Critical Commentary

Critical Commentary

The legend “The Coyote and the Wind”, published in the January 1913 edition of “The Red Man”, was written by Caleb Carter, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and the Carlisle Indian School graduating class of 1912. In this legend the coyote grows frustrated with the wind that is blowing down his wigwam, so he sets out to trap the wind. After a humourous battle with the wind, the coyote succeeds in getting the wind to agree not to blow cold winds again. The legend ends by explaining that, “to this day the winds on the west side of the Rockies are warm and known as the “Chinook winds”” (Carter).  

One of the literary techniques employed by Carter throughout this legend is the use of humor. While humor is very difficult to write, Carter is able to successfully incorporate it into many aspects of his writing. First, simply the idea of trying to set of a trap to catch the wind, which does not have a form, can be seen as humorous and foolish. Yet, in characteristic trickster tale fashion, the coyote is successful although this task may seem impossible. In addition, the battle between the coyote and the wind is equally humourous. In the description of the confrontation between the coyote and the wind Carter writes, “Upon arriving he beheld a man with big ears and of great stature… With that he pulled his ears right and left, kick him on the nose, and slapped him till he had him begging for mercy” (Carter). This imagery and battle description has a cartoon-like feel that is funny and interesting as a reader.  

Another aspect of this work that makes it aesthetically interesting is how it is written in the style of a trickster tale. For people who are not familiar with Native American mythology, this legend does not follow a traditional plot and can be difficult to interpret in a metaphorical or moral sense. While one might expect the coyote to be punished for his violent behavior, the coyote is able to fulfil the role of both the hero and the fool. This trickster character, along with the characterization of the coyote, is important to study because it gives the reader insight into an important part of Native American mythology. The coyote is characterized as being very confident and does not hesitate to engage in a physical confrontation with the wind, or tell the wind that “he would kill him on his next offense” (Carter). High confidence is a common characteristic of the trickster that often ends up getting them into difficult situations. In addition to being a trickster tale, this legend is also an etiological tale, as it explains the origins of the Chinook Winds and why they are warm, which can give important insight into the Nez Perce environmental culture and history.   

Another interesting aesthetic quality of this piece is the personification of the wind. When the coyote comes back to his trap he finds that he has caught the wind, who he describes as “a man with big ears and of great stature” (Carter). Giving the wind a powerful physical form emphasises the coyotes foolishness for engaging such a potentially dangerous opponent. This enhancement of the power dynamic between the the coyote and the wind emphasises the character of the coyote as a trickster, using unconventional means to miraculously succeeding in unlikely situations.       

Caleb Carter is a tribal educator because he is writing and publishing a traditional trickster tale style legend in order to share this type of writing with the audience reading “The Red Man” and give them insight into an aspect of the Nez Perce culture. Although Carter is loyal to the school, as he spoke highly of it in a news article and recommended that his half sister attend, he has not completely assimilated, as he is still holding on to traditional legends. Although this work was likely screened or maybe even edited by a school official, it work still has an important place in the canon of the Carlisle Indian School. We can not say with certainty whether or not the school official had knowledge of the historical and cultural context of this work, and this may have led to them having a different interpretation of the legend than, for example, what it means to a member of the Nez Perce tribe.    

There are several reasons why “The Coyote and the Wind” legend by Caleb Carter should be included in our canon of the Carlisle Indian School. First, the legend shows literary merit through Carter’s use of humor and the style of both a trickster tale and an etiological tale. Including this style of legend in the canon is especially important because it can give the reader a unique view into the world of the Nez Perce and how they told stories and shared knowledge. Moreover, this writing style is so unique that it requires many readers to change the way they interpret stories. Rather than following a traditional plot of cause and effect and metaphors, reading a trickster tale and etiological tale gives readers the opportunity to learn from literature without necessarily trying to find a moral. With the proper historical and cultural context, readers have the tools they need to see this text through new eyes and form an idea of the important role that these types of legends may have played in the Nez Perce culture. Trickster is a very complex character, and learning how to interpret the many possible different roles that he may play helps the reader expand their analytical abilities. Using the aesthetic, historical, and cultural understanding of this text together, the reader can consider how this legend played an important role for the Nez Perce, such as possibly teaching acceptable behavior, through humorous example of not acceptable and foolish behavior, and explaining natural phenomena.  

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