Degrees of Coyoteness

As I walked out of a nearby canyon last week  using the same trail where I reported having an encounter with a curious coyote, my  nose  detected gases  given off by  putrefaction.   Somewhere nearby, bacteria were at work breaking down formerly living tissue to simpler matter, dispersing an organism’s worldly goods to its biological heritors.

To this we must all come.   But who has come to it now, and where?        

Walking deeper into the field of decomposition gases, I looked around, guessing what I would find.   I was approaching the gravel pit, a dumping ground for domestic and wild animal carcasses and the scene of occasional war crimes of the sort some people commit against animals.   It’s common to find coyote remains around the pit, along with elk and deer carcasses, tree prunings, the ashes of bonfires, articles of clothing, and aerosol cans—the residue of  “huffing” parties.

My eyes had a difficult time picking out the body of  the coyote because his full winter regalia  of desert-soil-hued fur blended in well where he had been dumped against the weathered   juniper barricade some rancher erected decades ago to prevent cattle from  wandering.   I’m guessing the coyote was an adult male because of the animal’s size.   Wind ruffled the  luxuriant fur, and my own hand felt drawn to touch.   But I didn’t.   Touching the animal might spark a response that under the circumstances I couldn’t support.  

The animal’s head was turned away and its rust-tinted,  smooth-furred triangular ears—with some exceptions, the common earmark of un- or less domesticated canids—caught my eye.    Having lived  with huskies, I  have learned to watch upright  ears like these  for expression of  feeling and intent almost as much as  I watch the animal’s eyes, mouth, and tail.  

These ears—silent.

That the animal still had ears and scalp  told that it had not been  killed to collect the twenty-dollar    bounty  paid for coyote scalps.   I don’t even know if the county is running a coyote bounty this year.   Without closer examination, I could get no indication of  how the coyote  might have  died.      Later, I might go back to the carcass.   But not now.

Lambing season  has been in progress  for over a month, with some lambs showing up early in December.   Possibly, a sheep rancher picked this animal off because it threatened his herd.   Maybe it posed someone some other problem.   Or maybe it had been killed because, as I’ve heard it put, “It’s a coyote and deserves it.”   Maybe—just maybe—it  stopped there and laid  its life down  on its own.  

To reflect  on this coyote’s death, I thought I’d explore some of the stories people tell about coyotes, specifically the Navajos.  

Navajos have a deep and amazing tradition of Coyote stories, though Coyote is different things to different Navajos.   In “The Pretty Language of Yellowman,” Barre Toelken  tells how the Navajo grandfather Yellowman told Coyote stories to his children and grandchildren.   Why?   Because, he said, “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people, if they don’t, they will turn out to be bad.”   Coyote, of course, represented the “bad” end of the spectrum of cultural and spiritual possibilities.   Yellowman’s stories encouraged his listeners to laugh at Coyote’s antics, not because the stories are funny, but because laughing at wrong behaviors helped set in his children’s minds the logical boundaries of Navajo social behavior.  

For other Navajos, Coyote is evil incarnate, the first witch, which of course associates him with skinwalkers and that whole tradition of doing evil to get power over people and resources.   This tradition—the tradition of the Evilway singers—is  quite serious in nature.   You don’t laugh at this Coyote because evil is not to be laughed at, only driven away.   I suppose this is in some ways a fundamentalist view of Coyote, similar to Mormon fundamentalist views of Satan and evil, whereby the world is infused with evil, a very dangerous  place indeed, and you make every effort to separate yourself from it.

To another kind of Navajo, Coyote is not evil incarnate, but like you and me, prone to get himself into trouble by “Coyoteing around”—that is, he brings his suffering upon himself through bad choices.   But rather than being identified  as an  evil that must be driven out, this Coyote is held up by tradition to be the first patient, the first  beneficiary of the Coyoteway healing ceremonial.   Thus he is the type for all sufferers who scald themselves in  physical and spiritual hot water yet have a chance for treatment and recovery.   Such people are “killed” by their actions, like Coyote is in the stories, over and over, yet with communal and sacred helps and invocations  he always resurrects.   In the Coyoteway Ceremony, Coyote’s particular trouble is that he loses his skin, that largest organ of the body through whose  responsiveness we sense the world.    In Coyoteway ceremonies, Coyote’s pelt  is returned to him and he is healed of the devastation.  

Some hold that skinwalkers (the evil incarnate side of the story) take parts of the Coyoteway out of context and use it in “transformation” ceremonies where they don the skin of the animal whose powers they wish to exploit for whatever bad purpose, “becoming” that animal.

