, immediately begin filling with sediment.  This is exacerbated in agricultural areas where tilling hastens the rate of sedimentation.

As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said: “One of the fundamental flaws of human nature is that everybody wants to build, but nobody wants to do maintenance.”






Dams at center of the Devils’ world, and Happy New Year

Another year has passed and without any new information about what the Anderson CED might have in mind in the way of a Dam Plan 2.0.  The public has been advised, via a Herald Bulletin update report, only that other alternatives are been studied.  Likely the dam promoters are working behind the scenes to grease the skids for more public study-money to keep their consultants employed in the task of rationalizing and glamorizing a bad idea.

Meanwhile, the Heart of the River Coalition has incorporated (in late 2015) as an Indiana not-for-profit, organized for educational purposes.  Its regular On Nature columns are published in the Herald Bulletin, and its board of directors continues to be engaged in conservation issues.

As a Christmas gift, I received a recently published book titled Canoes– A Natural History in North America. It’s a beautiful book, rich in history and photography.  In his Foreword, John McPhee supplies pointed observations about dams–.

“In the view of conservationists, there is something special about dams, something – as conservation problems go – that is disproportionately and metaphorically sinister.  The outermost circle of the Devils’ world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT.  Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline.  Within that is a ring of pinheads each covered with a million people – and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam. 

The implications of the dam exceed its true level in the scale of environmental catastrophes.  Conservationists who can hold themselves in reasonable check before new oil spills and fresh megalopolises mysteriously go insane at even the thought of a dam. The conservation movement is a mystical and religious force, and possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.  Humiliating nature, a dam is evil— placed and solid.”

Scenes from A Life in Canoes, the Foreword by John McPhee to Canoes— A Natural History in North America by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims



THB’s On Nature column on successful direct action protest at Standing Rock

On Nature column: Pipeline decision shows nonviolent protest can be successful

After more than seven months of protest with thousands of water protectors camping near the banks of the Canon Ball and Missouri Rivers on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has come to a halt.

On Dec. 4, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to drill under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River to Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the $3.8 billion 1,172-mile pipeline. It was slated to move up to 570,000 barrels of sweet crude oil per day from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to Illinois.

The peaceful unarmed water protectors attempting to preserve water sources they claim will be contaminated by an inevitable pipeline leak, have endured months of violence and aggression from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, North Dakota State Police, the National Guard and out of state police forces (including officers from Indiana). Protesters were subjected to pepper spray, attack dogs, rubber bullets, percussion grenades, sound canons, and they were doused by water canons in sub-freezing temperatures.

The confrontations resulted in more than 500 arrests (including several journalists) and accounts of various types of injuries, including a case of cardiac arrest, blindness from exposure to pepper spray, and the maiming of a non-Native woman who was hit with a percussion grenade and has undergone several surgeries after severely injuring her arm.

Several weeks ago, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple demanded all protesters vacate the area by Dec. 5 or face forced removal. He said heavy fines would be levied for anyone attempting to transport supplies to the resistance. The governor cited approaching winter storms and protesters’ safety as the impetus for his demands.

On Dec. 4, more than 2,000 military veterans arrived at the reservation to stand in solidarity with the water protectors and to serve as a human shield against the ongoing assault on the Native and non-Native people encamped in the area.

As the risk of a confrontation between active military/police forces and inactive or retired unarmed veterans grew, the Obama administration and the Army Corps halted the construction of the DAPL one day before Dalrymple’s deadline.

The action of the water protectors is a prime example of the power of direct action nonviolent protest. Yet, the future of the DAPL and the Standing Rock Sioux is uncertain. In response to the Army Corps’ refusal to permit construction under the Missouri River, ETP stated it fully intends to complete the pipleline, regardless of the action taken by the Obama administration. President-elect Donald Trump, who until recently was invested in ETP, is in full support of the pipeline.

What is certain is the renaissance of the environmental movement through direct action protest, and there is more to come.

Eliot Reed, an Anderson native, is the owner of Park Place Arts, a custom frame shop and art gallery in Anderson. He is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition.

AJC report: MIllions in tax dollars wasted on risky reservoirs

Millions in tax dollars wasted on risky reservoirs

By Chris Joyner – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Posted: 6:00 a.m. Thursday, December 08, 2016

If you like horror stories, I recommend you cozy up with a forensic audit released last week in Newton County.

The document, prepared by an independent auditor, found the county “recklessly wasted” more than $25 million in taxpayer money on the failed Bear Creek Reservoir project. The auditor laid the blame for the debacle mostly at the feet of Tommy Craig, the county’s longtime attorney who advised county officials to listen to their high-priced reservoir consultant — Tommy Craig — and sink millions into a project that crept along for years before crashing into a regulatory wall.

