Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/The Hound of the Plains
|←Science in Religious Education I|| Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 January 1887 (1887)
The Hound of the Plains
By Ernest Ingersoll
|The Experimental Study of Nature→|
By ERNEST INGERSOLL.
A PICTURE of the Great Plains is incomplete without a coyote or two, hurrying furtively through the distance. The coyote is a wolf—a wolf about two thirds the size of that one which haunts forests and the pages of story-books. He has a long, lean body; legs a trifle short, but sinewy and active; a head more foxy than wolfish, for the nose is long and pointed; the yellow eyes are set in spectacle-frames of black eyelids, and the hanging, tan-trimmed ears, may be erected, giving a well-merited air of alertness to their wearer; a tail—straight as a pointer's—also fox-like, for it is bushy beyond the ordinary lupine type, and a shaggy, large-maned, wind-ruffled, dust-gathering coat of dingy white, suffused with tawny brown, or often decidedly brindled:
Such is the coyote—genus loci of the plains; an Ishmaelite of the desert; a consort of rattlesnake and vulture; the tyrant of his inferiors; jackal to the puma; a bushwhacker upon the flanks of the buffalo armies; the pariah of his own race, and despised by mankind. Withal, he maintains himself and his tribe increases; he outstrips animals fleeter than himself; he foils those of far greater strength; he excels all his rivals in cunning and intelligence; he furnishes to the Indian not only a breed of domestic dogs, but in many canine races ranks as earliest progenitor; he becomes the center of myths, and finally is apotheosized.
Our coyote is a true Westerner, and typifies the independence, the unrestrained gayety and brisk zeal which enter into the heart of him who sights the Rocky Mountains. He is little known at present eastward of real bunch-grass plains. In early days, however, he was common enough in the open country of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and northward, whence he received the name “prairie-wolf.” Threading the passes, he wanders among the foot-hills of all the complicated mountain system that forms the “crest of the continent,” and dwells plentifully in California valleys.
In the United States and British America, then, he is a creature of the open country, leaving high mountains and forests to the large, gray “mountain” or “timber” wolf (Canis lupus). Perhaps this is less his choice than his necessity, for in Mexico and Central America he seeks his food more often in forests than elsewhere, yet keeps his characteristic cunning and cowardice, becoming there a wild dog of the jungles, as, in the north, he is the hound of the plains. It is that tropical region, in fact, which gives us his name, for coyote is a pure Nahuatl word, with the final e softened into an eh. This ultimate must not be lost sight of in the pronunciation, which is coy-ó-té, not ki-yōt (or even kyoodle!), as often heard. Dr. D. G. Brinton writes me that the derivation seems to be from the root coy, which means a hole, and alludes to the earth-burrowing habits of the animal. I have met with a word of very similar sound, in a Californian language, said to mean “hill-dog.”
When this wolf can not find a natural hollow to suit him, nor evict some unhappy hare, prairie-dog, or badger, he digs for himself a dry burrow, or perhaps a den among loose rocks. The butte districts of the upper Missouri and the lower Colorado valleys are, therefore, his strongholds. There the decay of sandstone strata, or the breakage due to volcanic eruptions and upheavals, give him the choice of a large number of crannies, while the desolation and remoteness of wide tracts, untenanted by men, afford him the seclusion he loves.
In such seclusion his young family of five to eight pups is brought forth during the latter part of spring, the date ranging earlier or later with the latitude, and the consequently varying advance of warm weather. It is during the weeks going just before and following immediately after the birth of the puppies that the old dog-coyotes work their hardest and most systematically. In hunting at this time, our wolf adds to his ordinary pertinacity and zeal, the sagacity and endurance necessary to turn his victims and drive them back as near as possible to his home, knowing that otherwise his mate and her weaklings will be unable to partake of the feast.
A remarkable picture of this was given some years ago, by a writer in an English magazine, who, in one of the best “animal chapters” it has ever been my fortune to read, detailed such a chase as witnessed by him in the grand forests near Lake Nicaragua. “Certainly,” he exclaims at the conclusion of his account, “certainly no training could have bettered that dog's run. To drive a grown buck back to his starting-place, to send on a portion of the pack to that point where he would strive to break cover, to head him again and again into the cover where his speed could not be exerted to the full, were feats which might well puzzle all the best dogs in England, and the human intelligence which directs them.”
