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G A R Y S N Y D E R Nevada City, California The Incredible Survival of Coyote I’m afraid this is going to be a rather scattered and disorganized presentation.1 The more I try to pull together these themes and examine in my own work and thinking, even, what is involved in trying to use, for example, native American folklore and myth in modem poetry, the more intractable I realize it is, and in how many directions it shoots off. So please forgive me if I touch on many things and don’t always pull the threads together. I hope perhaps that if I leave things dangling and if you feel dissatisfied or hostile or critical, that you’ll feel free to catch me up on that during the question period. I chose “The Incredible Survival of Coyote” as a general title for this because of all the uses of native American lore in modern poetry, the presence of the Coyote figure, the continuing presence of the Coyote, is the most striking by far. But what I could just as well say I am talking about is, the role, the interaction between myth and place, sense of myth, sense of place, in our evolving modem poetry of the West, the far West. I could more broadly describe this talk as an attempt to talk about simply how modem (post World War II, that is to say) western American poets are looking back now at the history of the West, and how is it that they are using as much native American lore, or are beginning to use as much native American lore, as they are drawing on, say, the folklore of the cowboy or the mountain men. Why is this? The concrete point to start from is this: when the early mountain men, explorers, and then pioneers, cattle ranchers, moved into this Great Basin country, a hundred and fifty years ago, they found, particu­ larly on the west of the Rockies, peoples, Shoshonean and others (Salishan peoples in the Montanas) that they regarded with some contempt, as compared say to their attitude toward the Indians of the plains, the 1This article is the transcript of a talk given at the Western Writers Conference, Utah State University, June 12, 1974. 256 Western American Literature Indians who put up a lot of fight and had a more elaborate material culture. The Shoshonean people of the Great Basin and the California Indians have received the least respect and have been accorded a position at the bottom of the scale in white regard for Indian cultures. They called them “diggers,” the California Indians were called “diggers.” The early literature is really contemptuous of these people. Ignorance of the California Indians is extraordinary. I find that very few people are aware of the fact that the population of native people in California was equal to native populations in all the rest of North America north of the Rio Grande, and the greatest density of North American Indian popula­ tion north of Mexico was Napa County and Sonoma County California just north of San Francisco Bay. The image of California Indians as shiftless, and as having no interesting material culture persists although they had elaborate dance, basketry, feather-working, ritual systems. The irony, then, is that these people who were the least regarded, have left modern poetry with a very powerful heritage, a small part of modern poetry, but it’s a powerful one. Coyote, as an animal, survives where the wolf is almost extinct throughout the West apparently because, as I’ve been told, he took no poison bait. Strychnine-laced carcasses that ranchers put out for the wolf were what did the wolf in. The coyotes learned very early not to take poisoned bait, and they still flourished. In the same way, from the Rockies on westward, from Mexico and north well into Canada, in all of these cultures you find the trickster hero Coyote Man to be one of the most prominent elements. Stories about Coyote, Coyote Man as he’s sometimes called to dis­ tinguish him from coyote the animal, Coyote the myth figure, who lived in myth time...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 255-272
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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