Historical and Cultural Context

Historical and Cultural Context

Caleb Carter, author of the legend “The Coyote and the Wind”, which was published in The Red Man in 1913, was a member of the Nez Perce. Nez Perce tribe originally lived in parts of southeast Washington, northeast Oregon, and northern Idaho. Due to the tribe’s proximity to mountains, specifically the Rocky Mountains, the Nez Perce had a strong historical connection to the mountains. Another important aspect of the historical and environmental context of this legend is the wind. In the native religion, the wind was seen as “the breath of the universe… the living force within” (Fletcher, 10). In fact, the wind is such an important aspect of the environmental context that the Nez Perce were not the only people to write about it. For example, the legend, “Hot Wind and Cold Wind” gives an different perspective on the coyote and the winds, as well as their changing temperature, than is offered in the legend, “The Coyote and the Wind” from Caleb Carter of the Nez Perce. This historical context of the Nez Perce and environmental context also shows a recognition of the power of nature and the way that man depends upon nature.  

Cultural context that is critical in order to fully understanding the legend, “The Coyote and the Wind” is the way that humor is used in Nez Perce mythology. Archie Phinney, an anthropologist and member of the Nez Perce tribe, writes in the introduction to his collection, “Humor is undoubtedly the deepest and most vivid element in this mythology” (Skeels, 57). One way that humor is used in this legend is through the character of the coyote. In fact, humor is such an inherent quality of the coyote in Nez Perce mythology that just the presence of the coyote in a legend, regardless of his actions, can serve as a form of comic relief. A common humor pattern used in Nez Perce mythology is when the character of the fool, typically the coyote, is up against a powerful and dangerous opponent whom he attempts to fight or trick. Often the fool is defeated because of either his foolishness or vanity, both characteristics of the coyote in Carter’s legend, but is sometimes brought back to life to defeat his opponent. Despite the foolishness of the coyote, he generally emerges victorious. While the coyote may display humorous behavior, part of the humor lies simply in his defeat. This is crucial cultural knowledge needed to understand “The Coyote and the Wind”, as the coyote and the wind are the only characters in this legend and the plot revolves around the conflict between them and the coyote’s attempt to trap the wind. Without the cultural context on the role of the coyote it can be difficult to interpret this complex character’s actions.      

While the coyote’s actions are humorous in the story, this does not suggest that it would be funny or acceptable behavior in real life. In fact, Skeels suggests that this humor can even work to prevent certain behaviors and serve as a source of entertainment because the behavior is generally not socially accepted by the Nez Perce. While the role of the coyote as a culture hero is debated, and many believe that he is not, “Spinden [author of many books on the Nez Perce] was told that there were no dangerous being in the modern Nez Perce territory because Coyote had destroyed them in the myth period” (Skeels, 63). This shows how deeply the character of the coyote is ingrained in the Nez Perce culture.  

The specific type of mythology that can be used to classify “The Coyote and the Wind” is the trickster tale. The trickster, often a coyote, deviates from social norms and can free humans and offer them new perspectives that can be used to consider change. While it may be easy for reader who are not familiar with the style of trickster tales to read these stories metaphorically, problems often arise from this approach. In fact, Ballinger writes, “Critical metaphors all too often obscure the particulars and uniqueness of the Native American Trickster in favor of a more generic, cross-cultural characterization. Moreover, the language adds unnecessary layers of paradox to an already paradoxical figure” (Ballinger, 17). This is very important cultural context to consider when reading “The Coyote and the Wind”, as it can change the way that the reader goes about interpreting and understanding the story.

While “The Coyote and the Wind” is representative of a trickster tale, the trickster character is very complex. Although there are many similarities that run through trickster stories, that does not mean that they must be present in all trickster tales. For example, often the trickster is presented within the tribe / social context and is over sexualized, yet neither of these attributes are present in “The Coyote and the Wind”. This being said, the trickster is often used to make a connection between the personal and the societal through his attempt to achieve good goals by deviating from the social norm. In the Dictionary of Native American Literature, Wiget writes that is coyote “is typically a major figure in ordaining the conditions of human life – not as a deity who created the world, or indeed as a “culture hero,” but rather as the bricoleur responsible for The Way Things Are. As elsewhere is western North America, he is the prototypical trickster, magically powerful, but gluttonous, lecherous, dishonest, and clownish – often victim of his own mischief, yet ultimately indestructible” (Wiget, 50). This description is incredibly relevant to “The Coyote and the Wind” and helps readers understand the complexity and nuance of the trickster character.

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