Although the Native American trickster narratives are short and uncomplicated, each tale exemplifies an entire way of life. When put in their literary context, the plainness of the stories actually carries deeper meanings. Although the Native American people do not share a unified body of mythology, all the different trickster tales convey life lessons of ethics and principles of behavior. On top of this, nearly all the trickster tales among the Native American people carry the same themes and plot elements. This aspect makes the naughty but holy Trickster a key figure in the Native American oral tradition. Whether the character is the wizened old man Coyote of the Crow tribes, Raven in the Indian lore or even Wakdjunkaga of the Winnebago, the narratives seems to be written from the same script. This research paper examines some of the major themes and plot elements found in Native American trickster tales.
Although the Native American trickster narratives are short and uncomplicated, each tale exemplifies an entire way of life.
When put in their literary context, the plainness of the stories actually carries deeper meanings. Although the Native American people do not share a unified body of mythology, all the different trickster tales convey life lessons of ethics and principles of behavior. On top of this, nearly all the trickster tales among the Native American people carry the same themes and plot elements. This aspect makes the naughty but holy Trickster a key figure in the Native American oral tradition.
Whether the character is the wizened old man Coyote of the Crow tribes, Raven in the Indian lore or even Wakdjunkaga of the Winnebago, the narratives seems to be written from the same script. This research paper examines some of the major themes and plot elements found in Native American trickster tales. (Smith) One theme that is almost dominant in all the American Trickster narratives is Sacrifice. This is brought out in the situation where different characters perform selfless acts meant for the benefit of the whole society. In almost all the stories, there are instances where a certain character embarks on a dangerous mission that is meant to benefit the whole community. The recurrence of this theme is meant to make people reflect on what they can do for the benefit of humanity. (Babcock-Abrahams 150) In the tale of Coyote and the Monster that is taught among the Navajo, Coyote is distraught upon learning that the monster has eaten all his friends.
Although the monster is unable to eat him, Coyote does not relax but instead he devises a way to free his friends. The monster decides to convince Coyote to stay at his house as a guest. The ever-cunning Coyote tells the monster that he would be happy to be his guest but first seeks permission to visit his friends. Without thinking of the danger involved, Coyote goes inside the monster’s stomach where he cuts the monster’s heart and he is able to free his friends. Coyote’s action is a selfless act that everyone in the society should emulate if we are truly willing to help humanity.
(Babcock-Abrahams 160) Another tale that bears the theme of sacrifice is the one taught among the Karok tribe on how Coyote stole fire. In this tale, Coyote is a spirit being who is busy doing his usual chores when he notices how men who have just come into the world have problems during winter. During this period, the children and aged people usually die because of the cold weather. Being a spirit being, Coyote does not need anything to warm himself during the winter season. One day, Coyote happens to be passing near a human village when he hears women mourning their children who have died during the winter.
Moved by compassion, Coyote decides to help the women acquire fire from the fiery Fire Beings. Disregarding the beings fiery nature, Coyote embarks on a dangerous mission to get the fire. He rallies the support of other animals and together they devise a way of stealing the fire from these beings. In the process, the involved animals end up suffering for their actions but they are able to achieve their mission. Finally, man is able to have fire for warming himself during the winter season and his children and the aged stop dying from the cold. This is a complete act of sacrifice since the animals that help in getting the fire do not stand to benefit from the whole mission.
(Babcock-Abrahams 166) Another central theme in many Native American tales is culture heroes and transformers. In almost every story, a culture hero transforms the world into an ideal place and most importantly teaches people how to live. The role of such a character is to help people in distress and to teach them lessons on morality and even to create things out of nothingness. The importance of this theme is perhaps to show how leaders can help in bringing transformation to the society. A classic example of this theme is the Wishram tale that explains how Eagle tried to stop people from dying forever.
After the death of his children, Eagle and Coyote embark on a journey to reclaim their dead children and permanently stop the pangs of death. By using his brains, Eagle succeeds in killing Moon and rescues the dead people. However, Coyote’s over enthusiastic nature destroys the plan and the result is that people end up dying forever. Although Eagle fails in his mission, the story is a classic example of cultural heroism and willingness to bring transformation in the world. This theme is also present in the Navajo version where Coyote uses his brains to terminate the monster that has killed his friends.
(Babcock-Abrahams 170) Another theme that is recurrent in all American Trickster tales is that of bravery. It takes bravery for Coyote in the Navajo narrative to kill the monster and free the people. This theme is repeated in the Karok tale where Coyote confronts the Fire Beings who guard their fire throughout to prevent it from being stolen by human beings. Despite the apparent danger, Coyote knows that if he fails to get the fire, people will keep on dying during the cold seasons. This theme is also present among the Menomini people where the Hell-diver warns the other birds that Manabozho was killing their friends. The Hell-diver does this regardless of the threat of developing red eyes for breaking the rule.
However, his bravery rescues the other birds from the evil Manabozho. (Radin 33) Although Native America has diverse peoples and languages, many elements of mythology are shared across the different regions. A male normally plays the character of the Trickster and his main duty is to show people the way they should go.
In most cases, the trickster loves to unsettle people and create disorder. In most narratives, the trickster is presented as a hero and he pulls pranks that in the end help the whole community. An example is where Coyote steals fire to benefit human beings without himself benefiting in any way. Another story is where “Trickster” disguises himself as a woman to ensure that his friends do not go without a meal. Another tale from the Northwest Coast region explains how a certain chief stole all the light, plunging the whole universe into darkness. Using trickery, a raven flew into the land disguised as a seed and later managed to steal the sun ensuring that people got back light.
This shows a consistency in plot element representation in all the stories. (Radin 37)
Although there are different Native American Trickster narratives, majority of them carry the same themes. These trickster narratives have been taught orally through the generations and they have managed to maintain their original message. The themes that are most common in the narratives include the theme of bravery, selflessness and transformation. These themes are altogether useful in creating a prosperous society.
This perhaps explains why these tales have continued to be relevant even in our modern society. The uniformity of the themes in all the tales can be used to depict the togetherness of the American society.
Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara. A Tolerated Margin of Mess: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered. Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol.
11, 1975: 147-186. Print. Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969, 30-40. Print. Smith, Jennifer.
Africa Native American Trickster Folktales, 2005. Web. Feb 19, 2011. < http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/14919/african_and_native_american_trickster.html>