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To Weep in Winter

Sex, Fingers and Death as told in Yana. The Yana people live in Northern California in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Coyote: To Weep in Winter

I had one of those moments sitting in the living room by the sliding glass door to the back garden. I was reading a book called A Coyote Reader by William Bright. Coyote is a character in Native American mythology and storytelling, and is still alive and well today. In Native American religion Coyote, sometimes called Old Man Coyote, is one of the First People Who survived the coming of human beings; the First People were a race of beings who lived before we came along. They were god-like, but often in the myths they worked with The Creator. They had tremendous power and, working with The Creator, created the World as we know it, including our human life and culture. But with the coming of human beings the First People were replaced and transformed into the things of the world: rocks, trees, plants, animals. Thus Native Americans refer to the First People as Nighthawk, Beaver, Coyote and so on.

Listen to this contemporary Native American poem, A Song for the First People:

When you learned that human beings were coming, you changed into rocks,
Into fish and birds, into flowers and
rivers in despair of us.
The tree under which I bend may be you,
That stone by the fire, Nighthawk swooping
And crying out over the swamp reeds, reeds themselves.
Have I held you too lightly all my mornings?
I have broken your silence, dipped you up
Carelessly in my hands and drunk you, burnt you,
Carved you, slit your calm throat and danced on your skin,
Made charms of your bones. You have endured,
All of it, suffering my foolishness
As the old wait quietly among clumsy children.
Now others are coming, neither like you nor like men.
I must change, First People. How do I change myself.
If no one can teach me the long will of Cedar,
Let me become Water Dog, Betterroot, or Shut Beak.
Change me. Forgive me. I will learn to crawl, stand, or fly
Anywhere among you, forever, as though among great elders. [i]

In the Native American understanding of reality life is endowed with the spirit of the First People. Coyote is one of the First People who lives on in human form. In mythologies and stories Coyote is a Glutton, Lecher, Thief, Cheat, Outlaw, Spoiler, Loser, Clown, Survivor, and perhaps most of all, a Trickster. He embraces all the goodness and evilness of human beings. Most importantly here, it was Coyote who introduced Death into the human experience.

On the day I was sitting by the sliding glass door the weather outside was cloudy with a light rain falling. My mood, perhaps my spirit, mirrored the weather. I was troubled, though I don’t remember why. I was in one of those, pondering moods, perhaps best left on my own. I was reading a Coyote myth entitled Sex, Fingers and Death. Coyote is speaking to three creators - Cottontail, Gray Squirrel and Lizard, who are, of course, First People:

Coyote said,/"I don't like people to be so many.
"The women are very many,
the men are very many everywhere,
the children are very many everywhere.
"The people don't die,/they just get old.
"There's no poisoning by magic,
there's nobody to weep in winter,"/so he said.[ii]

As I read those last two phrases I stopped realizing intuitively the myth was not just going to be about the death of our bodies, but would be telling of the introduction of poisoning and weeping into life, the things of death. Two things happened when I began pondering the reasons we human beings choose death, death being the desire to poison life: in negative assumptions about others, in lying, in hardness of heart, in hatreds, in racism (well, all the isms), in forced poverties, in injustices, in creating weapons of destruction, in destructive conflicts between individuals, tribes and nations. The list is seemingly endless. But, and I kid you not, as all this poison was flowing through my mind and into my heart, the sun broke through the clouds and for a moment the greyness lifted, the sky brightened and warmth came through the sliding glass door unto the back garden. Despite myself, I began to feel lighter as well, and of course warmer. My spirit, despite itself, lifted and life was becoming somehow good, or at least better than it had seemed only moments before. I thought - well actually wondered because the power of poison should never be underestimated – could it be possible that despite everything my, our, natural response is to choose life, to feel good, think well of others, to do justice, show compassion and to seek peace. Could it be that there is such a thing we might call a natural ethic of life, and if so, why do we seek to weep in the winter. I read on:

The Creators said there would be no death, but Coyote persisted. Then the Creators said there would be death, but people would raise to life again on the fourth day, that a sense that life would prevail. Coyote argued:

Why should they come back to life?
When they die, they'll die.
When people die we'll weep.
People will weep,
when their brother dies,
when their sister dies,
when their child dies.[iii]

Coyote wins the day and when “the rain turned to snow” and a man was poisoned and died. However, and interestingly, “the people did not weep” because they did not yet know about the ways of death. The man was buried in a shallow grave, but “he did not like death” and started to move in his grave.

He was about to come back to life,
he who had died.
Coyote was looking at him,
he kept on watching.
The dead man came up this far from the grave.
Coyote jumped up,
Coyote jumped on the dead man,
he pushed him down in the earth.
"Die!" said Coyote.
Coyote raised his foot,
he did like this,
he forced the dead man down with his foot.
"Why are you coming back to life?
" Die! Die!"
So he did,
forcing him down with his foot.
And the people said nothing against it.
Coyote looked at the grave and/nothing moved.
Truly, the man was now dead for good.
"Now!" said Coyote,
"Cry! weep!
"Now the man is dead,
now we will never see him again.
"Come on!
Put on white clay for mourning!
Come on! Smear your faces with pitch!"[iv]

The clouds covered the sun again and I was cold again. My heart sank with the image life trying to come out of the grave only to be stumped back into its whole. Forgiveness fighting its way out of the grave. Love and understanding, justice and peace, communion and community, hopes and dreams, joys and embraces, new beginnings and new life, all fighting up from the grave only to be beaten back. Misunderstanding and lies, angers and hatreds, division and conflicts, despair and alienation, sorrows and coldness, all stamping life into the grave. An almost desperately choosing death, which sitting in the cold seemed more natural than an ethic of life. Everyone shouting:  Now Cry, Now Weep, Now Mourn. This desire for poisoning and weeping. However, the story does not end there. The Creators made a rattlesnake and put it the path of Coyote's young son. Young Coyote is killed.

"Your child is dead,"
so said all the people.
Coyote wept and danced with grief.
He put dirt on his face and
acted like a crazy man.
The People brought young Coyote
back home.
Coyote said, "Friends," speaking to the Creators.
"Friends, you said people should come
back to life, after they die.
"I don't like weeping so much.
"Make him come back to life!"
"Weep, weep!" said the Creators.
"You said people would cry.
"Weep! weep!"Put white clay on your face,
Put pitch on your face!
"You said people would weep,
So weep."[v]

It is a story about why we are so hell-bent on choosing Death and Destruction over Live and Creativity. It is also a morality tale reminding us that ultimately poison is not selective, that death leads to weeping for all.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

[i] Wagoner, David. Who Shall Be the Sun? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978, p. 14.

[ii] Bright, William. A Coyote Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 107-108.

[iii] Ibid., p. 113.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 114-115.

[v] Ibid., pp. 116-117.

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