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Legends and Stories of the Okanagan

How Coyote Changed Indian Lives

as told by Josephine Shuttleworth

Long ago, so long ago that even the blue mountains must remember those days hazily as through a smoke-mist, the Coyote had a son. When he was still the littlest one in his father's lodge, it was quite clear that his son was no ordinary child. "He will be a mighty hunter," the Old Ones said, nodding wisely to each other as they watched him play.

Coyote taught his son the things that he should know. He trained him in his own deep cunning, in courage and in patience, in cheerfulness and skill, until he grew up to be the greatest hunter in all the land.

In the wintertime he led hunting parties. Out on the hills he would find a dry stump as golden and pitchy beneath the snow as you yet look for to kindle your campfires. He would kick it with his moccasined toe and it would burst into flames. Calling the hunters about him, he would tell them when and where they were to meet again, and direct each one on his way. At the appointed hour every hunter returned heavily ladened to the cheerful warmth of another blazing stump.

The people made the Coyote’s son their chief. They lived in big tepees, eight in a row, an arrangement which they said people would follow in after days. It is said that near Keremeos you can still see the remains of the tepee foundations, eight in a row, to prove that the Indians did that very thing.

The Coyote’s son had two wives, a dark one and a fair one, whose likenesses remain to this day in two lonely little wild ducks. He was respected and loved by his people, and they were happy and contented throughout the longest winters.

Coyote himself went hunting no longer. He stayed home and let the others work. Finally he became jealous of his son’s prowess as a hunter, and of his position among the people. He decided he must get rid of him. One wintery day, while the people were out hunting, he worked a spell with the spider-man, an old man who made ropes. When his son returned, Coyote called to him through the tepee door, “The olallas are ripe!”

The Coyote’s son knew the places where the earliest berries ripened. He had a favourite berry-picking spot of his own and he knew it wouldn’t have even a blossom for months to come. “That isn’t possible,” he told his father. “There could be no olallas ripe at this time of the year.”

“I brought some back to show you – see?” answered Coyote, waving a branch of plump blue-black berries, luscious-looking against the olalla leaves. “Now come over and see your bush.”

“There,” said Coyote. His son reached up for the berries, but they were just beyond his grasp.

“Higher,” Coyote called, pointing upward, and both berries and son, as though drawn by an invisible rope, began to rise. The Coyote kept pointing and the berries rose higher and higher. His son, continuing to reach for them, also rose higher until both son and bush disappeared into the clouds.

Then, Coyote turned around. “I will pretend I am my son,” he said, and ran back to the people, crying at the top of his voice, “My father is dead!” He went to his son’s tepee where the two wives were sitting. “You must go away,” he yelled at one. “Perhaps you have made my father disappear.” He let the other one stay to keep house for him.

When hunting time came again, the people realized he wasn’t their chief, but they dared not ask why, for he still pretended to be his son. He led the hunting parties out in the hills, but though he found the pitchiest stump in the woods, it would not burst into flames when he kicked it. Calling the hunters about him, he told them when and where to meet again. He directed each one on his way. But at the appointed hour, only the Lynx, who was Coyote’s best friend, returned laden, and he with only a little fawn. Hunting trip after hunting trip met with failure, until at last with no meat and no berries, the people began to starve. They left the land and traveled far away.

In the meantime, up in the spider-world, Coyote’s son watched an old man making a rope. Having often used a certain vine for rope, he offered the old man a large amount of it in return for his freedom.

“My people are starving,” he said. “I must help them.”

The old man made him a web, gave him three rocks, and told him to shut his eyes when he went down. “The first time you stop,” the old man said, “you must throw down a rock. If you hear no sound, you’ll know the earth is still far below you. The second time you stop,” he added, “you must throw down another rock. If there is again no sound, you must travel farther. The third time you stop, throw down your third rock, and you will hear it strike the ground. You will be back in your own country. Do not open your eyes until then.”

The Coyote’s son climbed into the web and began to go down through the air, just as today you can watch the spider go down, dropping a way and then pausing for a moment, dropping again and pausing again, till after the third pause he found himself once more in his own land. When he opened his eyes he looked about for his people. Seeing only their tracks, he hurried after them. Many miles along the trail he saw his wife, weeping bitterly. She was unwelcome among her people since the disguised Coyote blamed her for his ‘father’s’ disappearance. Coyote said that she wept as a sign that women would weep in days to come.

She walked along with a little pack on her back and a long string dragging behind, following closely to the band as she dared. The Coyote’s son stepped on the string. She knew someone was following her and she looked back to see her husband. Weeping with joy, she ran to him, and told him about the difficult times the people had been through. She told him about the poor hunting, and the stump that would not burn; she told him about every little thing that had happened since he had disappeared, as women yet tell of little happenings.

“We must go to our people, but I don’t want them to see me come,” said Coyote’s son gravely. “Wrap me up in your pack and carry me into my father’s lodge in the center of the tepees. Do not mind if he beats you. Pay no attention to the people.” So saying, he gave her a turtle-shell to wear over her forehead as protection, and he climbed into her pack. She went bravely into the camp, and though the people beat her, she paid no attention to them. When she put her pack down in Coyote’s lodge, out sprang Coyote’s son.

The people laughed and sang. They clapped their hands in rejoicing at their chief’s return. They threw the Coyote and his house-keeper out of the camp and then set out on a great hunting trip. The Coyote’s son found a dry stump, all golden and pitchy, kicked it with his moccasined toe, and it burst into flames. Calling the hunters around him, he directed each one on his way and at the appointed hour every hunter returned heavily laden. The people were hungry no longer. They went back over the trail to their old land among the mountains, where they lived in happiness once more. Meanwhile, Coyote picked himself up. “So be it,” he said, and went on his way.