What does travel teach us about literature? How can literature help us understand a place? A Road Course in American Literature explores these questions through personal narrative and traditional scholarship. Journeying with familiar and lesser-known works, I explain my passion for the American survey to 1860, a class I have taught at colleges and universities for almost two decades. These pages are part travelogue, part resource guide. Someday the website will be a book. Join me for now, as I explore America’s back roads and storied past through the perspective of a teacher, scholar, unrepentant tourist, father, friend and son.
“Coyote and the Kid” follows my attempt to understand “the Big River,” the nChe-Wana, about which much has been written. The standard history is by Eugene S. Hunn, with James Selam and family. Hunn starts from the point that the “human social and spiritual life cannot be understood outside of its natural environment (4). A collection edited by William L. Lang and Robert C. Carriker, Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River, includes several essays that explain changes on the Columbia due to damming, and Lang’s chapter in particular, “What Has, Happened to the Columbia? A Great River’s Fate,” quantifies the extent of the economic and cultural loss (144-67). Luther Cressman’s archeological survey, “Cultural Sequences at The Dalles, Oregon: A Contribution to Northwest History,” published in 1960, reviews petroglyphs and place names during a critical decade in the river’s history. Richard White’s short book The Organic Machine explores the intersections of economy and energy, space and power, while Larry Cebula, Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, begins with a discussion of the relationship between Plateau Indians and the adaptation of traditional native life and culture around seasonal rounds. The Center for Columbia River History also maintains an active website.
Traditional oral literatures have long served as “markers” of a physical place. From early twentieth-century antiquarians such as Lucullus McWhorter (see Trafzer, below) to poet-ecologists like Gary Snyder, Coyote has been used to emblematize a physical landmark. A problem to linking every rockslide, volcano and river to a specific story becomes obvious, however, from a quick review of the earliest literature; that is, stories themselves traveled, there were variants, tales did not emerge from the landscape fully rooted, so much as the seeds of a certain story dispersed and took hold (see Boas 46-47). Originary claims are always tricky things.
So too is Coyote, whose presence is marked at all points on the river, and who can be a difficult character to pin down. Experienced scholars and students alike will understandably find themselves overwhelmed by the volume of primary and secondary literature on traditional Indian literatures. For the broadest overview, one might start with Andrew Wiget (ed.), Critical Essays on Native American Literature and Native American Literature. From there one may begin to focus on Coyote, a character who holds multiple identities (see especially Hynes, 33-46). In an influential essay about Navajo oral performance, Barre Tolken calls Coyote “the exponent of all possibilities” (Toelken and Scott 109). Poet-scholar Jarold Ramsey witty notes that summarizing Coyote is “a little like trying to juggle hummingbirds or arm wrestle Proteus” (“Coyote” 27). One cannot venture very far into the literature without stumbling over contradictions. Religious historian Mac Linscott Ricketts notes in an influential essay how Coyote seem “to occupy seemingly different and contrary roles” (327). Lewis Hyde’s popular study identifies tricksters as “the lords of in-between” (6). In the anthology A Coyote Reader, editor William Bright breaks up stories into thematic sections (“Coyote the Wanderer,” “Coyote the Bricoleur,” “Outlaw,” “Clown,” etc.), clarifying only to underscore the confusion.
Two challenges present themselves, then, in critically approaching Coyote. First, Coyote takes many forms, he means different things to different groups, yet as Doty and Hynes note in a useful overview, scholars persist in waxing universal about his significance, role, and cultural taxonomy (16-20). In an essay from the influential volume edited by Paul Radin, Carl Jung famously defined the trickster as the manisfestation of primitive consciousness — a relic a more primal state of mind. Claude Lévi-Strauss underscored (with considerable influence) Coyote’s role as a “mediator” (59). Ricketts reviews the use of Coyote from Franz Boas to the 1960s, while William J. Hynes and William G. Doty map the past century’s work in anthropology and religious studies. Coyote has — and will continue – to appear on behalf of various parties and camps: cyborgs (Harraway), post-modern feminists (Phelan), poets (see works by Snyder and Blue Cloud in Bright), and New Age mystics.
The second problem, related to the first, deals with source texts. Coyote stories have been passed down by natives over the generations. The written record, of course much newer, extends back to the pioneering work of Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Archie Phinney, Melvin Jacobs (somewhat later) and others. The number of texts gathered by ethnologists is daunting. With my “Coyote and the Kid,” I set a narrow geographic compass, focusing on the Columbia Plateau. The ethnologist Clifford Trafzer sifted through the papers of the early twentieth-century rancher Lucullus McWhorter, and put together a veritable sourcebook on the “storied landscape” with Grandmother, Grandfather, and Old Wolf: tamánwit ku súkat and traditional Native American narratives from the Columbia Plateau. McWhorter’s friend Mourning Dove (Humishuma) presented selected seventeen stories for non-native by children, Coyote Stories. (On McWhorter and Mourning Dove, see Fisher 206-10). In the 1970s, the Yakama elder and linguist Virginia Beavert translated stories in The Way It was (Anaku Iwacha), and Allen P. Slickpoo did the same for Nez Perce lore; both Beavert and Slickpoo acknowledge the dangers of cultural loss. “Today only but a few of us” remember the old lore, Slickpoo observed (63). Jarold Ramsey provides a model of artful scholarship with Coyote Was Going There, a volume that checks poetic excess while preserving the text’s cultural and aesthetic import.