His game and its getting are not always so noble as this, however, and the coyote knows well the pinch of famine, especially in winter. “The main object of his life seems to be the satisfying of a hunger which is always craving; and to this aim all his cunning, impudence, and audacity are mainly directed.” Nothing comes amiss. Though by no means the swiftest-footed quadruped upon the plains, he runs down the deer, the pronghorn, and others, tiring them out by trickery and then overpowering them by force of numbers. The buffalo formerly afforded him an unfailing supply, in the shape of carrion or chance fragments left him by his Brahmans — the white wolves — who steadily followed the herds, and seized upon decrepit or aged stragglers, or upon any calves they were able to surround and pull down. In such piracy the coyotes themselves often engaged, though it tried their highest powers; and success followed a system of tireless worrying. The poor bison or elk, upon which they concentrated, might trample and gore half the pack, but the rest would “stay by him,” and finally nag him to death. I remember once reading an account of the strategy by which a large stag was forced to succumb to a pack that had driven it upon the ice of a frozen lake. Part of the wolves formed a circle about the pond, within which the exhausted and slipping deer was chased round and round, by patrols frequently relieved, until, fainting with fatigue and loss of blood, the noble animal fell, to be torn to pieces in an instant.
Far less worthy game attracts this wild dog as well. In California and Mexico he has been so destructive to the sheep that incessant war is waged upon him by the ranchmen. In Kansas and Nebraska he is accused of making havoc among domestic poultry, suffering, no doubt, the discredit of many additional depredations by foxes, skunks, and weasels. Similar misdeeds were charged against him by the farmers of Illinois and Wisconsin, when, forty years ago, those prairies were the frontier. Two or three times a year, therefore, a general holiday would be declared, and a wolf-hunt would be organized.
Such a battue would take place just before the spring thawing. Word would be sent out, instructing the different villages concerned to elect their captains and furnish their quota of willing gunners in the ring that was to concentrate upon a point indicated by a tall flag-staff far out in the prairie. These rings were, sometimes, twenty or thirty miles in diameter, and it took an early start and rapid traveling to close up in time. The captains, on horseback, ride back and forth, keeping the line in order, watchful that everything is driven before it. After marching for a few miles, the different parties begin to come in sight of one another, all converging toward the central point. Glimpses of fleeing game, very likely including deer, or a wolf or two, are seen, and the orders “Hurry up! hurry up!” are more frequently heard. Finally the flag can be seen, and a little later the line of the opposite side of the circle comes into view. Now all nerves are strung to the highest pitch. There is a constant fusillade of shots as the thickening grouse soar up and backward over the line, or foxes and hares scud away from the shouting and yelling gunners. The captains, suddenly riding at top-speed to one side, shout: “Close up! close up! The deer will break!” Before it can be well done, a small band, following their leader like sheep, dart toward a vacant space in the rank of men. Half the deer get away in safety, but a few fall under the ready rifles, and one, stabbed by a bayonet, carries it and the gun twenty rods before dropping dead.
Soon word is passed to stop firing, for the circle is becoming dangerously contracted. Already one man has a bullet in his leg, and a captain's horse has been shot under him. Thus, in silence, the ring concentrates toward the flag-staff, which stands on the edge of a bowl-like depression. As the rim is attained, what a sight greets the eyes of the eager circle! With lolling tongues and staring eyes, a dozen tawny wolves are rushing up and down the shallow pit, seeking some chance of escape. But no mercy exists for the sneaking lamb-stealers. “Give it to them!” comes the order, and a hundred rifles pour instant death among the corraled victims. Then follow target-matches, trials of strength, races, and plentiful gingerbread, apple-turnovers, cider, and metheglin.
Tactics similar to those of coursing a stag on the ice, already mentioned, are furnished by the coyote when he fixes his heart upon a jack-rabbit. Alone, he could neither overtake nor surprise this vigilant and fleet-footed hare. Two wolves assist one another, therefore, one giving instant chase when a hare is started, while the other squats on his haunches. The runner turns the hare in a circle that brings it back near to the point of starting, where the second wolf is ready to keep it going, while the first rests. A few rounds use up the panting bunny. Then the wolf in chase bowls him over, and seeks to appropriate the whole of his not over-big carcass before the resting partner can claim his share, whereupon a row is very likely to result.