In spite of Craig’s denials, the Bear Creek disaster should serve as a warning to local officials considering whether to spend millions of dollars and a decade or more of work on a reservoir project. These projects are guaranteed to do one thing: Make consultants rich. Everything else is a bit of a gamble.

Jenny Hoffner of the conservation group American Rivers said the audit is bitter confirmation of its 2012 report on reservoir development in the Southeast, aptly titled “Money Pit.” That report warned that reservoir construction threatened to put local governments deep in debt, raising water rates and hamstringing investment in other essential services.

“Newton County taxpayers were put on the hook for $25 million,” she said. “They were sold a bill of goods. It was not going to generate water, but it did generate fees for consultants.”

Like similar projects around the metro area, Bear Creek was built on excessively rosy projections on how fast Newton County was supposed to grow. Population forecasts based on data from the state predicted Newton County to quadruple in size by 2050, growing to more than 400,000 souls.

Craig and other water consultants made a lot of money in the last 15 years on such projections. They told local elected officials that if they didn’t start spending the millions it takes to build a new reservoir on land, engineering studies and attorneys fees, they would be unprepared for the growth that definitely, no doubt about it, was coming their way.

While explosive population growth was the story every local politician told, environmentalists and some local tax watchdogs cast a suspicious eye on the projects they suspected were geared toward “amenity” lakes for fishing, boating and expensive housing developments.

Last year, the state released post-recession growth projections that are much more realistic. Newton County, for example, would grow to less than 200,000 by mid-century. In addition, projections released about the same time by the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District estimated conservation efforts would deliver a 25 percent drop in water use by metro Atlanta residents by 2050.

With lower growth and consumption projections, federal regulators with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who issue the permits for dams that makes reservoirs possible, took a dim view of Bear Creek and other similar projects. Rather than sink many more millions into the project, Newton County swallowed hard and shelved their planned reservoir.

It could be revived one day, but right now its a big, fat debit on the county ledger, including a $21 million loan from the state that Craig told the Newton County press indicated the project was a slam dunk. Ratepayers will be paying down that debt for 40 years.

“The state will not offer you a loan unless they have assurances that you are going to cross the finish line,” Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig told The Covington News in August 2012.

Others have also shelved reservoir plans

While the audit focuses on Newton County’s financial woes, proposed reservoirs are expensive millstones hanging around the necks of other county politicians.

Hall County officials withdrew their application for a federal permit earlier this year for the long-sought and controversial Glades Reservoir. County officials say they haven’t abandoned the project, but instead are taking a breather from paying consultants and are reevaluating the need for the project.

Hall County has invested $16 million on the project but they appear no further along than Newton in making their dream lake a reality.

Likewise, the small cities of Union City, Fairburn and Palmetto have pressed pause on their reservoir project (also named Bear Creek) for the same reasons.

Craig was a paid consultant for Glades and the other Bear Creek project. Like Newton, Hall County and the three south Fulton County cities have cut ties with him.

Not all reservoir projects end with disaster. Richland Creek in Paulding County is up and running, in part because the state has a direct investment in that project, which state officials see as providing relief for Lake Allatoona.

Cheaper options less sexy

Others are a mixed bag, like Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, jointly owned by Walton and Oconee counties.

That reservoir is built and is slowly filling up, but slower than expected growth has local officials in both counties are taking a wait-and-see approach to funding a water treatment plant and transmission lines needed to provide drinking water for the counties. As a result, Hard Labor is mostly an $84 million fishing hole.

Walton and Oconee financed a portion of that cost with $32 million in state loans. The counties were expected to begin paying that debt this coming summer but asked for an additional two years (interest free) to start paying it back.

State taxpayers have skin in this game too. In 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal pushed for $300 million in state bond debt to fund reservoir projects. Along with Hard Labor, Newton County received $21 million in loans and South Fulton’s proposed reservoir has received $10.5 million in loans from the state.

Reservoir opponents have long urged local politicians to take the cheaper, but less sexy, route and invest in their aging water infrastructure. Recapturing water from leaking pipes is way less expensive and can provide additional water for growth. Others have suggested “smart” water grids that would save millions of gallons of water by more expertly delivering water and reduce waste.

“We could be getting that water through efficiencies,” said Hoffner, who describes re-capturing wasted water as a “hidden reservoir.”

That’s not the reservoir consultants want, however. And politicians don’t like to spend money on capital projects they can’t see.

A page-turner like the Newton County audit could change some minds.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out.What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at