Native American Legends
How the Coyote joined the Dance of the Burrowing-Owls
A Zuni Legend
You may know the country that lies south of the valley in which
our town stands. You travel along the trail which winds round the
hill our ancients called Ishana-tak'yapon, which means the Hill
of Grease, for the rocks sometimes shine in the light of the sun
at evening, and it is said that strange things occurred there in
the days of the ancients, which makes them thus to shine, while
rocks of the kind in other places do not, you travel on up this
trail, crossing over the arroyos and foot-hills of the great mesa
called Middle Mountain, until you come to the foot of the cliffs.
Then you climb up back and forth, winding round and round, until
you reach the top of the mountain, which is as flat as the floor
of a house, merely being here and there traversed by small valleys
covered with piñon and cedar, and threaded by trails made
not only by the feet of our people but by deer and other animals.
And so you go on and on, until, hardly knowing it, you have descended
from the top of Middle Mountain, and found yourself in a wide plain
covered with grass, and here and there clumps of trees. Beyond this
valley is an elevated sandy plain, rather sunken in the middle,
so that when it rains the water filters down into the soil of the
depressed portion (which is wide enough to be a country in itself)
and nourishes the grasses there; so that most of the year they grow
green and sweet.
Now, a long, long time ago, in this valley or basin there lived
a village of Prairie-dogs, on fairly peaceable terms with Rattlesnakes,
Adders, Chameleons, Horned-toads, and Burrowing-owls. With the Owls
they were especially friendly, looking at them as creatures of great
gravity and sanctity. For this reason these Prairie-dogs and their
companions never disturbed the councils or ceremonies of the Burrowing-owls,
but treated them most respectfully, keeping at a distance from them
when their dances were going on.
It chanced one day that the Burrowing-owls were having a great
dance all to themselves, rather early in the morning. The dance
they were engaged in was one peculiarly prized by them, requiring
no little dexterity in its execution. Each dancer, young man or
maiden, carried upon his or her head a bowl of foam, and though
their legs were crooked and their motions disjointed, they danced
to the whistling of some and the clapping beaks of others, in perfect
unison, and with such dexterity that they never spilled a speck
of the foam on their sleek mantles of dun-black feather-work.
It chanced this morning of the Foam-dance that a Coyote was nosing
about for Grasshoppers and Prairie-dogs. So quite naturally he was
prowling around the by-streets in the borders of the Prairie-dog
town. His house where he lived with his old grandmother stood back
to the westward, just over the elevations that bounded Sunken Country,
among the rocks. He heard the click-clack of the musicians and their
shrill, funny little song:
"I yami hota utchu tchapikya,
Tokos! tokos! tokos! tokos!
So he pricked up his ears, and lifting his tail, trotted forward
toward the level place between the hillocks and doorways of the
village, where the Owls were dancing in a row. He looked at them
with great curiosity, squatting on his haunches, the more composedly
to observe them. Indeed, he became so much interested and amused
by their shambling motions and clever evolutions, that he could
no longer contain his curiosity. So he stepped forward, with a smirk
and a nod toward the old master of ceremonies, and said: "My
father, how are you and your children these many days?"
"Contented and happy, "replied the old Owl, turning his
attention to the dancing again.
"Yes, but I observe you are dancing," said the Coyote.
"A very fine dance, upon my word! Charming! Charming! And why
should you be dancing if you were not contented and happy, to be
"We are dancing," responded the Owl, "both for our
pleasure and for the good of the town."
"True, true," replied the Coyote; "but what's that
which looks like foam these dancers are carrying on their heads,
and why do they dance in so limping a fashion?"
"You see, my friend," said the Owl, turning toward the
Coyote, "we hold this to be a very sacred performance - very
sacred indeed. Being such, these my children are initiated and so
trained in the mysteries of the sacred society of which this is
a custom that they can do very strange things in the observance
of our ceremonies. You ask what it is that looks like foam they
are balancing on their heads. Look more closely, friend. Do you
not observe that it is their own grandmothers' heads they have on,
the feathers turned white with age?"
"By my eyes!" exclaimed the Coyote, blinking and twitching
his whiskers; "it seems so."
"And you ask also why they limp as they dance," said
the Owl. "Now, this limp is essential to the proper performance
of our dance--so essential, in fact, that in order to attain to
it these my children go through the pain of having their legs broken.
Instead of losing by this, they gain in a great many ways. Good
luck always follows them. They are quite as spry as they were before,
and enjoy, moreover, the distinction of performing a dance which
no other people or creatures in the world are capable of!"
"Dust and devils!" ejaculated the Coyote. "This
is passing strange. A most admirable dance, upon my word! Why, every
bristle on my body keeps time to the music and their steps! Look
here, my friend, don't you think that I could learn that dance?"