To capture the sage-hen and grouse, the coyote roughly quarters the ground, somewhat like a trained bird-dog, but with frequent crouching pauses, all the time wending his way toward the quarry. At the right moment he will drop flat in the grass and creep stealthily forward, as a cat would do, until near enough to make a fatal spring.
In fact, nothing eatable escapes this omnivorous prowler. It is the arch-enemy of such small deer as prairie-dogs and gophers, as well as of larger mammals; and, if no better food offers, it will revel in carrion of any sort. “It resorts in great numbers to the vicinity of settlements where offal is sure to be found, and surrounds the hunter's camp at night. It is well known to follow for days in the trail of a traveler's party, and each morning, just after camp is broken, it rushes in to claim whatever eatable refuse may have been left behind. But it can not always find a sufficiency of animal food. Particularly in the fall, it feeds extensively upon tunas which are the juicy, soft, scarlet fruit of various species of prickly pear (Opuntia); and in the winter, upon berries of various sorts, particularly those of the juniper.”
Under the pangs of excessive hunger these small wolves are compelled to a furtive boldness they are incapable of under ordinary circumstances. Thus I have known them to come repeatedly within pistol-range of my camp-fire, in the mountains of Southern Colorado, and hunters tell me that they have been known to pull the boots or the leathern straps of a saddle from under the head of a sleeping camper. Sitgreaves records that when, for two days and nights, his party had kept possession of some solitary springs, in an arid part of Arizona, the coyotes became so desperate from thirst that they came to drink while men and mules were at the spring. As a rule, however, they are cowardly to the last degree, and trust to superior numbers and well-laid plans to effect their object. I remember at a place where I once encamped for two or three nights, in Southwestern Wyoming, that the rough ledge of a butte-face, just across the creek, was the home of a family of these wolves, and I often saw them, the mother lying at the mouth of their den, and the four whelps gleefully romping in the sunshine. The father of this family kept out of view at first, but later I caught sight of him in pursuit of a doe-antelope and her fawn. The doe was backing away on the plain, keeping the little one, which seemed to understand its part perfectly, close to her hind-legs. Following her closely ran the wolf, often making a dash to the right or left to get at the fawn; but each time the brave little mother, whirling alertly, would present to him her lowered head, and make a dash at his skull with her sharp fore-hoofs. Thus she retired, but I fancy the pursuer's longer breath and varied tactics won the day at last.
The fact that in his hunting he frequently becomes a rival, his incorrigible thieveries, and his unmanly deportment in hanging about like a conscious felon, cause him to be despised by both hunter and ranchman, who take every means to kill him, save by the honorable use of gunpowder. Yet there are times when he makes himself respected and feared.
A prime characteristic of the coyote is his astonishing voice, which differs so much from the well-known wolfish howl of other members of his race as to give him the book-name Canis latrans, or “barking” wolf. I can not picture this rattling concert (to which I have often been an unwilling listener) of quickly repeated, infinitely varied, ventriloquial yelps better than it has already been done by Dr. Elliott Coues, who confesses the difficulty of conveying in adequate words the noisy confusion of these polyglot serenades:
“One must have spent an hour or two vainly trying to sleep,” says this brilliant writer and naturalist, “before he is in condition to appreciate the full force of the annoyance. It is a singular fact that the howling of two or three wolves gives an impression that a score are engaged, so many, so long-drawn are the notes, and so uninterruptedly are they continued by one individual after another. A short, sharp bark is sounded, followed by several more in quick succession, this time growing faster and the pitch higher till they run together into a long-drawn, lugubrious howl in the highest possible key. The same strain is taken up again and again by different members of the pack, while from a great distance the deep, melancholy baying of the more wary lobo breaks in, till the very leaves of the trees seem quivering to the inharmonious sounds.”
