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.
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.