Scholarship since the 1980s, influenced by Dennis Tedlock and Dell Hymes, has emphasized textual production, translation, and performance. As poets after the counterculture turned to Coyote for source material, translators put their own “artful” spin ahead of fidelity to the text –- a point first critiqued by William Bevis. William Bright, who argues that any translation must come from one who knows the language, notes in American Indian Linguistics and Literature that the texts in written form lose the artistry of oral performance (92); many of the more reliable, and aesthetically rewarding recent renditions of Coyote legends appear in Bright’s edition A Coyote Reader, which including work in prose and verse by Peter Blue Cloud, Dell Hymes, Jarold Ramsey, Gary Snyder, and others. Jeffrey F. Huntsman cautions that translators must traverse differences in language, culture and consciousness when working with native texts; Kenneth Lincoln touches on similar concerns, cautioning on the problems of translation, while concluding after Walter Benjamin that it remains “the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation” (12). These issues are not new to the scholarship. Franz Boas observed in 1914 “the difficulty of taking down accurate rapid dictation from the natives” and the that effect “on the form of the tale” (29). “When I read my story mechanically,” a Nez Perce scholar-informatnt wrote Boas in 1929, “I find only the cold corpse” (qtd. in Ramsey From ‘Mythic’ 26).
Arnold Krupat laid out several terms and issues for critical recovery in 1982, including the importance of textual production, and several contributors to Swann and Krupat’s invaluable collection Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, make related points about the “pale trace” captured on the printed text (Krupat 117). Anthologized texts can lose their formal artistry (Hymes); today, videos are vastly preferable to the use of written texts for responsible classroom use (Wiget); the “transcript of a narrative has no more sound than a musical score” (Mattina 143). In the foreword to an edition of Nez Perce tales, Deward E. Walker, Jr. observes that native informants sometimes censor the “risque elements” from a tale told to outsiders, which “mars an otherwise delightful humorous story” (9). Karl Kroeber (a literary critic whose father was trained in ethnology) alludes to a loss of double translation: “not only the Englishing of a foreign language but also a written text representing the oral recitation” (1).
So what does the laughter mean? Non-native reader may ask what purpose the Coyote stories can serve. But it is fruitless, if not impossible, to pin down Coyote’s “significance”; obviously the stories hold a separate and deeper import for the members of the cultures from which these stories came, And while generalizations risk the “universalizing” that has muddied earlier anthropological work, some conclusions may be drawn. As noted above, Coyote marks a sense of place (Ramsey Reading). The stories come from a culture that held a potentially precarious relationship with a harsh yet fruitful environment, which give the spiritual basis in situatedness a profoundly practical sense (Cebula). Trafzer shows that the stories connect a culture not simply with the land, but with ancestors (475). The stories, then, underscore the individual’s role within a natural and social order; or as Max Linscott Ricketts states, somewhat roundly, the trickster “embodies … a certain mythic apprehension of the nature of man and his place in the cosmos” (336). Jarold Ramsey, in this vein, emphasizes Coyote’s “mediating” role. Coyote limns the boundary not just between “human” and “natural,” but in social ways as well, between “tribal good citizenship and individual self fulfillment” (Reading 32). Historians and native elders note the pedagogical importance of Coyote: Eugene Hunn observes that the stories “etch in the children’s memories a living map of their surroundings, a land peopled with creatures and forces of nature that are fully animate and virtually all human ….” (85); Beavert actually includes an essay on child reading in Anaku Iwacha (x-xii). Gallen Butler returns to a Jungian interpretation, noting the “therapeutic purpose” (246), and while such conclusions may smack of western primitivism, Barre Toelken breaches the same point -– and even stops short in disclosing what “medicine” the stories may invoke. The Navajos retell stories to “re-establish reality and order after a break with it has taken place, through disordered living, through bad thoughts, or through witchcraft” (390). Dell Hymes calls (in a slightly different context) for “the use of words as markers of relationships” (62). Stories are, Karl Kroeber reminds us, “a social transaction” (11).
Despite the formalism that shaped criticism through the later decades of the twentieth century, perhaps the best way to approach Coyote is to consider how the stories work. This emphasis upon social role does not have to replicate the broad generalities of social scientists (Lévi Strauss, Radin, Jung), nor dismiss the inquiries into translation and poetic form that followed the duo of Tedlock and Hymes, but such readings can apply the interests of performances to specific social-cultural contexts. Anne Doueihi takes this point implicitly in a deconstructive analysis, noting the pitfall of past scholars who conflate “trickster” as character and the trickster narratives. Several scholars note the “curative” function of Coyote. Kimberly M. Blaeser breaks down what stories do: they relay faulty thinking, saving others from similar mistakes; through satire, they question the status quo; they both uphold values and serve as release, providing an “acceptable break” from social tensions; and they create “communitatis,” a “state in which social distinctions are leveled” (56-57). Doty and Hynes argue for a similar approach: the role of the trickster for “serious play,” serio ludere (6, 32) to both question and reaffirm normative behavior, the constant disruptions of chaos to the constant order, limits to societal restrictions – in short, finding our place in the world … while staying constantly overturned. Critical of the “safety valve” hypothesis, Barbara Babcock argues with the great tonic of laughter that we “not only tolerate but need ‘a margin of mess’ (157). Structure implies disorder, taboo creates order, and we cannot have –- we do not want -– one without the other.
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