Degrees of Coyoteness by Patricia Karamesines


This is a rewrite of a post published here on WIZ that I’m including in my book Crossfire Canyon. I’m posting the rewrite today in response to finding a bounty-killed coyote on this morning’s walk.

April 8, 2009. As I walked out of a nearby canyon last week along a trail where I had previously encountered 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 good 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 searched the ground, 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 difficulty picking out the body of the coyote because his full winter regalia of desert-soils-hued fur blended in well where he had been dumped against the weathered juniper barricade a 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 coyote might spark a response that under the circumstances I wasn’t prepared to support.

The animal’s head was turned away and its rust-tinted, smooth-furred, triangular ears–with some exceptions, a common earmark of undomesticated or less domesticated canids–caught my eye. Having lived with huskies, I’ve 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 coyote still had ears and scalp told me that it had not been killed to collect the twenty-dollar bounty paid for coyote scalps. I didn’t even know if the county was running a coyote bounty this year. Without closer examination, I couldn’t get a clear indication of how it might have died. Later, I might return to the carcass. But not now.

It was early April. Lambing season had been in progress over a month, with some lambs showing up early in December. Out in the desert, coyote pups were being born. Maybe a sheep rancher picked this animal off because it threatened his flock. Maybe it posed someone some other problem. Or maybe it had been killed because, as I’ve I heard it said, “It’s a coyote and deserves it.” Maybe €”just maybe €”it had been dying of natural causes and stopped here to lay down its life.

“It’s a coyote and deserves it”. This is the story some of us tell ourselves about how to treat with coyotes. Yet is it the only story? The Diné €”the Navajos €”have a deep and amazing tradition of Coyote stories, though the meaning of what Coyote does in a story is different for different Navajos. In and article titled, “The Pretty Language of Yellowman,” folklorist 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.” To Yellowman, Coyote 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 (though some of them are), but because laughing at wrongful behavior helped set in his children’s minds the logical boundaries of acceptable behavior.

For still other Navajos, Coyote is evil incarnate, the first witch. This perception places him squarely in company with skinwalkers and the whole tradition of doing evil to gain power over people and resources in the same vein of the Cain and Able story in the New Testament. This Coyote tradition €”the tradition of the Evilway singers €”is very serious in nature. You don’t laugh at this Coyote because evil will is not to be laughed at, only driven out of the community, using every means possible including magical ones. I suppose this is in some ways a fundamentalist view of Coyote, similar to the Christian fundamentalist view of Real Satan and Evil. In this narrative strain of Coyote stories, the world is infused with evil, a very dangerous place. 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 ourselves 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 in 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 still have a chance for treatment and recovery. Such people are “killed” by their actions, like Coyote is in many stories, over and over again. Yet by means of communal and sacred help and invocations, he resurrects. In the Coyoteway Ceremony, Coyote’s particular trouble is that he loses his skin, that largest organ of the body whose network of nerves makes us responsive. Our skin is one of the main conduits through which we sense the world and connect with others. In Coyoteway ceremonies, Coyote’s pelt is re-attached to his body and he is healed of the devastation.

Some hold that skinwalkers (evil incarnate Coyote) take parts of the Coyoteway out of context and use it in transformation ceremonies where they don the skin of an animal whose powers they wish to exploit for whatever bad purpose, “becoming” that animal. If so, this kind of recontextualization is typical of witchy behavior everywhere. Witches take parts of sacred belief and turn them to adverse effect, making clean and whole language into fragmenting, isolating, controlling black magic.

Then there are all the Navajos who believe part of this and part of that. Many non-traditional Navajos appear to be turning their backs to the “children’s stories” or have not been told them. Technology has changed the nature of narrative purpose for many of the Dine, especially the college age kids that come through my classroom or tutoring station, where I help them with their essays for English. Since it’s hard for a white girl like me to know on short exposure which kind of Navajo I’m talking with, I avoid raising Coyote issues with Navajos. However, many of them, traditional and non-traditional, still 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 such an act would upset the natural balance of the world and immerse it into sickness and chaos.

