Navajo Trickster

Trickster figures are common across all preserved North American Indian myths and tales, and they occupy a great variety of animal species across the region: Crow, Raven, and Bluejay, (in the continental northwest), Spider (the plains), Hare (in the southeast), Wolverine (in the northeast). In some instances they are depicted in human and other non-animal forms (in the east). The best known trickster animal type is Coyote, who appears most frequently in myths and tales from the southwest, but whose presence cuts across many of these geographical areas. Trickster stories served a variety of cultural purposes. Among the Navajo, to whom we are indebted for the story of “Coyote, Skunk, and the Prairie Dogs,” Coyote oral tellings were performed only in winter periods. Prominent themes of natural renewal and rebirth in Coyote tales may well stem from their association with seasonal dearth in this regard. But the stories were also an equally significant source of amusement and entertainment during periods of domestic confinement and inactivity relative to less severe seasons of the year. Central to their entertainment value is the tendency of trickster tales to disrupt and shock the sensibilities of listeners. Trickster figures demonstrate behavior and express values that would be condemned as perverse and destructive among the members of an orderly human community. Along with underlying the entertainment shock-value of the stories, these elements offered listeners an experience of vicarious deviance and release. The trickster expresses desires and performs actions that are forbidden but not entirely suppressed in social groups.

Significant as an outlet for repressed inclinations, Coyote tales were nonetheless a powerful source of edification and instruction. The trickster typically receives comeuppance and experiences indignity as a result of his excesses and transgressions, but he always survives or returns. As a human imaginative and cultural creation, the trickster is thus “the personification of all the traits of [humanity] raised to the highest degree” (Bright, 349), including human fears about accidents and death. The Navajo stories of Coyote can thus be said to express “a powerful drama that articulates the worldview, the shared attitudes and values, the important but unstated assumptions and anxieties of Navajo culture” (Toelken 388). The ease with which the trickster in “Coyote, Skunk, and the Prairie Dogs” is able to conjure rain embodies the sense of jeopardy and desire felt by the population of any arid region. Despite his super-human abilities, Coyote’s ultimate comeuppance reinforces the importance of social ties and trust that help to bond communities in times of scarcity. Coyote’s characteristic self-serving cleverness and greed enable him to trick the prairie dogs. The prairie dogs, moreover, can not be absolved from blame as innocent victims, as their behavior in the story invokes deep cultural prohibitions against the desecration of corpses and the consequences of vindictive rage. Yet Coyote’s decision to try to trick his ally, Skunk, out of the feast that has resulted from their cooperation against the prairie dogs illustrates the consequences of unrestrained egotism. At the end of the tale, Coyote is reduced to “begging” Skunk for his portion but winds up only with the bones.

The TricksterAmusement & EntertainmentDisruption & Shock
Vicarious DevianceEdification & InstructionWorldview

Works Cited

Bright, William. “The Natural History of Old Man Coyote.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 339-87.

Toelken, Barre. “Life and Death in the Navajo Coyote Tales.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 388-401.