In the memory of this astonishing voice of his, it is amusing to read the story told by the Kaibabits Indians, of Northern Arizona, to account for the diversity of languages; for what animal could better figure in such a history than our polyglot wolf? The old men of the Kaibabits will tell you that in the beginning the grandmother, goddess of all, brought up out of the sea a sack which she gave to the Cin-aú-av brothers, great wolf-gods. This sack contained the whole of mankind, and the brothers were bidden to carry it from the shores of the sea to the Kaibab plateau, and by no means to open the package on the way lest, as with Pandora's box, untold evils should be turned loose. But, overcome by curiosity, the younger Cin-au-av untied the sack, when the majority of people swarmed out. The elder Cin-aú-av hastened to close it again and carry it to the Kaibab plateau, where the people who had remained found a beautiful home. Those who had escaped were scattered and became Navajos, Moquis, Dakotas, white men, all the outside world in short — poor, sorry fragments of humanity, without the original language of the gods.
The nocturnal prowling, secretive disposition, and remarkable craftiness of this animal, together with the annoyance it has the power to inflict, cause it to figure prominently in the myths and religious histories of the native races of the Far West. Some of these stories I propose to recall, and I am sure they will suggest to every reader at least the reynard of European folk-lore, if not any other interesting parallels.
In all the Mexican pantheon the most sublime figure is that of Tezcatlipoca, creator of heaven and earth, sole ruler of the universe, invisible and omniscient. To him, as presiding over darkness and all mysteries, was dedicated the nocturnal and crafty coyote. Among the central Mexicans the animal was held in so high honor that it had a temple of its own, a congregation of priests devoted to its services, statues carved in stone, and an elaborate tomb at death. Religious significance attached to dogs and wolves in many ways throughout all tropical America, generally through some connection with the moon. On this side of the Mexican line (that is, in the United States) we find the coyote personified in the mythology of the red men as the Creator himself, or as his foremost agent; while here and there it is identified with the sun (which was the visible incarnation of the Creator to the minds of many), or associating with it and representing its demiurgic force.
This was the ancient coyote — the agile-brained and fleet-footed hill-dog of that old mythologic time, and in that wonderful “land of lost gods and godlike men.” The wolf of to-day is a howling pest, but that wolf's ancestor — the first of the line — was divine!
Among the Indians of the Great Basin speaking Shoshonee in any of its many dialects, the belief in animal-gods — a long list of them in varied relations and ranks — as the creators of the world, is at the foundation of religious belief. “By these animal-gods,” says Major Powell, “all things were established. The heavenly bodies were created and their ways appointed; and when the powers and phenomena of Nature are personified the personages are beasts, and all human institutions also were established by the ancient animal-gods.” In this theism the ancient rattlesnake, To-go-av, is the chief of the council, but Cin-aú-av, the coyote (or perhaps, there are two brothers of them as happens in so many myths the world over), comes next in rank, and arranges mundane affairs. In one story the two discuss the matter of food, and decide that it is better that the Uinkareets shall work for a living than that they should be given a self-renewing store of fruits and roots, with honey-dew falling as the snow. In another the elder decided, against the younger brother's wish, that the dead could not return again; whereupon the younger Cin-aú-av killed the son of his brother, and long after taunted him with being the first to suffer by this cruel law. “Then the elder knew that the younger had killed his child; . . . and, as his wrath increased, the earth rocked, subterraneous groanings were heard, darkness came on, fierce storms raged, lightnings flashed, thunder reverberated through the heavens, and the younger brother fled in great terror to his father, Ta-vwots, for protection.”
An almost exact parallel to this story is to be found among the once powerful Nishinam Indians of Central California; but there the two brothers are represented by the coyote and the moon. The moon was good, but the coyote was bad. In making men the moon wished to fashion their souls so that when they died they should return to earth after two or three days, as he himself does; but the coyote was evil disposed, and declared that when men died the survivors must burn their bodies. The moon was obliged to acquiesce, but before long caused the death of the coyote's son, and insisted upon the application of the law, to the coyote's great disgust. This recalls also a myth of the Bonaks, or Bannacks (of Southern Idaho), who believe themselves to have been developed out of coyotes by the gradual loss of useless members and a slow adaptation to environment. When one of these coyote ancestors died, various animal shapes would spring from the body, many of which took wings and flew away to the moon. The old coyotes, fearing the earth might become depopulated, instituted the cremation of corpses.
