The Jicarilla Apache Coyote Stories

The coyote cycle is a series of tales or episodes involving the travels and adventures of the trickster, Coyote. For any one story-teller, these tales or episodes had a fixed order in respect to one another, though another story-teller’s account might run somewhat differently. The manner of organizing these episodes seemed to depend more or less on family lines, since the young of a given family group drew their inspiration from some venerable relative and carried on his version of the proper way to relate the antics of Coyote.

There were clusters of episodes which were always associated, however, and which usually appeared in the same order in respect to one another. For instance, no matter who told the story, one could be sure that the killing of the prairie-dogs by Coyote (tale 4) would be followed by the theft of these prairie-dogs by Wildcat, the attempt on the part of Coyote to retrieve the one which he has thrown away, and the revenge that Coyote visits upon Wildcat. Likewise the trick which Coyote plays upon Beaver (tale 42) is certain to be followed by retaliation on Beaver’s part. The man who is sent up on the rock by Coyote (tale 15) will, without fail, reach the camps of the people by virtue of the direction which objects left at previous camp sites give him; and when he arrives at his dwelling he inevitably destroys the adulterous Coyote by forcing him to swallow hot stones. The reader will soon come to recognize these and many more episodic clusters as the means by which direction is given to the blunderings of the trickster and interest in the cycle as a unified whole is maintained.

Another device to cement together the disparate episodes is the practice of interlarding references in one story to that which has gone before. Thus, after Coyote has burned a log to ashes in an unsuccessful attempt to roast the rabbit (tale 29) he meets Beetle. In order to escape, Beetle convinces Coyote that he must blacken himself with charcoal. It is to the log he has fired in the previous story that Coyote then repairs. Again, the story of the expanding meat is made to follow and depend on the tale of how Coyote slew his friend, Deer (tales 57 and 58).

Something should be said about the character of Coyote as he is presented throughout the range of Jicarilla mythology. Coyote is instrumental in obtaining and spreading fire for mankind, but this is one of the extremely rare occasions where Coyote is shown in anything that approaches a favorable light. And even in this episode he gains, in the Jicarilla mind, little honor, for his success is attendant upon theft and the deception of little children. Later he takes the bow and arrow away from the evil owl (tale 16), but he immediately is responsible for quite as much havoc with the weapon as was its former owner (tale 17). In other words, Coyote is the epitome of undesirable characteristics. “To follow Coyote’s path” is a native Jicarilla phrase signifying gluttony, deceit, and foolishness.

It is Coyote who steals and hides the baby of the water-being (tale 1) and precipitates a flood and the first emergence. Later he joins two evil birds in acts that lead to the beginning of death for the people of the emergence. It is he who deceives Child-of-the-Water into crossing the path of the infuriated cyclone, with the result that Child-of-the-Water is blown to bits. Incest, sexual excess, adultery, perverse and foolish conduct, theft, falsehood, laziness—all the frailities of man which cannot be attributed to one’s neighbor with impunity, find frank expression in the tales which describe Coyote. In one of the best informant’s own words:

Coyote traveled all around. The various tribes have different stories of him because he did other things in different parts of the country. We know only what he did among our people.

The coyote stories should be told only during the winter and at night. It is dangerous to tell the coyote stories while the snakes are out. These stories are told at night because Coyote ran around at night and slept during the day.

In telling the tales they always begin with Coyote down below before the emergence; then they tell about the race around the world for the two pretty girls, next Coyote gets fire, and from there on it is as I have told it.

They don’t say that the habits of mankind are due to Coyote. Some things are due to Coyote. But some misfortunes are due to other animals. Baldness comes from the turkey buzzard. One who is bald belongs to the turkey buzzard people.

In the old days when the people were sitting around someone would begin telling the coyote stories and the others would help. One would say, “You left out this one,” and he would start in. They listened to each other and helped keep it straight. Usually one man would not tell it all. He could stop at any point. The story did not have to be finished once it was begun.

You wouldn’t tell ‘funny’ coyote stories to your sister, your father-in-law, or to anyone to whom you use polite form. They wouldn’t like it. You don’t tell those stories when these relatives are present, even though others may be there too. A person is careful when he tells those stories, and if he sees that his sister is present, he skips that kind! (Informant)

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