( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The animal-powers bulk large in the myths of the tribes of the Mountain and Desert region. Doubtless in their religion, apart from myth, the animal-powers are secondary; the Shoshoni, says De Smet, swear by the Sun, by Fire, and by the Earth, and what men swear by we may be reasonably sure marks their intensest convictions. The ritual of the calumet, directed to the four quarters, to heaven, and to earth, is familiar here as elsewhere among the Red Men; and there is not wanting evidence of the same veneration of a "Great Spirit" which is so nearly universal in America. Even in myth there is a considerable degree of anthropomorphism.
The Transformer is not always an animal, but is often the "Old One" or "Old Man," the Ancient who is the true creator. Other manlike beings, good and evil, hold or have held the rulership of certain provinces of nature; and in the Age of Animals, before men were, the beasts themselves are said to have had human form : their present shapes were imposed upon them by the Transformers. Nevertheless, they were truly animals, in nature and disposition, and the heroic age of Indian myth is the period of their deeds.
Among all these creatures Coyote is chief. It is difficult to obtain a clear conception of the part which Coyote plays in the Indian's imagination. The animal itself, the prairie wolf, is small and cowardly, the least imposing of the wolf kind. In multitudes of stories he is represented as contemptible — deceitful, greedy, bestial, with an erotic mania that leads him even to incest, often outwitted by the animals whom he endeavours to trick, without gratitude to those that help him; and yet, with all this, he is shown as a mighty magician, reducing the world to order and helping man with innumerable benefactions, perhaps less the result of his intention than the indirect outcome of his own efforts to satisfy his selfish appetite. It is impossible to regard such a being as a divinity, even among those tribes who make him the great demiurge; it is equally out of the question to regard him as a hero, for his character abuses even savage morals. In general he resembles the Devil of mediaeval lore more than perhaps any other being — the same combination of craft and selfishness, often defeating its own ends, of magic powers and supernatural alliances. The light in which the Indians themselves regard him may best be indicated by the statement made to Teit by an old Shuswap: "When I was a boy, very many stories were told about the Old One or Chief, who travelled over the country teaching people, and putting things to rights. Many wonderful tales were related of him; but the men who told these stories are now all dead, and most of the `Old One' tales have been forgotten. The majority of the Coyote tales have survived, however, and are often told yet; for they are funny, and children like to hear them. Formerly Coyote stories were probably commonest of all. Long before the arrival of the first white miners, a Hudson Bay half-breed told the Shuswap that after a time strange men would come among them, wearing black robes (the priests). He advised them not to listen to these men, for although they were possessed of much magic and did some good, still they did more evil. They were descendants of the Coyote, and like him, although very powerful, they were also very foolish and told many lies. They were simply the Coyote returning to earth in another form."
Coyote stories have a wide distribution. They are told by Athapascans in the north and in the south, and by men of the stocks that lie between, from the prairies to the western coast. Their eastern counterparts are the tales of the Great Hare; but the two beings, Hare and Coyote, appear together in many stories, often as contestants, and the Hare, or Rabbit, is an important mythic being among the Shoshonean Ute as well as among the Algonquian Chippewa. Nevertheless, in the west it is Coyote who holds the first and important place among the animal-powers; and it may reasonably be assumed that his heroship is a creation of the plateau region.
Like the Hare, Coyote is frequently represented as having a close associate, or helper. Sometimes this is a relative, as Coyote's son; sometimes another animal, especially the Fox; sometimes it is the Wolf, whose character is, on the whole, more dignified and respectable. A most interesting Shoshonean myth, published by Powell, tells how Wolf and his brother debated the lot of mortals. The younger of the pair said: "Brother, how shall these people obtain their food? Let us devise some good plan for them. I was thinking about it all night, but could not see what would be best, and when the dawn came into the sky I went to a mountain and sat on its summit, and thought a long time; and now I can tell you a good plan by which they can live. Listen to your younger brother. Look at these pine trees; their nuts are sweet; and there on the plain you see the sunflower, bearing many seeds—they will be good for the nation. Let them have all these things for their food, and when they have gathered a store they shall put them in the ground, or hide them in the rocks, and when they re-turn they shall find abundance, and having taken of them as they need, shall go on, and yet when they return a second time there shall still be plenty; and though they return many times, as long as they live the store shall never fail; and thus they shall be supplied with abundance of food without toil." "Not so," said the elder brother, "for then will the people, idle and worthless, and having no labor to perform, engage in quarrels, and fighting will ensue, and they will destroy each other, and the people will be lost to the earth; they must work for all they receive." Then the younger brother went away grieving, but the next day he came with the proposition that, though the people must work for their food, their thirst should be daily quenched with honey-dew from heaven. This, too, the elder brother denied; and again the younger. departed in sorrow. But he came to the Wolf, his brother, a third time: "My brother, your words are wise; let the women gather the honey-dew with much toil, by beating the reeds with flails. Brother, when a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, or a little one dies, where shall he go? I have thought all night about this, and when the dawn came into the sky I sat on the top of the mountain and did think. Let me tell you what to do: When a man dies, send him back when the morning returns, and then will all his friends rejoice." "Not so," said the elder; "the dead shall return no more." Then the younger went away sorrowing. But one day he beheld his brother's son at play, and with an arrow slew him; and when Wolf, the father, sought his boy in anguish, his younger brother, the Coyote, said to him: "You made the law that the dead shall never return. I am glad that you are the first to suffer." In such a tale as this, it is self-evident that we are hearing, not of heroes of romance, but of fate-giving divinities; and it is not far to go back in imagination to a time when the Wolf was a great tribal god.