I grew up in the animal-rich environment of rural southeastern Virginia. At sixteen, I became a convert to the Mormon church, but by then I had already imprinted on the natural world. I had already become deeply involved with animals, plants, and insects before I learned that people, only “a little lower than the angels,” are the appointed stewards over the earth. People, I was taught, are God’s children and have the potential to ascend above the angels. And while animals were intelligences before they were created in body, they rank below us in intelligence. In some strains of the stewardship narrative, animals are apportioned only instinct, a nearly mechanistic system for survival and response to stimuli that renders animals incapable of free will and the power to choose their own ways. God didn’t endow them as he did us, so except for animals that have proven themselves helpful to man, they have no real foothold in our communities and no communities of their own. This storyline that animals are … well, just animals … doesn’t jive with my experience with them. From my earliest days I’ve seen intelligence in their eyes and body language and interacted with them as beings of powerful intent and desire for life.

This might be why, when I think of Coyote (big or little “c”), I learn toward the Coyote as first patient narrative strain of 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 animal conditions. That we might “resurrect” when we kill parts or most of our psyches through bad acts is a wry herald of divine hope, echoing, in down-to-earth language, more familiar sacred narratives that tell us the way to life is surrendering what we think life ought to be, and that our hearts €”the beating engines of our desire €”must crack their engine blocks before they can become whole.

Coyote-as-evil-incarnate–I’ve seen some of that as well, but not from coyote the animal, who after all is an opportunist and takes advantage of whatever circumstances seem good to it, including ones we’ve set up for coyotes with our ranching and farming practices, inviting their exploitation.

A few years ago, my daughter, thirteen years old at the time, led me to a harrowing scene of violence done upon a coyote and her pups. She took me to a place at the gravel pit where, a few months back, she and two neighbor boys discovered a coyote carcass strung up in a juniper with two dead pups on the ground below. The adult animal had been tied up front legs spread wide. Those remained hanging in the red baling string. Below the knots in the baling string, two tawny paws, fur and flesh intact. Above the knots, sharp, thin bones where the rest of the body had broken away and now lay moldering in a heap on the ground with the remains of what my daughter said had been two pups. The coyote’s skull had rolled down the hill. We stroked the adult coyote’s dangling paws, the fur of which was still soft, but the bone, ligaments, and muscles had gone quite dry and hollow.

People whom I’ve told this story to wondered if the person or persons who caught the coyote had dug her and her pups out of a den and brought them here to kill them. Maybe, one person thought, the den had been near where their mother had been left to hang and the pups came looking for their mother, found her out of reach, and died of starvation on the ground below her. Looking at the way the coyote had been strung up in the juniper, and hearing my daughter’s description of how the two pups lay on the ground directly below her, I saw in my mind’s eye a much grimmer, more disturbing story. To all appearances, someone brought a female coyote to this isolated spot behind the gravel pit, which, as mentioned, is a dumping ground for dead animals. They had hit her with their car, shot her, trapped her, or otherwise discovered her already injured or dead. Somehow, they figured out that she was pregnant and had pups inside her. Maybe the person or persons saw the unborn pups moving beneath her skin. Whomever it was then brought the coyote bitch to the gravel pit and strung her up in the branches, out of sight of anyone who might drive to the pit while they were doing what they were doing. They tied her front arms wide apart to make slitting her open easier. They emptied the unborn pups onto the ground and left them there to die below the body of their mother.

In spite of such 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, though, coyotes can make mistakes. If they survive them, they learn from them. And their biology is such that if many animals fall victim to widespread bounty hunting, to shooting, to trapping, or to any other attempt to curtail their presence in the world, they will resurrect their population by means of increased fertility.

Yes, they can pose threats. Many actions, perpetrated by humans or animals, do. Yet after having had a little experience with these creatures over the last few years and reading about them in order to try to understand them, I’ve come to believe that catching and killing a coyote takes a much bigger Coyote.


One thought on “Degrees of Coyoteness by Patricia Karamesines”

  1. I love the coyote as an animal, as an idea, as a symbol for many things, as an actor in my poetry. Thanks for this essay. Here is one haiku I wrote about a coyote that hangs around the parking area of our local community college:

    Keys jangling in hand.
    Aware that I am unaware,
    Coyote watches.


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