In the wonderful adventures of the Sókus Waí-un-ats, who was first one, then two, in his long contest with Stone Shirt (as told to Major Powell by the Indians who live at the lower end of the Colorado canons), Cin-aú-av appears “extremely proud of his fame as a hunter,” but consoles himself by philosophy under the chagrin of a failure. "What matters it,” he observes, "who kills the game, when we can all eat it?” — a maxim worthy of a coyote! In that long solar myth told by Utes, how Ta-vwots, the little rabbit, went to kill the sun and caused the conflagration of the world, Cin-aú-av is the owner of the first field he comes to, and the producer of the ancient corn whose seed descended to plant the fields of to-day; and he is the hero of many another religious story told by Shoshonee and Kalispel firesides. Nor is this true of Flathead, Ute, and Shoshonees alone. The native races of Northern California were superior in all respects to those living in the southern part of the State; and among them legendary lore reached a degree of perfection not common with Western Indians. In most of these fables the coyote plays a conspicuous part, for the forces of Nature, in whose phenomena most of these stories find their natural origin, are portrayed there (as among the Shoshonees) by animal personages. These ancient animal-gods, represented by degenerate descendants, have also duplicate spirits that visit the world, and whose influence can be secured. Thus, when one Karok has killed another, he frequently barks like a coyote, in the belief that thereby he will be endued with so much of that animal's cunning as will enable him to elude punishment. Perhaps the custom of the medicine-women of this nation of squatting beside an ill man and barking at him for hours together, indicates a similar prayer for sagacity in diagnosis.
The deity and creator of the Karok religion was Kareya, who made the fishes, the mammals, and finally The Man. Him he commanded to assemble all the animals, in order to assign to each its rank, by distributing bows and arrows, the longest to the most powerful, and so on down the scale. The beasts and birds came together the night before the distribution, and all went to sleep except the coyote, who determined to stay awake all night and go forth earliest in the morning to get the longest bow. He took extraordinary pains to keep awake, but overreached himself in an excess of ingenuity, and fell asleep just before dawn. When he opened his eyes only the very shortest bow was left for him. But Kareya, pitying his weakness and disappointment, gave him cunning ten times greater than before, so that he was sharp-witted above all the animals in the wood. In return, the grateful coyote befriended The Man and his children ever afterward, doing many helpful things for them. Similarly among the Nishinam, where his history began as the evil principle, assisting at the creation, the coyote afterward turned friendly, killing two cannibal giants, procuring fire for the tribe, and doing other feats common to solar heroes the world over. He obtained fire on the plan of the monkey and the cat in the matter of roasted chestnuts — by sending after it the lizard, who, with the bat and sand-hill crane that helped him, saw some exciting adventures.
When Kareya made the fishes he did not let the salmon come up the Klamath, in consequence of which the Karok, who live on its upper part, were sorely pressed for food. But Kareya had made a great fish-dam at the mouth of the river, and given the key to two old hags to keep, who never ceased the watching even to sleep. Seeing that the Indians were nearly starved, the coyote befriended them. He made a visit to the hags on an ingenious pretext, but only succeeded so far as to find that the key was kept too high for him to reach it. He stayed all night in the cabin with the hags, pretending to sleep, but watching their movements out of a corner of his eye. In the morning one of the hags took down the key and started to get some salmon for her breakfast. Then the coyote happened to think of a way to get the key. Jumping up he darted under the hag, throwing her down and causing her to fling the key a long way off. Before she could scramble up, the coyote had seized the key and opened the dam. Thus the salmon could ascend the Klamath, and the Karok had plenty of food. But they had no fire to cook it with, because Kareya had hidden it in a casket which he gave to two sleepless hags far toward the rising sun. So the coyote promised to try to get this second boon for them.
