Coyote “The Transformer” is a great trickster – one who corrects wrongs and sometimes illustrates just how not to do things. A legendary shape shifter and inspiration for much of Ilahee, Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest and beyond… his tales teach well. This episode begins at the ocean, at the mouth of Nchi’Wana, the Big River, called Columbia by English speakers. A long cycle of adventures surround the tale and will be shared later… The first encounter involves an Ogress at the river’s mouth who has been killing the young. Coyote tricks her into death and after refusing the offer of a wife and a chance to settle down by the grateful locals, he claims his place as a wanderer and moves on …
Water Baskets woven so they can hold Water at the Wishram spring below Celilo Falls – A sacred way of holding water! Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis 1909
As he went on he heard that above him two women had all the salmon penned up. Coming near to the place, he saw the two women in their canoe catching driftwood. Wishing to get in to their place, he formed himself into a piece of alder, slipped into the water, and floated down. As he passed close to the canoe, the younger woman cried, “See that nice piece of alder!” But the other did not wish to secure it. “Here are smaller ones,” she said; “let that one go.” After passing out of sight, Coyote floated ashore and returned to the point from which he had started. Having studied the matter for a while, he became a piece of cedar, thinking that perhaps they would take that kind of wood, which they could use in making their drying racks. Again he drifted close to the boat, and the younger sister called attention to the cedar log, but the elder did not seem to wish it. The next time he formed himself into a piece of oak, but this, too, the elder woman rejected. A long fir pole was Coyote’s next disguise, but even this, which would have been so useful to lay from eaves to eaves and hang dried fish on, did not appeal to the elder sister, and was allowed to float by. Coyote’s ingenuity was almost exhausted, and for a long time he sat on the bank meditating before he transformed himself into a little baby, strapped to a board. He floated down the river toward the women, crying lustily. Water began to lap into his mouth, and it seemed to him that he must soon choke, when the younger woman cried excitedly: “Here is a baby! Some one has tipped over and lost it. Quick, let us get it!” The elder said, “No, sister, we do not need a baby,” and began to paddle away; but the other seized her own paddle and endeavored to force the canoe toward the drowning infant. They paddled with all their might, and the water fairly boiled with the rapid strokes, but, both being of the same strength, neither could make headway, and all the while the baby was drifting nearer to them. At last it came close to the stern, and the younger woman reached out and took it into the canoe. “It is a boy!” she cried. “Now if we rear it we will have some one to help us.” So it was agreed that they take the child and care for it. When they reached home they untied the child and removed it from its wrappings. The younger said to herself: “What are we going to feed this baby? I will give it a piece of dried lamprey to suck.” She did so, and the baby eagerly took the lamprey, which was soon eaten. She laced it up on its board, cut off another piece, and when this was about half eaten the baby fell asleep. “Now the baby is sleeping, we can go and get more wood,” said she. The elder woman was uneasy since the coming of the infant. She took no interest in it, and did not wish to help care for it. The two went out and began to catch driftwood. When Coyote found it quiet in the house, he opened his eyes. Quickly he unlaced his cover, crept slyly out, and saw the women on the river. Inside he found a great abundance of dried lampreys and other fish, and he hurriedly roasted a quantity on sticks, ate them, and hid the sticks. Then he laced himself to the board, put the half-eaten piece of lamprey in his mouth, and closed his eyes. The women returned and were surprised to find the baby still sleeping. When they retired for the night, the younger sister laid the baby at her side, and Coyote liked that place to sleep, but was all the time thinking how he could let the salmon escape. The next morning the younger sister gave him another piece of fish, and after seeing the child asleep the two went to the river for wood. Again Coyote crawled out and ate, and then went to the pond in which the fish were impounded. After making five oak root-diggers he concealed them and returned to the babyboard. The third day Coyote cooked and ate, then took one of his root-diggers, thrust it into the bank of the river, and pried off a great mass of earth. Again and again he repeated this until the digger was blunt and broken, and then he took a new one. This, and a third, and a fourth were used, when the sisters, happening to look up, saw what was going on. As Coyote began to use his fifth digger they started to paddle ashore in great haste, the elder sister saying over and over: “You see, I did not want to take that baby. It was Coyote, and we shall lose our fish, and now we shall never live as well as we have lived.” Just as the canoe grounded, and they leaped out, Coyote pried off the last mass of earth, and the water began to rush out of the lake, carrying the salmon with it. He picked up a lump of white clay and ran toward the two sisters. “It is not right for you to have all these fish penned up in one place!” he cried. “Things are going to change. There will be other beings here besides you.” He threw the lump of clay; it struck the younger sister on the forehead, leaving a white mark. Then he did the same to the other. “You two are swallows,” he said, “and will be seen only at salmon time.” They flew away, but each year, when the salmon come, many of them are seen along the river building their nests in the rocks.
