Gary Snyder: Coyote Makes Things Hard
10. December 2007 18:42
Foreword to The Maidu Indian Myths and Stories of hanc´ibyjim, by William Shipley (Heydey, 1991)
How, I wonder – how, I wonder –
in what place, I wonder –
where, I wonder –
In what sort of place might we two see a bit of land?
There might be a place of land. It would have a snow mountain to thenorth, a blue-grey expanse to the east, ridges and canyons to thesouth, and a broad valley to the west that leads to further mountainsand finally to the edge of the world. This land might have greatmeadows, beautiful parklands, bare granite ridges, and splendid faststreams and rivers. It might be someone’s home.
It was someone’s home, for tens of thousands of years. They weremaydy, “creatures,” “beings” of thousands of sorts, which includedwonom maydy, “human creatures.” These “maidu,” human beings of therunning ridges, deeply forested canyons, and mountain meadowlands ofthe northern California Sierra tell a wonderful set of tales abouttheir fellow creatures and their place. They tell it from the beginning.
This collection opens with an outstanding creation myth. It was toldto turn-of-the-century anthropologist Roland Dixon by a renownedstoryteller named Hánc’iabyjim, “Tom Young.” His language wasNortheastern Maidu. In the early fifties a young linguisticanthropologist named William Shipley took up Maidu studies with anelderly woman named Dículto, Lena Thomas Benner. Her daughter MaymBenner Gallagher and Shipley went over Dixon’s texts again, to come upwith what is surely one of the richest sets of old time Turtle Islandtexts available.
At the beginning it seems there were two sacred characters runningaround together, arguing, planning, constructing, taking apart,disagreeing, and making a universe. K’ódojape and Wépam wájsy,Earthmaker and Coyote Old Man, they quarrel like lovers – but there´s alittle bit more to it than just kvetching between friends.
Wanting a bit of land
imagining it to be somewhere
singing it into being
And the two find a little bit of land floating, stretch it, form it,visualizing what it could become. Then these two sacred goofy buddiescome up with the idea of “many creatures” and specific habitat foreach. They pick a “little creature” out of somewhere, and make a planthat when this little guy gets big enough, the he´s and she´s will havenames for things and they´ll have a “country.” These are the humans.
And there are songs. Earthmaker gives them to all beings:
There will be songs –
there will always be songs,
and all of you will have them.
Coyote is no stranger, now, to the twentieth-century Euro-Americanimagination. There are several widely differing interpretations of whathe might be. He is seen as a sort of rock musician shaman, or as aculture-hero/ trickster, who holds contradictory powers and plays arole that is sometimes creative and sometimes destructive, or anarchetype of the immature unsocialized ego, or a perennial witty amoralsurvivor; sometimes he is even the outright principle of evil, thedevil.
Coyote is a big presence in this collection, in every sense, and itis worth looking closely at the role he plays in “creating/defining”the present world. It will not ruin the story that lies ahead to say alittle about it. These two characters who are forming (or defining) theworld are not, I am sure, representing good and evil principlesslugging it out inconclusively. They step together through a dialectic,a dialog, of ideal and real, with a sinewy final resolution that takesthe world as it is. Even as Earthmaker hopes for a universe withoutpain and death, Coyote argues for impermanence, for things as they are.As Earthmaker fantasizes a world in which unmarried girls remainvirgins and married couples remain celibate, Coyote calls for tickling,lovemaking, and whispering to each other. Earthmaker has a plan forimmortality; Coyote insists that there be death. Coyote wins out, andEarthmaker wanders off, to remain in isolation somewhere “down below.”Coyote goes on to finish defining the world that is our presentreality. Earthmaker proposes an ideal; Coyote presents the phenomenal.For a spell Earthmaker and Coyote shape the world almost as partners.And finally, Coyote attends to a world totally phenomenal, yet one thatis fluid, shape-shifting, role-playing, painful and dirty, but alsocheerfully transcended. If Coyote stands up for samsara, the actualityof birth-and-death, it is part of the ultimate paradox that he cannotbe killed. He always pulls his scattered conditional selftogether againand goes trotting on. In the ongoing tales of Old Man Coyote, we seewhat could be called “jokes of samsara” played out: outrageous,offensive, and ultimately liberating – into rueful acceptance, courage,and humor.
There are tales of other beings too. What realities are echoed! Whenthe Cottontail boys tease Woodrat, “Old Woodrat makes me puke! Shittingon his grandmother´s blankets – stinking everything up – pissing oneverything – yucky old Woodrat! Makes his whole house stink!” we aregetting an angle on the several-millenia-old wood rat middens foundpreserved in caves or overhangs in the Great Basin, containingsolidified urine and antique fecal pellets at the ancient twig bottoms.These are useful for radiocarbon dating, and for pushing thedating-scale farther back.
Perhaps we have heard too much of Coyote. There are would-be coyoteshanging out all over the western United States. He has overshadowed theother figures of western North American oral literature. This is partlybecause he has not been kept “secret.” There are narratives that werenever trapped in writing and are not told to outsiders that mightbalance this emphasis. The story of Mountain Lion and his long searchfor his lost children is of a different realm, unfolding in real time.Moon is a compulsive child-kidnapper, and it takes the persistent oldwoman Frog to set him straight (even though she can´t quite manage toswallow him). Also there are dramatic moments in these tales as old asany telling, that make them part of that truly ancient internationallore that underlies the later “world classics.” We are drawn into theaura of the giant serpent who would love a human girl, raising hisgreat head and staring intently in her eyes, night after night. We haveknown the teenage girls who danced and talked and dreamed of havingstars for lovers, and then got them and that was trouble. We gingerlyfeel our way into
Moon was living with his sister
Their house was coated with ice.
The world of Native American myths and tales is not exactlypleasant. Captured wives, stolen children, hard-dealt death. Some wouldsay that we should be grateful to Coyote for making things challenging.Coyotes are still around, the stories are still vivid, and the Peopleare still here, too. The relatives of Hánc´ibyjim and Maym Gallagherare alive and well, keeping their culture alive, and playing a strongrole in the future of their bioregion.
These myths and tales are unsweetened, unsentimental, andirreducible. They are a profound little chunk of world literature, andthey are the first, but not the last, stories to be told of where weare learning to live: the little watershed of northern California, thebig watershed of the planet.