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How Coyote brought fire to the People

A Karok (Karuk) Legend

In the beginning, the animal people had no fire. The only fire anywhere was on the top of a high, snow-covered mountain, where it was guarded by the skookums. The skookums were afraid that if the animal people had any fire they might become very powerful as powerful as the skookums. So the skookums would not give any of the fire away to anyone.

Because the animal people had no fire, they were always shivering, and they had to eat their food raw. When Coyote came along he found them cold and miserable.

"Coyote," they begged, "you must bring us fire from the mountain or we will one day die of all this cold."

"I will see what I can do for you," promised Coyote. As soon as the sun came up the next morning, Coyote began the long and difficult climb to the top of the mountain where the skookums kept the fire.

When he got to the top he saw that there wrinkled, old skookums, all sisters, guarded the fire all day and all night, each taking a turn. While one kept watch the other two ate and slept in a lodge nearby. When it was time to change the watch the one at the fire would go to the door of the lodge and call out "Sister, get up and guard the fire."

At dawn, the skookum who had been watching the fire all night was always stiff with the cold and she walked very slowly through the snow to the lodge door to call her sister. "This is the time to steal a brand of the fire," thought Coyote to himself. But he knew, too, that he would be chased. And he knew that even though the skookums were old they were swift and strong runners. Coyote would have to devise a plan.

Coyote thought and thought, but he could not come up with any plan. So he decided to ask his three sisters who always lived in his stomach in the form of huckleberries to help him. They were very wise, and they would tell him what to do.

At first, Coyote’s sisters were reluctant to help him. "If we tell you," they said, "you will only say that you knew it all along."

Coyote remembered that his sisters were afraid of hail and so he called up into the sky, "Hail! Hail! Fall down from the sky."

This made his sisters very afraid. "Stop!" they called. "Don’t bring the hail down. We will tell you what you want to know."

Coyote’s sisters then told him how to steal the fire and get it down the mountain to the people without getting caught. When the had finished talking, Coyote said, "Yes, that was my plan all along."

Coyote then went to see the animal people. He called everyone together, as his sisters had directed, and told each animal Antelope, Fox, Weasel, Beaver, Squirrel and the others to take up certain places along the mountainside. When they were all in place, they stretched in a long line from the top of the mountain all the way back to the village.

Coyote climbed back up the mountain and waited for sunrise. The old skookum who was watching the fire had keen eyes and she saw him. But she thought it was just an animal skulking around looking for scraps.

At dawn the skookum left the fire and walked slowly over to the lodge door. "Sister, get up and guard the fire."

Just at that moment Coyote sprang from the bushes. He seized a burning brand from the fire and ran away as fast as he could across the snow. The three skookums were right behind him in an instant. They were so close they were showering Coyote with the snow and iced they were churning up in their fury. Coyote was running as fast as he had ever run in his life. He leaped over cracks in the iced and rolled part way down the mountain like a snowball, but the skookums were right behind him. so close behind that their hot breath scorched his fur.

When Coyote finally reached the tree line, Cougar jumped out from his hiding place, snatched up the fire brand and raced away just as Coyote fell flat on his face from exhaustion. Cougar ran all the way to the high trees where he gave the fire to Fox. Fox raced until he came to the heavy undergrowth where he gave the fire to Squirrel. Squirrel ran away through the trees, leaping from branch to branch. The skookums could not go through the trees so they planned to catch Squirrel at the edge of the woods. But Antelope was waiting there to get the fire from Squirrel, and Antelope, who was the fastest of all the animals, bounded away across the meadow. One after another, each one of the animals carried the fire, but the skookums stayed right behind them.

Finally, when there was only a glowing coal left, the fire was passed to Frog. Frog swallowed the hot coal and hopped away as fast as he could hop. The skookums were almost on top of him when he dove into a deep river and swam across to the other side. The youngest skookum had already leaped across the water and was waiting for him. As soon as he landed, Frog saw what had happened and jumped between the skookum’s legs and bounded away. An instant later the skookums were on him again and Frog was too tired to jump. So he spat the hot coal out on Wood and Wood swallowed it. The three skookums stood there not knowing what to do. None of the could figure a way to take the fire away from Wood. After a while they left and went slowly back to their lodge on the top of the mountain.

Coyote then called the animals together and they all gathered around Wood. Coyote, who was very wise, knew how to get the fire out of Wood. He showed the animals how to rub two dry sticks together until sparks came. Then he showed them how to collect dry moss and make chips of wood to add to the sparks to make a little fire. Then he showed them how to add small twigs and pine needles to make a bigger fire.

From then on, the people knew how to get the fire out of Wood. They cooked their meat, their houses were warm, and they were never cold again.

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