Trickster on NPR

Eileen Kane was featured on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge. Click here for the full programme.

Click here to listen to the Eileen Kane segment.

You are here

While most tales about Wolf focus on the good works of the Numu's beloved, sensible, creator, many Coyote stories may seem obscene by "white" standards, which may be the reason why "Delaney Jack" frequently cleaned up his tales when he told them to me. Here's one:

 

 'Another time. Coyote was going along and he set his eyes on this woman. He was going to have her, one way or another...'  and then he stops short. 'I think that's enough about Coyote, now,'  he says, perhaps because this is a famous one, often recounted in books, about how Coyote gets involved with a woman who has inward-pointing teeth in her vagina.   (From Trickster, "Delaney Jack" speaking)

 

Numu Ya Dua' (the Numa newspaper  that appeared in the early 1980s, now available  in book form as The Yerington Paiute Tribe: A Numu history by Michael Hittman) was published "for the expressed purpose of assisting tribal youth in learning tribal culture, customs, crafts and bilingual reading skills under Title IV Part B of the U.S. Office of Indian Education." It seemed to target Grade K-6. The following story, which I have summarized from Numu Ya Dua', tells the tale that Delaney avoided telling me. It appears to be based on the assumption that the child either knows that the woman has a toothed vagina, or doesn't and won't find out here.

 

 

Coyote and the Woman

 

According to Corbett Mack, whose life story was recorded by Michael Hittman in Corbett Mack: The Life of a Northern Paiute, Coyote was making a rabbit net out of we-ha when a good looking woman approached him and said, "Come on, Coyote, let's (sexual intercourse) [sic] a little." After various mishaps, he managed to follow her home, and outside her door, he stored a big "sleek" rock and a piece of rose bush. He went to bed with her, "taking his time because of those teeth." Then Coyote goes out and retrieves his rock and rosebush. 

 

"So he goes back...tries the same thing. He let the rock go first. Then she cracked down on it. I guess she hollered a little bit. That rock broke her teeth! Then he got that rose bush, pulls them out, her teeth and everything. Coyote said: 'This is the way the vagina is supposed to be.'

 

That's what Coyote did. He pulled out the teeth. Made the vagina the way it is today. And here's the thing. That woman used to catch ducks, every damn thing with those teeth. I don't know how she does it, but they were living high on the hog. Anyway,  after that, she went out, and all she could bring in was a little old scrawny duck, gummed up, wet. So her hunting days were over, when Coyote fixed her. Yeah, she's the one that did that to the women, you know."  (From Numu Ya Dua', March 13, 1981)

 

As Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz say in their American Indian Trickster Tales, trickster tales are erotic  and explicit: a vulva is a vulva,  a penis is a penis; usually no euphemisms are employed. They note that the Hopi talk opening and naturally of bodily functions and activities  in the presence of their children.

 

But another fact to bear in mind when considering "obscenity" is that this Coyote story is told in English, and in my own experience, some stories that sound fairly mild in the original language can seem very different in translation. In the Irish language, for example,  there are stories whose English translations have been seen as offensive.  A famous example is Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, a poetic romp by the 18th century Irish writer, Brian Merriman. It caused no public offense until it was translated from Irish into English by Frank O'Connor as The Midnight Court, whereupon it was banned by the Irish Censorship Board in 1946.  The original, in Irish, was never banned.  A second instance is that of the Tailor and Ansty, stories in the old Irish tradition told in English by an elderly country tailor and his wife to the writer,  Eric Cross, and banned on the grounds of indecency in 1942. Later the tailor was forced by three priests to kneel down and burn the book in his own hearth.  Coyote might have enjoyed such a spectacle in his own domain, perhaps using the fire to set alight half of creation, but it devastated the old tailor.

 

Coyote didn't live only for pleasure, though-he's often credited with (or held accountable for) making the world the way it actually is, usually after Wolf has just arranged it perfectly. 

 

 'Wolf always found game, but Coyote never found any. He was going along one day and he met Wolf. 'Brother, how do you get so much game?' he asked. Wolf wouldn't tell him, but Coyote begged.

