Native American Legends
How Coyote stole fire
A Shasta Legend
Long ago, when man was newly come into the world, there were days
when he was the happiest creature of all. Those were the days when
spring brushed across the willow tails, or when his children ripened
with the blueberries in the sun of summer, or when the goldenrod
bloomed in the autumn haze.
But always the mists of autumn evenings grew more chill, and the
sun's strokes grew shorter. Then man saw winter moving near, and
he became fearful and unhappy. He was afraid for his children, and
for the grandfathers and grandmothers who carried in their heads
the sacred tales of the tribe. Many of these, young and old, would
die in the long, ice bitter months of winter.
Coyote, like the rest of the People, had no need for fire. So he
seldom concerned himself with it, until one spring day when he was
passing a human village. There the women were singing a song of
mourning for the babies and the old ones who had died in the winter.
Their voices moaned like the west wind through a buffalo skull,
prickling the hairs on Coyote's neck.
"Feel how the sun is now warm on our backs," one of the
men was saying. "Feel how it warms the earth and makes these
stones hot to the touch. If only we could have had a small piece
of the sun in our tipi's during the winter."
Coyote, overhearing this, felt sorry for the men and women. He
also felt that there was something he could do to help them. He
knew of a faraway mountain top where the three Fire Beings lived.
These Beings kept fire to themselves, guarding it carefully for
fear that man might somehow acquire it and become as strong as they.
Coyote saw that he could do a good turn for man at the expense of
these selfish Fire Beings.
So Coyote went to the mountain of the Fire Beings and crept to
its top, to watch the way that the Beings guarded their fire. As
he came near, the Beings leaped to their feet and gazed searchingly
round their camp. Their eyes glinted like bloodstones, and their
hands were clawed like the talons of the great black vulture.
"What's that? What's that I hear?" hissed one of the
"A thief, skulking in the bushes!" screeched another.
The third looked more closely, and saw Coyote. But he had gone
to the mountain top on all fours, so the Being thought she saw only
an ordinary coyote slinking among the trees.
"It is no one, it is nothing!" she cried, and the other
two looked where she pointed and also saw only a gray coyote. They
sat down again by their fire and paid Coyote no more attention.
So he watched all day and night as the Fire Beings guarded their
fire. He saw how they fed it pine cones and dry branches from the
sycamore trees. He saw how they stamped furiously on runaway rivulets
of flame that sometimes nibbled outwards on edges of dry grass.
He saw also how, at night, the Beings took turns to sit by the fire.
Two would sleep while one was on guard; and at certain times the
Being by the fire would get up and go into their tipi, and another
would come out to sit by the fire.
Coyote saw that the Beings were always jealously watchful of their
fire except during one part of the day. That was in the earliest
morning, when the first winds of dawn arose on the mountains. Then
the Being by the fire would hurry, shivering, into the tipi calling,
"Sister, sister, go out and watch the fire." But the next
Being would always be slow to go out for her turn, her head spinning
with sleep and the thin dreams of dawn.
Coyote, seeing all this, went down the mountain and spoke to some
of his friends among the People. He told them of hairless man, fearing
the cold and death of winter. And he told them of the Fire Beings,
and the warmth and brightness of the flame. They all agreed that
man should have fire, and they all promised to help Coyote's undertaking.
Then Coyote sped again to the mountain top. Again the Fire Beings
leaped up when he came close, and one cried out, "What's that?
A thief, a thief!"
But again the others looked closely, and saw only a gray coyote
hunting among the bushes. So they sat down again and paid him no
Coyote waited through the day, and watched as night fell and two
of the Beings went off to the tipi to sleep. He watched as they
changed over at certain times all the night long, until at last
the dawn winds rose.
Then the Being on guard called, "Sister, sister, get up and
watch the fire." And the Being whose turn it was climbed slow
and sleepy from her bed, saying, "Yes, yes, I am coming. Do
not shout so."
But before she could come out of the tipi, Coyote lunged from the
bushes, snatched up a glowing portion of fire, and sprang away down
the mountain side.
Screaming, the Fire Beings flew after him. Swift as Coyote ran,
they caught up with him, and one of them reached out a clutching
hand. Her fingers touched only the tip of the tail, but the touch
was enough to turn the hairs white, and coyote tailpipes are white
still. Coyote shouted, and flung the fire away from him. But the
others of the People had gathered at the mountain's foot, in case
they were needed. Squirrel saw the fire falling, and caught it,
putting it on her back and fleeing away through the tree-tops. The
fire scorched her back so painfully that her tail curled up and
back, as squirrels' tails still do today.
The Fire Beings then pursued Squirrel, who threw the fire to Chipmunk.
Chattering with fear, Chipmunk stood still as if rooted until the
Beings were almost upon her. Then, as she turned to run, one Being
clawed at her, tearing down the length of her back and leaving three
stripes that are to be seen on chipmunks' backs even today. Chipmunk
threw the fire to Frog, and the Beings turned towards him. One of
the Beings grasped his tail, but Frog gave a mighty leap and tore
himself free, leaving his tail behind in the Being's hand - which
is why frogs have had no tails ever since.
As the Beings came after him again, Frog flung the fire on to Wood.
And Wood swallowed it.
The Fire Beings gathered round, but they did not know how to get
the fire out of Wood. They promised it gifts, sang to it and shouted
at it. They twisted it and struck it and tore it with their knives.
But Wood did not give up the fire. In the end, defeated, the Beings
went back to their mountain top and left the People alone.
But Coyote knew how to get fire out of Wood. And he went to the
village of men and showed them how. He showed them the trick of
rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened
stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. So man was from then
on warm and safe through the killing cold of winter.
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