Coyote and the Monsters of the Bitterroot Valley
A Flathead Legend
This story was recorded from a great-great-grandmother whose name means "Painted-Hem-of-the-Skirt." In the summer of 1955, she was the only person on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana that even an interested interpreter could find who knew the old stories of their people.
The Bitterroot Valley is in western Montana.
After Coyote had killed the monster near the mouth of the Jocko River, he turned south and went up the Bitterroot Valley. Soon he saw two huge monsters, one at each end of a ridge. Coyote killed them, changed them into tall rocks, and said, "You will always be there."
There the tall rocks still stand.
Then he went on. Someone had told him about another monster, an Elk monster, up on a mountain to the east. Coyote said to his wife, Mole, "Dig a tunnel clear to the place where that monster is. Dig several holes in the tunnel. Then move our camp to the other side."
Coyote went through the tunnel Mole had made, got out of it, and saw the Elk monster. The monster was surprised to see him.
"How did you get here?" he asked. "Where did you come from?" The monster was scared.
"I came across the prairie," lied Coyote. "Don't you see my trail? You must be blind if you didn't see me."
The monster became more scared. He thought that Coyote must have greater powers than he himself had.
Coyote's dog was Pine Squirrel, and the Elk monster's dog was Grizzly Bear. Grizzly Bear growled at Pine Squirrel, and Pine Squirrel barked back.
"You'd better stop your dog," said the monster. "If you don't, he'll lose his head."
The dogs wanted to fight. Grizzly Bear jumped at Coyote's dog. Pine Squirrel went under him and killed him with the flint he wore on his head. The flint ripped Grizzly Bear. Bones and flesh flew everywhere.
"Look down there," said Coyote to the Elk monster. "See those people coming along that trail? Let's go after them."
He knew that what he saw was Mole moving their camp, but the monster could not see clearly in the tunnel. Elk monster picked up his shield, his spear, and his knife. "I'm ready," he said.
After they had gone a short distance along the trail, the monster fell into the first hole. Coyote called loudly, as if he were calling to an enemy ahead of them. The monster climbed out of the hole, tried to run, but fell into one hole after another. At last Coyote said to him, "Let me carry your shield. Then you can run faster."
Coyote put the shield on his back, but the monster still had trouble. "Let me carry your spear," Coyote said. Soon he got the monster's knife, also--and all of his equipment. Then Coyote ran round and round, shouting, "This is how we charge the enemy."
And he jabbed the monster with the monster's spear. "I have the enemy's war-bonnet!" he yelled. He jabbed the monster four times, each time yelling that he had taken something from the enemy. The fifth time he jabbed the monster, he yelled, "I have stripped the enemy." Then he said to the Elk monster, "You can never kill anyone again."
Coyote went on up the Bitterroot Valley. He heard a baby crying, up on a hill. Coyote went up to the baby, not knowing it was a monster. He put his finger in the baby's mouth, to let it suck. The baby ate the flesh off Coyote's finger, then his hand, and then his arm. The monster baby killed Coyote. Only his skeleton was left.
After a while, Coyote's good friend Fox came along. Fox stepped over the dead body, and Coyote came to life. He began to stretch as if he had been asleep. "I've slept a long time," he said to Fox.
You've been dead," Fox told him. "That baby is a monster, and he killed you."
Coyote looked around, but the baby was gone. He put some flint on his finger and waited for the baby to come back. When he heard it crying, he called out, "Hello, baby! You must be hungry."
Coyote let it have his flinted finger to suck. The baby cut himself and died.
"That's the last of you," said Coyote. "This hill will forever be called Sleeping Child."
And that is what the Indians call it today.
After Coyote had left Sleeping Child, Fox joined him again and they traveled together. Soon Coyote grew tired of carrying his blanket, and so he laid it on a rock. After they had traveled farther, they saw a storm coming. They went back to the rock, Coyote picked up his blanket, and the two friends moved on. When the rain began to fall, he put the blanket over himself and Fox. While lying there, covered by the blanket, they looked out and saw the rock running toward them.
Fox went uphill, but Coyote ran downhill. The rock followed close on Coyote's trail. Coyote crossed the river, sure that he was safe. Spreading his clothes out on a rock, he thought he would rest while they dried. But the rock followed him across the river. When he saw it coming out of the water, Coyote began to run. He saw three women sitting nearby, with stone hammers in their hands.
"If that rock comes here," Coyote said to the women, "you break it with your hammers."
But the rock got away from the women. Coyote ran on to where a creek comes down from the mountains near Darby. There he took some vines-- Indians call them "monkey ropes"--and placed them so that the rock would get tangled up in them. He set fire to the monkey ropes. The rock got tangled in the burning ropes and was killed by the heat.
Then Coyote said to the rock, "The Indians will come through here on their way to the buffalo country. They will play with you. They will find you slick and heavy, and they will lift you up."
In my childhood, the rock was still there, but it is gone now, no one knows where.
Coyote left the dead rock and went on farther. Soon he saw a mountain sheep. The sheep insulted Coyote and made him angry. Coyote grabbed him and threw him against a pine tree. The body went clear through the tree, but the head stayed on it. The horns stuck out from the trunk of the tree.
Coyote said to the tree, "When people go by, they will talk to you. They will say, 'I want to have good luck. So I will leave a gift here for you.' They will leave gifts and you will make them lucky--in hunting or in war or in anything they wish to do."
The tree became well known as the Medicine Tree. People from several tribes left gifts in it when they passed on their way to the buffalo country that is on the rising-sun side of the mountains.
In my childhood, the skull and face were still there. When I was a young girl, people told me to put some of my hair inside the sheep's horn, so that I would live a long time. I did. That's why I'm nearly ninety years old.
As the interpreter and I were leaving Painted-Hem- of-the-Skirt, she bent low and made a sweeping movement around her ankles and the hem of her long skirt. Then she said a few words and laughed heartily. The interpreter explained: "She says she hopes that she will not find a rattlesnake wrapped around her legs because she told some of the old stories in the summertime."
She had laughed often as she told the tales, but I feel sure that her mother would not have related them in the summertime. "It is good to tell stories in the wintertime," the Indians of the Northwest used to say. "There are long nights in the wintertime."
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