He stationed a line of animals all along the road from the home of the Karok to the far-distant land where the fire was, the strongest near the fire, and last of all concealed an Indian under a hill. This done, the coyote insinuated himself politely into the good graces of the old guardians, and lay by their hearth all night feeling very comfortable and pretending to sleep. But he was soon convinced that without help there was no way to elude their vigilance; so in the morning he stole out and had a talk with the Indian under the hill, after which he went back and lay down by the hearth as before. Presently, as had been concerted, the Indian was heard hammering at the door, as if to break it in, and the old beldames rushed out to drive him away. This was the coyote's opportunity. As the hags dashed out at one door, the cunning thief seized a flaming brand in his teeth and leaped through the other. He almost flew over the ground, but the hags saw the sparks and gave chase, gaining on him fast. By the time he was out of breath he reached the puma, who took the brand and ran with it to the next animal, and so on. Last of ail was the frog, who caught the fire in his mouth, swallowed it, and dived, the hags catching his tail (he was a tadpole then) and twitching it off in the act. The frog swam under water a long distance, then came up and spat the fire into a log of drift-wood, and there it has stayed ever since, so that when an Indian rubs two pieces of wood together the fire comes forth. Another cognate myth (Gallinomero) says dry wood was first invested with this perpetual spark after the coyote had rubbed two pieces together until they ignited. The Navajos recount a similar fable. They, too, lacked fire, and were in distress, so the coyote, the bat, and the squirrel promised to get it for them, the fire seeming to be in the possession of the animals in general at a distance. The coyote fastened pine splinters in his tail, went to the place where the article was to be had, dashed through the flames and started homeward at full gallop. When out of breath the bat relieved him and flew till he was ready to drop, when the squirrel caught the torch and carried it into the camp of the Navajos. This recalls the Nishinam fable, though the two tribes belong to different linguistic stocks, and live a thousand miles apart. The Shastikas account for the origin of fire by saying that a long time ago there was a fire-stone in the East, white and glistening like pure crystal, which the coyote brought and gave to the Indians.
After Kareya had made him so amusing, the coyote grew ambitious and tried many feats which Kareya had never intended for him. The Karoks explain meteors, and especially those that seem to burst, by a story of these failures on the part of the adventurous animal who waited on a mountain-top and tried to dance with the stars. The star took him up, but would not stop when the novice grew tired, because Kareya had made it to keep moving. Thus he was compelled to go on dancing and dangling until he fell to pieces. Among the Navajos one hears that after the sun and moon had been made in the heavenly workshop, the “old men” set about embroidering the sky with stars in beautiful patterns; but, just as they had made a beginning, the coyote rushed in and contemptuously scattered the pile of stars broadcast over the floor of heaven, just as they now lie. The Kern River (California) tribes (related to the Pi-Utes) recite a complicated myth of how the coyote once made a trip through the sky in company with the sun. Another Californian race, the Tatus, believe the coyote to have been the original of human kind, and one of their legends accounts for Clear Lake, near which they dwelt. Many hundred snows ago, while men were yet in the form of coyotes, an exceedingly great drought parched the land, during which a famous coyote and his two sons ate many grasshoppers — all the animal life there was left. The only water was in Clear Lake, and thither they journeyed. The sons died on the way, but the father reached the lake and drank it dry. Then he lay down and fell asleep. As he slept, there came a man from the south and pricked him with a spear, so that the waters flowed forth from him and returned to the lake until it was full again, while the grasshoppers he had eaten became fishes. There are other legends accounting for this deep and beautiful piece of water in which the coyote is made to exercise supreme functions.
In the early days of the earth, as a Gallinomero philosopher will teach you, all Nature was wrapped in darkness, and there was dire confusion and endless collisions, one of which brought the coyote and hawk together. Instead of indulging idle recriminations, they consulted how they could improve this state of things. The coyote groped his way into a swamp and gathered a quantity of dry tules which he rolled into a large ball. This he gave to the hawk, with some flints, and sent him up into heaven with it, where he touched it off and sent it whirling round the earth. This was the sun. The moon they made in the same way, only the tules happened to be damp and did not burn so well. There is a legend current among the Papagos on the Gila River, Arizona, of a deluge from which only their great myth-hero Montezuma (not to be confounded with the veritable Aztec emperor whom Cortes saw) and the coyote escaped. The coyote had foretold this deluge, and Montezuma had hollowed out a canoe, while the coyote prepared for himself an ark in a hollow cane.
The Ashochimi preserve a legend of a flood which drowned all living creatures except the coyote. Seeking out over all the world the sites of the antediluvian villages, he gathered the floating tail-feathers of hawks, owls, and buzzards, and planted one wherever a wigwam had stood. In due time these feathers sprouted, branched, and finally turned into men and women.
