Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Song of the Whippoorwill

How old are Coyote stories in North America? We don't know for certain - and, in fact, we can't know for certain, because they predate good written records of American Indian folklore. But stories in which a (sometimes semi-divine) Coyote functions as a trickster (and sometimes a fool) are spread over a vast area, including being shared among tribes with only limited contact in recent history, which suggests that a tradition of such stories is fairly old - most probably (but not certainly) pre-Columbian, as a lot of the decline in contact between different Indian tribes resulted from the precipitous population decline caused by European diseases that spread across the continent at a pace far exceeding that of the people who had brought them. Further, they don't seem to have been incorporated into the package of cultural ideas and images known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, which did not spread Coyote-related imagery, but their range overlaps it; this may mean nothing (they might have spread across that territory without being picked up and spread into the Southeast), but it may imply that they either spread into the upper Midwest before the period when that cultural exchange reached its zenith (so, prior to about 1200 CE), or that they spread across that space after the trading network which propagated the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (which was centered around the city of Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the present-day city of St. Louis) was already in decline (which would put the spread of Coyote stories after about 1350 CE) - which, of course, is an annoyingly useless clue, but still a real enough one to be tantalizing.

No particular Coyote tale is especially widespread, which is consistent with a few centuries of each tribe separately developing its own particular Coyote mythos. Unfortunately, it also means we don't know which Coyote stories are of particularly great age; all we know is what ones are part of the oral tradition at the time various folklorists collected them. This one, collected by Mary Magoulick in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, seems to rely on the audience already being aware that Coyote is not to be trusted, so it's probably not the oldest, but it could still be very old. We wouldn't know - that's the difficulty of studying the history of peoples without written records.

Here, then, is a Coyote story, in the words of Ogimakwe, a woman of the Nishnaabe tribe. I've removed an aside or two and a couple of Magoulick's notes on Ogimakwe's precise pronunciation, but otherwise, the story is unedited, exactly as told.

This little boy was out wandering around.
And he was,
he heard the sound of the whippoorwill,
the song of the whippoorwill,
which was really beautiful.
So, he was out wandering around looking for the whippoorwill.
And he walked on this particular path,
And he came along coyote
who also had a very nice song
And coyote said to the little boy

"Why are you following me?"
And the little boys says,
"Well, I've been listening to,
all day, you know, evening,
to the sound of the whippoorwill
And I want to find out where he's at."

And coyote says,
"Don't you like my songs?
I sing too."
And he reared his head back and howled out of tune

The little boy covered his ears and he said
"Well that nice, but
I would really like to go find and listen to the sound of the whippoorwill."

So the coyote, being as cunning and as crafty as he is, said,
"Well, I know where he sings,
So follow me."

So the little boy followed him.
And the coyote went through some thick brush,
and the little boy fell down and got skinned up and
the coyote's running,
"Come on! Come on! Hurry up! Follow me!"
Then he went off here,
and he went through some thorns, and, and
fell down again, and
It's starting to get light.
And when he finally reached the place where the
whippoorwill has been singing all night
the whippoorwill was gone.

And he could still hear the coyote howling off in the distance.
So the little boy wandered home,
all cut up
beat up,
skinned up knee,
and as he became an older, wiser man,
he realized that there are many paths in this world,
And there are many ways to get in to what you truly love,
he says
But you should always stay true to your path,
no matter what,
and always keep an eye out for coyote.

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