Traditional fishing at Wishram below Celilo when the Big River was Free – Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis 1909
Numbers in Indian Stories are no accident. To this day the people pray with 5 small stones tossed into the Nchi’Wana. It is a number associated with change in many traditions.
Questions this story makes one think about.
Who are the two sisters that have penned up the salmon and are keeping the rivers from their abundances?
We know who todays dam builders are… and we know who they have been feeding. We know they are greedy and have taken from many to get what they have.
Is Coyote advising that those who know the essentiality of life for all, become guised as useful to these sisters?
And if that fails, is coyote advising to appeal through guises of helplessness, cuteness, beauty or dependency?
Must we act as children entering the den of the arrogant aggressor?
Where are the spaces in which the sisters lose their attention for those who build such relationship with them? Spaces in which the disguised and masked may gain strength and strategy for the work of freeing what has been dammed and stolen from the commons that they might do the work of returning it to all?
And what are the oak digging sticks of our day? The objects of magical power… connected to a tree that sources life and energy through its acorns. A tree that is, as expressed in its wide angled branching, one of the densest and strongest of all the trees indigenous to the Big River… source of a tool for rooting the sacred first foods of camas and bitterroot. What are the oak digging sticks of our day?
Coyote gives courage to those who take on the work… that despite intuitions which may exist for the elder sister… our work can be accomplished… the world will be redeemed from those who by their selfishness would destroy the wealth of all.
Perhaps this story is advice for political theatre… imagine showing up at the homes and offices of the sisters, at the dam itself, as baby coyotes with our digging sticks… to break the dams and free the rivers for all of life!
Do tell us… Do show us… what are the questions and insights that coyote reveals?
If you live along the Big River you have probably heard Ed Edmo tell a version of this story at some point. He tells a version that is Nez Perce or Nimi’ipuu as the people call themselves.
This version is believed to have been collected by William E Meyers at the eastern end of Chinook country – in Wishram in the early 1900’s. At the time – the name referred to village sites on the north side of the river below Celilo along the narrows which were primarily Chinook, though the cosmopolitan nature of the village cultures has historically been less than fully acknowledged. Meyers does not credit the individual elders who shared their version or versions with him as far as we have been able to determine.
This is a breach in our understanding of traditional protocol, or the indigenous legal order of the land. It is customary to know and be able to share the lineage of any shared traditional story… and often to have had it’s accuracy confirmed by multiple elders, and permission given to publicly share lineage stories. This is left unclear and seems to be a story that travelled between peoples. And there has always been room for creative mastery in the evolution of telling to the moment. It is our hope that a transgression is not being furthered in using this version. Our apologies if that may be so.
This version is published in Edward Sheriff Curtis’s Handbook of the North American Indian Volume 8. Edited only slightly for use here. Here is a bit more info on Meyers who is credited with its collection and transcription.
“The single most important recruit was William E. Myers, a former Seattle newspaperman who was to become the project’s principal ethnologist and, in time, writer. William E. Myers (1877-1949), who graduated with a degree in classics from Northwestern University in 1899, eschewed public credit for his work. But Curtis acknowledged his work… He was a rapid shorthand writer, a speedy typist … and had developed an uncanny ear for phonetics.” … his “party of three men and a stenographer settled down in obscure rooms to do the final work in getting [the first] two volumes ready for publication”; … a further winter was spent … in a log cabin in Montana; and … he and Myers only “took two Sundays a month off” from their cabin … to visit their families across the Sound in Seattle during the preparation of Volumes 5, 6, and 7 … [General editor Frederick] Hodge … remembered that “Mr. Myers, was the one who really wrote the text. I … checked every word of it, of course, and edited it … before it went to the printer.”
Professor Mick Gidley has written several books examining the historical context for the efforts involved in creating The North American Indian. Excerpts above are from Gidley’s study, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated
The Dalles Dam – The work of the modern “Two Sisters” – betraying a world embracing all of the living with respect. An ongoing act of genocidal violation of the life of the river and the peoples whose culture goes back to the great Missoula Floods and beyond – Photo by the United States Army Corp of Engineers
Celilo Falls – Wyam – When the River was Free – And as it will be once again – Photo from the archives of the Oregon Historical Society
A longer piece on the work of Curtis is here Ecopoetics – Druidic / Shamanic Geomancy – Resonance, Power and Ethics of Artistic Mediumship in the Work of Edward Sheriff Curtis
Another piece on the importance of Celilo Falls restoration is here Celilo Falls Restoration – Why we cannot be silent in the face of an ongoing genocide!