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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 723-749

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Coyote Comes to the Norton:
Indigenous Oral Narrative and American Literary History

Michael A. Elliott

They intended to catch salmon, but they did not get anything [before] the flood-tide set in. They went home. Coyote was angry. He defecated and spoke to his excrements: "You are a liar." They said to him: "You with your bandy-legs. When people kill a salmon they do not jump over the net. You must not step over your net. When the first salmon are killed, they are not cut until the afternoon." "Oh," said Coyote, "You told me enough."—"Coyote—His Myth," Chinook Texts

One hundred four years after the anthropologist Franz Boas published his translation of "It°ᾱ'lapas Iᾱ'kxanam," a story he heard from Charles Cultee (Chinook) during field research along the Columbia River in 1890, "Coyote—His Myth" found a new textual home in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Part of a new section of Native American trickster stories added to the fifth edition (1998), Coyote's interrogation of his feces in his attempts to fish for salmon resides in volume 1, along with Hawthorne's musings in the Custom-House and Ahab's fulminations on the quarterdeck. 1

As translated by Boas and printed in Chinook Texts (1894), a Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Cultee's story revolves around Coyote's repeated attempts, sometimes with companions, to catch salmon. After failing, he defecates. His feces first insult him and then offer detailed instructions about the proper methods for catching and preparing salmon. Following this advice, Coyote is at first successful but then fails. He defecates again, only to hear from his feces that there are further rules and proscriptions, often for a particular geographic [End Page 723] location. In the end, Coyote learns the proper procedures but is exhausted by his efforts. "Even I got tired," he says. 2

The inclusion of "Coyote—His Myth" in the Norton's fifth edition exemplifies the recent victories of those advocating a pluralistic, multicultural approach to American literary history—an advocacy now so familiar that its arguments have become, in a word, canonical. Paul Lauter, for instance, contends that transcriptions of Native American oral expression epitomize the way a pluralist approach to American literature can destabilize claims to universality and throw into question the most basic assumptions of literary reading. Because the "literary encounter lift[s] the tale from the tribal context in which it takes its living shape," these texts assure students and teachers alike that no scene of literary interpretation is neutral. Including oral, indigenous texts in American literature thus "provides us with an opportunity to explore the important problem of how responses to a work differ according to the circumstance in which it is encountered and depending on the reader's or listener's own position in the world." 3 Lauter implies that such works generate the beginning of a process through which students learn that readers and texts are embedded in the relations of power governing the world they both inhabit. Such texts, moreover, figure prominently in Lauter's successful rival to the Norton and have been included as the first works of every edition of his Heath Anthology of American Literature. 4

If Lauter is correct in suggesting that the inclusion of American Indian oral texts in literary anthologies can overturn notions of an elite and distinct sphere of aesthetics, then the trickster figure of Coyote would appear to be an ideal candidate for this pedagogical project. In many North American tribal storytelling traditions, the trickster is both a transformative and a comic character. As Paul Radin puts it, he is "at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself." 5 More recently, the figure of the trickster has seemed to many students of Native American expression to dovetail neatly with poststructuralist strategies of reading that emphasize textual instability and the indeterminacy of meaning. Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe), for example, calls...


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