September 1, 2014

All About Animals: Coyote—The First and Last Animal

 

PHOTO BY TERRY MATKINS

All About Animals: Coyote—The First and Last Animal

Mesa lives at The Nature of Wildworks.

No animal had a stronger hold on the imagination of our native peoples than the coyote. Many Native American tribes credited the coyote with helping a god create the world and prepare it for the first people. Some believed that the coyote actually performed the magic himself. In the legends of many tribes, the coyote made the first humans from feathers, mud or straw. The Zuni believed the coyote taught man to hunt; the Sioux that coyote taught humans the use of medicinal plants; the Shasta and others that coyote gave man fire; the Kutenai that coyote divided day into equal parts of light and darkness.

To the native peoples, “Old Man Coyote” was Creator, Transformer and Trickster. As Transformer, coyote was said to have altered the course of rivers, moved mountains and dried up lakes to correct mistakes made when earth was created.

In the belief of the Navajo and the Hopi, coyote changed the course of the sun and removed all but one moon from the evening sky, rearranged the stars and scattered the seeds of plants all over the countryside. According to the Mandan, coyote took speech away from dogs because they bickered and gossiped.

To humans, coyote gave the greatest gift: the ability to think. People prospered but when coyote realized there would not be enough food to feed everyone, death was introduced into the world.

In its third guise as Trickster, coyote was not revered or admired. As Trickster, coyote was seen as a mischief-maker that cheats, lies and steals. Some believed that wrong-doers, upon reaching the land of the dead, were sent back to earth as coyotes. Always, the coyote played an important role, good and bad in the native people’s religion. The Blackfoot devoutly appealed to the coyote for help and protection. California’s Indians held rites honoring the coyote and venerated a mythical white coyote that lived beside a river flowing through the sky.

Medicine men received guidance from a supernatural coyote. By listening to the howls of coyotes, a shaman could discern whether a friend or enemy was approaching in the dark. The elders of the Navajo will not kill or skin a sheep-eating coyote because they believe coyotes are spirits of the dead, while young Navajos are likely to shoot or trap coyotes that prey upon their sheep. But to all, the coyote is still known as “God’s Dog”.

According to the Navajo, coyote keeps his life forces in the tip of his tail. When his body is killed, he simply puts his life forces together again and comes back to life. Coyote cannot die, say the native people, and in more than one legend, it is prophesied that the coyote will be the last animal on earth.n

THE NATURE OF WILDWORKS

Shirley Gordon, who recently passed away at the age of 86, was a retired Hollywood screenwriter and wildlife enthusiast who volunteered at Wildworks for many years.

Mollie Hogan founded The Nature of Wildworks in 1995 to provide lifetime care for non-releasable wild animals. ­For more information: natureofwildworks.org; or (310) 455-0550.