The Coyote is the traditional Native American Trickster figure and a symbol in Native American culture and oral tradition. He is a commonly-seen character in many Native American stories and myths. What exactly is a Trickster figure? He is very difficult, if not impossible, to define. According to S.E. Schlosser of ‘Tricksters: Native American Trickster Tales and other Trickster Folklore’:
“A Trickster is a mischievous or roguish figure in myth or folklore who typically makes up for physical weakness with cunning and subversive humor. The Trickster alternates between cleverness and stupidity, kindness and cruelty, deceiver and deceived, breaker of taboos and creator of culture.”
The website “American Passages - Unit 8. Regional Realism: Context Activities” has this to say to add to the discussion of a Trickster definition:
“Characterized by paradox, duality, cleverness, shape-shifting, duplicity, and a knack for survival, trickster figures are appealing in their ability to assert their individuality and shatter boundaries and taboos…Native American trickster tales are similarly interested in the inversion of social norms and the breaking of boundaries; their tales of Coyote and other supernatural characters celebrate the trickster as simultaneously vulgar and sacred, wise and foolish, but always surviving…The identity of the trickster continues to resonate in Native American culture today…Coyote embodies the duality and flexibility of contemporary Indian culture, figuring both resistance and strategic accommodation to Euro-American culture.”
In the antics of the Coyote Trickster, people sometimes learn more about their own weaknesses and foolishness. This figure teaches through his mistakes and by being a bad example for the Indians. Through Coyote’s actions, the Native Americans learn to laugh at themselves and their occasional acts of self-deceit. Jill Stefko has this to say about the Coyote Trickster:
“He is often fooled and astonished by the outcome of his own pranks. He survives this, then goes onto not learning by his mistakes and makes bigger ones. He denotes both folly and wisdom and the balance of the two. Wisdom is hidden in the foolery. He may have lost the skirmish, but remains unbeaten. Coyote is keeper of magic, teacher and creator... Trickster[s] of Native American tales often gets duped, but he always rebounds and, at some point, even teaches himself lessons he learns from.”
However, because he is a Trickster figure, he is not all bad. He brought fire to the Native Americans, but can also cause floods. Coyote is a very chaotic neutral figure, more seen as a force of nature (or maybe a deity) than a particular, mortal person or figure. Coyote is sometimes seen to be a shapeshifter or an opportunist. He is also seen to be cunning and stealthy. “He can represent white and dark magick, creativity, illumination, experience, and new life” (Stefko). Tricksters dissolve boundaries and break taboos. They delight in the ambiguous and in confusion.
There are exactly three coyote references in Alexie's novel. The last and most vague reference is as follows: "All I know is that I count coyotes to help me sleep" (152). Why coyotes? The rest of us count sheep! Perhaps it is because coyotes are more familiar to the Indians than sheep, with all of the coyote tales they are told as children. Perhaps it is yet another way Alexie is drawing cultural differences between the Indian and the white man, but at the same time keeping us together in a web of sorts. We all count something to help us sleep, it may not be the same things, but the core concept is still the same.The coyote symbol here serves as a representation of duality in this way- he represents assimilation and inter-connectedness.
Alexie was kind enough to include as his first coyote reference in the book, a true tale in the coyote spirit: "Coyote, who is the creator all of us, was sitting on a cloud the day after he created the Indians. Now, he liked the Indians. liked what they were doing. This is good, he kept saying to himself. But he was bored. He thought and thought about what he should make next in the world. But he couldn't think of anything so he decided to clip his toenails. He clipped his right toenails and held the clippings in his right hand. Then he clipped his left toenails and added those clippings to the ones already in his right hand. He looked around and around his cloud for somewhere to throw away his clippings. But he couldn't find anywhere and he got mad. He started jumping up and down because he was so mad. Then he accidentally dropped his toenail clippings over the side of the cloud and they fell to the earth. The clippings burrowed into the ground like seeds and grew up to be the white man. Coyote, he looked down at his newest creation and said, Oh shit." (134-5)
It is in this reference we see the true character of the coyote figure, as seen by the Spokane people. He is a creator, who is quick to anger and makes mistakes, things we don't often see deities doing in Western religions. The coyote-figure is more humanized and in this tale, even curses (though we can assume this was not a traditional Spokane tale about the coyote).Readers here can learn more about Indian religion, as well as grasping more of the Native American worldview in a better, more complete way.
In between those two references, another is sandwiched: "Simon won the coyote contest when he told us that basketball should be our new religion" (147).The coyote here is used as a symbol for his trickster aspect, the part that lies and crafts grand schemes. Simon wins the "coyote contest" (seemingly a contest to tell the tallest, most convincing tale) when he makes an argument for basketball being their new religion. This is not only funny, but something the coyote-figure himself would also do.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove P, 2005.
Annenberg Media. "American Passages - Unit 8. Regional Realism: Context Activities." Teacher Professional Development and Teacher Resources by Annenberg Media. 26 May 2009. <http://www.learner.org/amerpass/unit08/context_activ-4.html>.
Schlosser, S. E. "Tricksters: Native American Trickster Tales and other Trickster Folklore." American Folklore: Famous American folktales, tall tales, myths and legends, ghost stories, and more.
Stefko, Jill. "Coyote, Pagan Symbol - Trickster: Native Americans Believe He Is the Keeper of Magick and Uses Folly | Suite101.com." Paganism/Wicca: Asatru, Druidism, Discordianism, Dianic, Reconstructionist, Vodoun, eclectic and other traditions as well as holy days, beliefs, reviews, recipes and more. | Suite101.com.