The Pitt-River (California) Indians have a somewhat similar story. Their coyote began the earth by scratching it up out of nothingness. Then the eagle complained that he had no perch, whereupon the coyote scratched up great ridges. When the eagle flew over them his feathers dropped down, took root, and became trees, and the pin-feathers bushes and plants. After men had been created, they were freezing for want of fire, stole some of it, and kindled a fire in the mountains, to which the Indians resorted. The Shastika say that originally the sun had nine brothers flaming hot with fire, so that the world was likely to perish, but the coyote slew them, and saved mankind from burning up. There were ten moons also, all made of ice, so that in the night people nearly froze to death. Nine of these the coyote slew with his flint knife, carrying heated stones to keep his hands warm.
The Miwok possess a very elaborate myth of the creation of man, in regard to which the coyote called a council of animals after he had finished fashioning the globe and all the inferior creatures. Each speaker wanted to form man just like himself. The coyote made free to say that this was all nonsense; he did not think himself the most perfect animal that could be made, and he announced it as his theory that man should be formed by taking the best points of all the others — strong voice, like a lion; lack of tail, like a bear (since, in his opinion, a tail was only a harbor for fleas); the sharp eye of the elk, and so on. “But,” said the autocrat, “there surely is no animal from whom man can borrow wit besides myself, and therefore he shall resemble the coyote in being cunning and crafty.” Then the council broke up in a row, and there was a general battle, following which every animal set to work to make an earthen image after his own ideas. Night came before any models were finished, and all the sculptors went to sleep except the coyote, who, when the camp became still, destroyed the other models, made the composite one he had proposed, and gave it life at the coming of the dawn.
The quick wits and inquiring mind of the prairie-wolf serve him not only in chasing but in saving himself from being chased. Next to the wolverine he is perhaps the wariest of animals — not excepting the fox — against which the trapper pits himself. To poisoned meat he falls a victim through his exorbitant appetite, and in this way the ranchmen destroy great numbers annually; but he is rarely trapped. Say tells, with a touch of glee, how Titian Peale was baffled in trying to catch a coyote for his famous museum — one of the sights of old Philadelphia.
Peale's first experiment was with a “figure 4,” which came to naught because a wolf burrowed under the floor and pulled the bait down between the planks. “This procedure,” remarks Mr. Say, “would seem to be the result of a faculty beyond mere instinct.” A cage was constructed, into which the wolves might enter, but out of which they could not again escape. The coyotes came, admired this arrangement, sang doleful jeremiads over the bait which they could see and smell, but could not taste, and went away again, wondering at the heart of mankind and the malignant devices thereof.
Disappointed here, Mr. Peale next began a series of experiments with steel traps, one of which, profusely baited, was concealed among the leaves. Plenty of tracks — “you can't live on tracks!” is one of the aphorisms of the plains — alone rewarded this effort. Then a seductive bait was suspended above the trap in the midst of several other pieces, but the expected victims, stepping circumspectly, carried off all the meat except the one piece it was intended they should take. Baits were next hung up as before, the trap was buried in leaves, and these were burned, so that the trap, scorched free from any odor of human handling, lay covered with ashes; still, the one bait over the steel jaws was avoided, and no sinewy foot was pinched. Finally, a wicked arrangement of innocent-looking logs set on a trigger was made to fall upon the poor wolf and destroy him. Peale got his “specimen,” but it was only by brute force; the coyote was a match for him in brain.
The skins of these wolves are not so highly valued as those of the big gray wolf, yet formerly they entered largely into the shipments of the Hudson Bay Company, for whom they were “cased” or stripped off wrong side out, as is done with the smaller animals. At present they are in demand to a small extent for making sleigh-robes, rugs, etc., but can scarcely be counted among the commercial furs.
The striking resemblance between the coyote and the majority of the snappish curs thronging in the camps of the redskins long ago attracted attention, and with good reason, for they are descended from tamed wolves of one kind or another, and the stock is constantly and designedly replenished by their masters through mixture with the wild wolves.
As a pet, the coyote is not in great favor. He will, indeed, stay at home and consent to friendly and even affectionate terms with his owner, but he seems to have not a particle of gratitude, nor any of that responsive attachment which makes the well-bred dog so lovable as a friend. Moreover, in spite of his natural subtlety and shrewdness, he shows little aptitude for learning the ordinary accomplishments of dogs, and so fails to sustain an interest in himself after the novelty of first acquaintance has worn off. He is faithful to his model, and lives up to the motto, “Once a coyote always a coyote."
- See Brinton's “Hero Myths,” and many other authorities in comparative mythology.