At last Wolf said, 'I keep the animals in a hole.'

Coyote wanted to go to the hole to catch some. 'Take only one, and shut the hole,' Wolf warned him.

'I will,' said Coyote, but he opened the hole wide, and all the animals, all the ones we know, rushed out. Wolf looked around and saw they were all gone, scattered across the land. He was angry and wouldn't speak to Coyote. That's why we must hunt for food today. (From Trickster, "Delaney Jack" speaking)

 

 

In the next story, Mayleen Sam, a Yerington Numu elder, explains Coyote's contribution to the universe:

 

 

How the Stars Came to Be

 

 

"Long ago when it became night, there were no stars in the sky. The Wolf thought he would brighten up the dark sky by putting stars there. He designed The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper, The North Star, The Eagle's Footprint, The Three Hunters and The Bears. The Wolf worked and worked and by noontime he was very tired. So he lay down to take an afternoon nap with his sack beside him.

 

As big brother Wolf was sleeping, along came his little brother, Coyote, who was searching for him. When Coyote came upon his big brother sleeping, he noticed the sack beside him and became very curious. He said to himself, 'I wonder what my big brother has in that sack?  I think I will take it and see what is in it.'

 

Coyote took the sack and ran. While he was running, he opened the sack and looked in. Not watching where he was going, he tripped and spilled the stardust with which brother Wolf had been making the stars. The stardust splattered into the sky among the designs brother Wolf had been working on.

 

If brother Coyote had not taken brother Wolf's sack of stardust, all the stars would now be formed into different designs rather than scattered about as they are today in the Milky Way.

 

When Coyote looks into the sky and cries, it is because he sees the scattered stars and he remembers what he did. It makes him feel very sad."  (From Numu Ya Dua', January 25, 1980)

 

Coyote Fools his Daughter

 

One person in Trickster, "Archie Dee," promised to tell me the real story:

 

'I'll tell you a real good one about Coyote. None a this "helping up old ladies stuff." Why, one time...'  and out comes the story of Coyote eating his own penis and somehow drowning trying to retrieve it.

'But this is not the end,' Archie says. 'Nossir. Not the end.' And he wanders off.

Most Coyote stories finish that way: 'But this is not the end.' Maybe because he gets himself killed in a lot of them, only to spring up again.

 

 

***

 

According to Corbett Mack, all the small birds are Coyote's daughters. One day he tricked his daughter Ang (pine nut bird) into bending over to look for a jackrabbit behind a bush.  When he did...

 

Ang was astonished that her father would do such a thing and stood up quickly, breaking off Coyote's penis. Coyote asked Cottontail doctor to help him remove his penis from his daughter. Cottontail doctor agreed, and told Coyote to go and get a drink of water. Coyote went part way into the water.  Cottontail doctor removed Coyote's penis and inserted his own. Later, Coyote came back and ate Cottontail doctor's children, but was still hungry, so Cottontail doctor, who had married Ang, told her to boil up their best meat for him. "You can imagine what that was? Coyote's outfit!" Corbett Mack said. Under Cottontail doctor's instructions, Coyote went back into the water, and each time he came out, Cottontail doctor pretended he had made more progress in getting the rest of Coyote's penis out of his daughter. Finally Coyote went into the water above his head and drowned.

"But this is not the end," Corbett Mack said.  (From Numu Ya Dua', June 19, 1981)

 

***

 

Cross, Eric. 1942. The Tailor and Ansty.  Dublin: The Bell.

 

Erdoes, Richard and Alonso Ortiz. 1998. American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Hittman, Michael. 1984. The Yerington Paiute Tribe: A Numu history. Yerington NV: The Yerington Paiute Tribe.

 

____1996. Corbett Mack: The life of a Northern Paiute. Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press.

 

Merriman, Brian. Cúirt an Mheán Oíche.  (c. 1780)

 

O'Connor, Frank. 1945. The Midnight Court. London/Dublin; Fridberg.