Then there are all the Navajos who believe part of this and part of that.  Some non-traditional Navajos  seem to be moving away from these “children’s stories”  or have not been  given them.   Since it’s hard for a white girl like me to know on short exposure which kind of Navajo I’m talking to, I avoid raising Coyote issues with Navajos.   However, many Navajos, traditional and non-traditional, associate Coyote with bad luck, and here it’s especially hard to tell where Coyote the folk figure ends and Canis latrans begins.   Crossing paths with a coyote (Canis latrans) is cause for great concern. Yet killing  the animal  could bring even worse luck, since it would upset the natural balance and immerse the world into sickness and chaos.

I grew up in the animal-rich environment of rural piedmont Virginia.   A convert to the church, I had already imprinted on the natural world and was deeply involved with animals before I learned that  people, only “a little lower than the angels,”  are the appointed stewards over the earth.   People, I was taught, are children of God  and have the potential to ascend above the angels.   And while animals, before they were created in body, were “intelligences,” they  rank  below us in intelligence (indeed, in some versions of stewardship, animals are apportioned only instinct).   God did not endow them as he did us,  and so, except for animals that have wisely proven themselves helpful to man,  they  have no real foothold in our community and no community of their own.   This idea that animals are … well, just animals …  doesn’t  quite jive with  my experience with them.   From my earliest days, I have seen intelligence in their eyes and body language and interacted with them as beings with an equality of intent and desire for life.

This is perhaps why, when I think of Coyote (big or little “c”), I lean toward the Coyote-as-first-patient narrative strain of folk  stories.   Something about this metaphoric Coyote levels the playing field.   That we often  get ourselves into trouble by “Coyoteing around” seems like a fair appraisal of  our human and our animal conditions.     That we might “resurrect” when we kill ourselves through our bad acts is a wry herald of divine hope,  echoing, in  down-to-earth language,  more familiar scriptural  narrative that  tells us  the way to life is losing it and that our hearts must break  before  they can  become whole.

The kids’ tales are good, too.   In Virginia, when I was a child, folktales were an important part of the reading curriculum.   Many stories have stayed with me,  acting as a kind of  guardian language.  

The Coyote-as-evil-incarnate—I’ve seen some of that as well, but not  from coyotes the animals, who after all are opportunists and take advantage of whatever circumstances seem good, including ones we set up for them, inviting their exploitation.  

At the gravel pit, I’ve  come upon  one harrowing scene of violence done upon a coyote and her pups.    But in spite of the  to-be-expected  instances of  coyote bodies turning up at the pit, I understand that coyotes are not so easy to  catch  or kill as some wish they were.      Like anybody else, they can make mistakes.   If they survive them, they learn from them.      And their biology is such that any if many animals fall victim to large-scale bounty-hunting, shooting, trapping, or any other attempt to  curtail their presence, they  will  resurrect their population by means of increased fertility.   And they can pose threats—many actions, human and animal, do.   Yet after  having had a little experience with these creatures over the last three years  and  reading about them in order to try to understand them,  I’m coming to  believe that  to catch  and kill  a coyote  takes a bigger Coyote.

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2 thoughts on “Degrees of Coyoteness”

  1. I can’t seem to stop seeing people in this. I know you’re writing about coyotes, but your descriptions of the different beliefs about it (him?) keep reminding me of descriptions or classes of personalities. I don’t know if I am so tuned in to seeing the human in everything or if I am just seeing the human in Navajo beliefs or if I am seeing the life of the mammal in all its variety. Maybe it’s all of them.
    I see faces in tree bark, too.

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  2. I know you’re writing about coyotes, but your descriptions of the different beliefs about it (him?) keep reminding me of descriptions or classes of personalities.

    I guess I’m writing about werecoyotes. 😉

    As I gain more experience with wild animals (as well as domestic ones), I’m beginning to see not the animal across from me, the not-human, less-than, but something more made of both myself and that creature in how we meet.

    The lizards that come running up onto the rock next to the gate when they see me coming so they can watch–it seems–me going through my gate-opening antics—that’s an event made up of me and the lizards, who for some reason I can’t fathom appear to find the business intriguing. I’ve had two other lizards–a Colorado collared lizard, and a little reddish-brown lizard, not the foggiest what it is, behave in unexpected ways. The collared lizard, which is a peacock of a reptile, being highly colored, simply sat on a rock and watched my ankle swing by just inches away without the least sign of concern. The little reddish lizard came hurtling right up to me as I walked along, ran up on a small rock for a better view, stopped right in my path, and cocked its eye up at me. I had to freeze midstep so as not to cause harm. This little guy was already missing his tail, which suggested that its curiosity had already cost something. I said, “You need to learn to be more prudent, my friend,” and walked around it.

    These events have become for me neither—dare I say it?—human or nonhuman, but some blossoming somewhere inbetween. This isn’t to say I feel less human when they happen, only more involved in something else.

    And what are those lizards up to? Maybe, somehow, they’re trying to make up for their choice to pass on the flying lessons.

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