"Well," replied the old Owl; "it is rather hard
to learn, and you haven't been initiated, you know; but, still,
if you are determined that you would like to join the dance--by
the way, have you a grandmother?"
"Yes, and a fine old woman she is," said he, twitching
his mouth in the direction of his house. "She lives there with
me. I dare say she is looking after my breakfast now."
"Very well," continued the old Owl, "if you care
to join in our dance, fulfill the conditions, and I think we can
receive you into our order." And he added, aside: "The
silly fool; the sneaking, impertinent wretch! I will teach him to
be sticking that sharp nose of his into other people's affairs!"
"All right! All right!" cried the Coyote, excitedly.
"Will it last long?"
"Until the sun is so bright that it hurts our eyes,"
said the Owl; "a long time yet."
"All right! All right! I'll be back in a little while,"
said the Coyote; and, switching his tail into the air, away he ran
toward his home. When he came to the house, he saw his old grandmother
on the roof, which was a rock beside his hole, gathering fur from
some skins which he had brought home, to make up a bed for the Coyote's
"Ha, my blessed grandmother!" said the Coyote, "by
means of your aid, what a fine thing I shall be able to do!"
The old woman was singing to herself when the Coyote dashed up
to the roof where she was sitting, and, catching up a convenient
leg-bone, whacked her over the pate and sawed her head off with
the teeth of a deer. All bloody and soft as it was, he clapped it
on his own head and raised himself on his hind-legs, bracing his
tail against the ground, and letting his paws drop with the toes
outspread, to imitate as nearly as possible the drooping wings of
the dancing Owls. He found that it worked very well; so, descending
with the head in one paw and a stone in the other, he found a convenient
sharp-edged rock, and, laying his legs across it, hit them a tremendous
crack with the stone, which broke them, to be sure, into splinters.
"Beloved Powers! Oh!" howled the Coyote. "Oh-o-o-o-o!
the dance may be a fine thing, but the initiation is anything else!"
However, with his faith unabated, he shook himself together and
got up to walk. But he could walk only with his paws; his hind-legs
dragged helplessly behind him. Nevertheless, with great pain, and
getting weaker and weaker every step of the way, he made what haste
he could back to the Prairie-dog town, his poor old grandmother's
head slung over his shoulders.
When he approached the dancers, - for they were still dancing,
- they pretended to be greatly delighted with their proselyte, and
greeted him, notwithstanding his rueful countenance, with many congratulatory
epithets, mingled with very proper and warm expressions of welcome.
The Coyote looked sick and groaned occasionally and kept looking
around at his feet, as though he would like to lick them. But the
old Owl extended his wing and cautioned him not to interfere with
the working power of faith in this essential observance, and invited
him (with a hem that very much resembled a suppressed giggle), to
join in their dance.
The Coyote smirked and bowed and tried to stand up gracefully on
his stumps, but fell over, his grandmother's head rolling around
in the dirt. He picked up the grisly head, clapped it on his crown
again and raised himself, and with many a howl, which he tried in
vain to check, began to prance around; but ere long tumbled over
again. The Burrowing-owls were filled with such merriment at his
discomfiture that they laughed until they spilled the foam all down
their backs and bosoms; and, with a parting fling at the Coyote
which gave him to understand that he had made a fine fool of himself,
and would know better than to pry into other people's business next
time, skipped away to a safe distance from him.
Then, seeing how he had been tricked, the Coyote fell to howling
and clapping his thighs; and, catching sight of his poor grandmother's
head, all bloody and begrimed with dirt, he cried out in grief and
anger: "Alas! alas! that it should have come to this! You little
devils! I'll be even with you! I'll smoke you out of your holes."
"What will you smoke us out with?" tauntingly asked the
"Ha! you'll find out. With yucca!"
"O! O! ha! ha!" laughed the Owls. That is our succotash!"
"Ah, well! I'll smoke you out!" yelled the Coyote, stung
by their taunts.
"What with?" cried the Owls.
"He, ha! ho, ho! We make our mush-stew of that!"
"Ha! but I'll smoke you out, nevertheless, you little beasts!"
"What with? What with?" shouted the Owls.
"Yellow-top weeds," said he.
"Ha, ha! All right; smoke away! We make our sweet gruel with
that, you fool!"
"I'll fix you! I'll smoke you out! I'll suffocate the very
last one of you!"
"What with? What with?" shouted the Owls, skipping around
on their crooked feet.
"Pitch-pine," snarled the Coyote.
This frightened the Owls, for pitch-pine, even to this day, is
sickening to them. Away they plunged into their holes, pell-mell.
Then the Coyote looked at his poor old grandmother's begrimed and
bloody head, and cried out--just as Coyotes do now at sunset, I
suppose--"Oh, my poor, poor grandmother! So this is what they
have caused me to do to you!" And, tormented both by his grief
and his pain, he took up the head of his grandmother and crawled
back as best he could to his house.
