Introduction to Native American Tricksters
by K. L. Nichols
In the Native American oral tradition, the vulgar but sacred Trickster assumes many forms. He can be Old-Man Coyote among the Crow tribes, Raven in northwestern Indian lore, or, more generically, "The Tricky One" (such as Wakdjunkaga among the Winnebago or Manabozho among the Menomini), to mention just a few of his manifestations.
As will be suggested by the tales below, Trickster alternately scandalizes, disgusts, amuses, disrupts, chastises, and humiliates (or is humiliated by) the animal-like proto-people of pre-history, yet he is also a creative force transforming their world, sometimes in bizarre and outrageous ways, with his instinctive energies and cunning. Eternally scavenging for food, he represents the most basic instincts, but in other narratives, he is also the father of the Indian people and a potent conductor of spiritual forces in the form of sacred dreams.
Here is a short summary of a Nez Perce tale of Coyote as Creator-father, as told by Terri J. Andrews.
Coyote and the Monster
A long, long time ago, people did not yet inhabit the earth. A monster walked upon the land, eating all the animals--except Coyote. Coyote was angry that his friends were gone. He climbed the tallest mountain and attached himself to the top. Coyote called upon the monster, challenging it to try to eat him. The monster sucked in the air, hoping to pull in Coyote with its powerful breath, but the ropes were too strong. The monster tried many other ways to blow Coyote off the mountain, but it was no use.
Realizing that Coyote was sly and clever, the monster thought of a new plan. It would befriend Coyote and invite him to stay in its home. Before the visit began, Coyote said that he wanted to visit his friends and asked if he could enter the monster's stomach to see them. The monster allowed this, and Coyote cut out its heart and set fire to its insides. His friends were freed.
Then Coyote decided to make a new animal. He flung pieces of the monster in the four directions; wherever the pieces landed, a new tribe of Indians emerged. He ran out of body parts before he could create a new human animal on the site where the monster had lain. He used the monster's blood, which was still on his hands, to create the Nez Percé, who would be strong and good.
Both a creator of order out of chaos and a destroyer of order which represses creative energies, an animal being and a spiritual force, Coyote is contradictory and ambiguous, as can be seen in Barre Toelken's description of the Navajo conception of Coyote: "There is no possible distinction between Ma'i, the animal we recognize as a coyote in the fields, and Ma'i, the personification of Coyote power in all coyotes, and Ma'i, the character (trickster, creator, and buffoon) in legends and tales, and Mai, the symbolic character of disorder in the myths. Ma'i is not a composite but a complex; a Navajo would see no reason to distinguish separate aspects" (quoted from "Ma'i Joldloshi: Legendary Styles and Navajo Myth" in American Folk Legend, 1971).
Whatever else he may be, Trickster is also a SURVIVOR who uses his wits and instincts to adapt to the changing times. He still appears in many guises in modern Native American literature, sometimes as the trickster outwitting the whites or as the shaman-artist in Gerald Vizenor's post-modern hybrid world of native lore and contemporary technology