Monday, January 7, 2013

Native American Trickster Tales

I remember taking an American literature survey course in college, and reading mostly stuff by dead white guys (DWGs).  For many years, the "canon" of American literature was dominated by DWGs, but more recent scholarship has focused on uncovering works by Native Americans, women, and "minorities".  In the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of American literature, there is a newly-added section of Native American Trickster tales.

In many Native American cultures, the figure of the trickster appears as something between a hero and a villain.  Trickster tales are "understood by the audience to illustrate and reaffirm, through positive and negative examples, culturally appropriate behavior."  The Norton introduction describes the multifaceted trickster in this way:

"A wandering, excessive, bawdy, gluttonous, and obscene figure--usually male but able to alter his sex whenever necessary…trickster is selfish, amoral, foolish, and destructive, a threat to order everywhere.  Yet trickster is also a culture hero and transformer whose actions in the earliest times--the time of myth when the earth was yet soft and incompletely formed--helped give to the world just that order which humans would historically come to know."

The Norton Anthology includes trickster tales from three Native American cultures: the Winnebago, the Koasati, and the Navajo.


The Winnebago speak a dialect of Sioux and lived around Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Their trickster tales were recorded in the 1956 book The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, edited by anthropologist Paul Radin, and also in Felix White Sr's book Introduction to Wakjankaga.  Wakjankaga is the traditional name of the Winnebago trickster.  I have, for the sake of brevity, put the tale into my own words.

As Trickster (Wakjankaga) was wandering, he met a little fox, who said, "The world is going to be a difficult place to live in and I am trying to find some clean place in which to dwell."  Wakjankjaga replied, "Oh, oh, my younger brother, what you have said is very true.  I, too, was thinking of the very same thing.  I have always wanted to have a companion, so let us live together."  So they traveled together and met a jay and a nit, who also joined them.

Together they found a beautiful place beside a river with red oaks growing upon it, and they built a lodge to live in together.  But when winter came, they all got very hungry, so they devised a plan to get food.  Trickster decided to disguise himself as a woman and seduce the son of a nearby chief.  So Trickster transformed himself into a pretty woman and convinced the chief's son to marry him.   But one day the chief's son's mother discovered the Trickster's true identity, so Wakjankaga and his animal friends all ran away.

As Trickster continued wandering, a little bulb in a tree called out to him, "He who chews me, he will defecate; he will defecate!"  So Wakjankaga ate the bulb, but instead of defecating, he broke wind.  And then he broke wind louder.  And then he broke wind so strongly that he was propelled forward.  Each time he broke wind, it was stronger, so that he began to be lifted up into the air.  He was propelled up into a tall tree.  Then, hanging onto the tree, he broke wind and it ripped the tree up by its roots.

Trickster came to a lodge and convinced everyone that a war party was coming.  So everyone climbed onto his back and he broke wind and the tribe was scattered.  Then Trickster wandered on, and he began to defecate, more and more, until he was covered in filth.  He was blinded by the filth and it was a tree who told him where to find water, so he could cleanse himself.


The Koasati spoke a dialect of Muskogean and live in southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas.  Stories of their trickster, a rabbit named Cokfi, were recorded by anthropologists John R. Swanton and Geoffrey Kimball.

Bear invited rabbit (Cokfi) to dinner.  Having nothing to eat, bear cut some of his own stomach fat, cooked it, and served it to rabbit, who ate it.

Rabbit then invited bear to dinner and, having nothing to eat, he cut some of his stomach to give to bear.  However, because rabbit was scrawny and lean, this injured rabbit, and he was about to die.

So they went and found vulture, who was a doctor, to cure rabbit.  Vulture took rabbit to his house and, instead of curing him, ate rabbit.

When bear discovered this, he became so angry that he threw a knife at vulture and it pierced his beak.  This is why vultures today have pierced beaks.


The Navajo are an Athapascan-speaking people who migrated to the Southwest around 500 years ago.  They learned farming and weaving from the Pueblo people.  Today, they are the largest tribe in the United States.  The Navajo Trickster is a coyote named Ma'ii.  The following stories come from a Navajo named Hugh Yellowman, whose story "Coyote, Skunk, and the Prairie Dogs" I have put into my own words.

Ma'ii (the Trickster/coyote) was trotting along when he came upon a prairie dog town.  The prairie dogs started cursing and yelling at him and Ma'ii got angry and prayed for it to rain, which it did, and Ma'ii was washed away.

Trickster came across Skunk and together they hatched a plan to get revenge on the prairie dogs.  Ma'ii told Skunk to tell the prairie dogs that he'd died in the rainstorm.

Ma'ii played dead and all the prairie dogs started dancing around his body and clubbing him.  As they were dancing and celebrating, Skunk sprayed his stink into their eyes and Ma'ii jumped up and clubbed them all to death, and cooked them in a fire pit.

Then Ma'ii convinced Skunk to have a footrace with him, to decide who would get to eat the prairie dogs.  Ma'ii started running, and Skunk hid behind a rock and doubled back and took the prairie dogs and buried them.  When Ma'ii returned, there were only four little prairie dogs left in the fire pit.  He flung them away in anger.  Skunk was sitting on a high perch, eating the prairie dogs, and dropping the bones onto Ma'ii, who only got to chew the bones.

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