When he arrived there he managed to climb up to the roof, where
her body lay stiff. He chafed her legs and sides, and washed the
blood and dirt from her head, and got a bit of sinew, and sewed
her head to her body as carefully as he could and as hastily. Then
he opened her mouth, and, putting his muzzle to it, blew into her
throat, in the hope of resuscitating her; but the wind only leaked
out from the holes in her neck, and she gave no signs of animation.
Then the Coyote mixed some pap of fine toasted meal and water and
poured it down her throat, addressing her with vehement expressions
of regret at what he had done, and apology and solicitation that
she should not mind, as he didn't mean it, and imploring her to
revive. But the pap only trickled out between the stitches in her
neck, and she grew colder and stiffer all the while; so that at
last the Coyote gave it up, and, moaning, he betook himself to a
near clump of piñon trees, intent upon vengeance and designing
to gather pitch with which to smoke the Owls to death. But, weakened
by his injuries, and filled with grief and shame and mortification,
when he got there he could only lie down.
He was so engrossed in howling and thinking of his woes and pains
that a Horned-toad, who saw him, and who hated him because of the
insults he had frequently suffered from him and his kind, crawled
into the throat of the beast without his noticing it. Presently
the little creature struck up a song:
Iyami Kushina tsoiyakya
Aisiwaiki muki, muki,
"Ah-a-a-a-a-a," the Coyote was groaning. But -when he
heard this song, apparently far off, and yet so near, he felt very
strangely inside, so he thought and no doubt wondered if it were
the song of some musician. At any rate, he lifted his head and looked
all around, but hearing nothing, lay down again and bemoaned his
Then the Horned-toad sang again. This time the Coyote called out
immediately, and the Horned-toad answered: "Here I am. "But
look as he would, the Coyote could not find the Toad. So he listened
for the song again, and heard it, and asked who it was that was
singing. The Horned-toad replied that it was he. But still the Coyote
could not find him. A fourth time the Horned-toad sang, and the
Coyote began to suspect that it was under him. So he lifted himself
to see; and one of the spines on the Horned-toad's neck pricked
him, and at the same time the little fellow called out: "Here
I am, you idiot, inside of you! I came upon you here, and being
a medicine-man of some prominence, I thought I would explore your
vitals and see what was the matter."
"By the souls of my ancestors!" exclaimed the Coyote,
"be careful what you do in there!"
The Horned-toad replied by laying his hand on the Coyote's liver,
and exclaiming: "What is this I feel?"
"Where?" said the Coyote.
"Merciful daylight! it is my liver, without which no one can
have solidity of any kind, or a proper vitality. Be very careful
not to injure that; if you do, I shall die at once, and what will
become of my poor wife and children?"
Then the Horned-toad climbed up to the stomach of the Coyote. "What
is this, my friend?" said he, feeling the sides of the Coyote's
"What is it like?" asked the Coyote.
"Wrinkled, "said the Horned-toad, "and filled with
a fearful mess of stuff!"
"Oh! mercy! mercy! good daylight! My precious friend, be very
careful! That is the very source of my being--my stomach itself!"
"Very well," said the Horned-toad. Then he moved on somewhat
farther and touched the heart of the Coyote, which startled him
fearfully. "What is this?" cried the Horned-toad.
"Mercy, mercy! what are you doing?" exclaimed the Coyote.
"Nothing--feeling of your vitals," was the reply. "What
"Oh, what is it like?" said the Coyote.
"Shaped like a pine-nut, "said the Horned-toad, "as
nearly as I can make out; it keeps leaping so."
"Leaping, is it?" howled the Coyote. "Mercy! my
friend, get away from there! That is the very heart of my being,
the thread that ties my existence, the home of my emotions, and
my knowledge of daylight. Go away from there, do, I pray you! If
you should scratch it ever so little, it would be the death of me,
and what would my wife and children do?"
"Hey!" said the Horned-toad, "you wouldn't be apt
to insult me and my people any more if I touched you up there a
little, would you?" And he hooked one of his horns into the
Coyote's heart. The Coyote gave one gasp, straightened out his limbs,
"Ha, ha! you villain! Thus would you have done to me, had
you found the chance; thus unto you"--saying which he found
his way out and sought the nearest water-pocket he could find.
So you see from this, which took place in the days of the ancients,
it may be inferred that the instinct of meddling with everything
that did not concern him, and making a universal nuisance of himself,
and desiring to imitate everything that he sees, ready to jump into
any trap that is laid for him, is a confirmed instinct with the
Coyote, for those are precisely his characteristics today.
Furthermore, Coyotes never insult Horned-toads nowadays, and they
keep clear of Burrowing-owls. And ever since then the Burrowing-owls
have been speckled with gray and white all over their backs and
bosoms, because their ancestors spilled foam over themselves in
laughing at the silliness of the Coyote.
Thus shortens my story.
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