Coyote creates human beings

The following story of the creation of human beings is a Miwok story heard at Little Gap, California, and reported in Tribes of California by Stephen Powers and John Wesley Powell (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1877), p. 358; the version below is an adaptation of the version given by Powers and Powell. This story is included in the old Unitarian Universalist curriculum Beginnings by Sophia Fahs and Dorothy Spoerl (Boston: Beacon, 1958), pp. 103 ff., but the version in Beginnings states in the first sentence that “the Great Spirit” created the world, whereas the story reported by Powers and Powell specifically states that Coyote created the world. I have also retained some details that Fahs and Spoerl left out; and I have degenderized the language for use in a Sunday school setting.

After the coyote had finished all the work of creating the world and the animals, he called a council of animals to deliberate on the creation of human beings. The animals sat down in an open space in the forest, all in a circle, with the mountain lion at the head. On her right sat the grizzly bear, next the cinnamon bear, and so on around according to the rank, ending with the little mouse, which sat at the mountain lion’s left.

The mountain lion was the first to speak, and she declared, “I would like to see humans created with a mighty voice like myself, with which they could frighten all other animals. For the rest,” the mountain lion said, “I would like to have humans well covered with hair, with terrible fangs, and with strong claws, like mine.”

The grizzly bear said, “It is ridiculous to have such a voice as my neighbor, the mountain lion, for she was always roaring with it and scaring away the very prey she wished to capture.” The grizzly bear shook her head and went on: “Humans ought to have prodigious strength like mine, and they should be able to move about silently but very swiftly if necessary, and be able to grip their prey without making a noise, like me.”

The deer said, “Humans would look very foolish, in my way of thinking, unless they each had a magnificent pair of antlers on their heads to fight with. And I think it is very absurd to roar so loudly. I would pay less attention to the human’s voice than to their ears and his eyes. The humans should have both excellent hearing and sight, like mine.”

The bighorn sheep protested he never could see what sense there was in such antlers. “Big antlers, branching every way, only get caught in the thickets,” he said. “If humans had horns which were mostly rolled up, they would be like a stone on each side of their heads, giving it weight, and enabling the humans to butt a great deal harder, like me.”

When it came the coyote’s turn to speak, he said, “All these are the stupidest speeches I have ever heard. I could hardly keep awake while listening to such a pack of noodles and nincompoops. Every one of you wants to make the humans like yourselves. You might just as well take one of your own cubs and call it a human.

“As for myself,” Coyote said, “I know I am not the best animal that could be made, and I could make one better than himself or any other. Of course, humans would have to be like myself in having four legs, five fingers, and so on. It was well enough to have a voice like the mountain lion, only humans need not roar all the while with it. The grizzly bear also had some good points, one of which was the shape of her feet, which enable her easily to stand erect; and I am in favor, therefore, of making the human’s feet nearly like the grizzly’s.

“The grizzly was also happy in having no tail,” Coyote went on. “I have learned from my own experience that tails are only a harbor for fleas. The deer’s eyes and ears are pretty good, perhaps better even than mine.”

Coyote thought for a moment. “Then there is the fish, which is naked, and which I envy, because having a coat of hair was too hot most of the year. Therefore, I think humans should have no hair. Their claws ought to be as long as the eagle’s, so that they can hold things in them.

“And finally,” Coyote concluded, “even with the different gifts you all have,— voice, feet, hearing and sight, and so on — you all have to admit that no animal is as cunning and crafty as I am. So I will have to make humans like me in this respect — they will have to be cunning and crafty.”

After the coyote had finished speaking, the beaver said, “I have heard such twaddle and nonsense in all my life. No tail, indeed! I would make humans with a broad, flat tail, so they could haul mud and sand on it, and build their houses with it.”

The owl said, “All you animals seemed to have lost your senses; even you, Coyote! None of you want to give wings to the humans. I could not see of what use anything on earth could be without wings.”

The mole said, “It is silly to talk about wings, for with them humans would be certain to bump their heads against the sky. Besides that, if the humans had sharp eyes and wings both, they would get their eyes burnt out by flying too near the sun. But if they were like me, with small, weak eyes, they could burrow in the cool, soft earth, and be happy.”

Last of all, the little mouse squeaked out, “I would make humans with sharp eyes, of course, so they could find good things to eat. As for burrowing in the ground, that was absurd.”

So the animals disagreed among themselves, and the council of the animals broke up in a fight. The coyote fought with the beaver, and nipped a piece out of her cheek; the owl jumped on top of the coyote’s head, and dug in her talons. And all the other animals fought, one against the other.

When the fighting stopped, every animal set to work to make humans, each according to his or her own ideas. Taking a lump of earth, each animal commenced molding it to make a creature that looked like himself or herself. But the coyote began to make a creature like the one he had described in the council: a strong voice, feet that enabled it to stand on its hind legs, no tail, good eyes and ears, no fur, long claws that could grasp things and hold them, and as cunning and crafty as the coyote himself.

It was so late before the animals starting molding their creatures out of earth that nightfall came on before any one had finished their models, and they all lay down and fell asleep. But the cunning coyote stayed awake and worked hard on his model all night. When all the other animals were sound asleep, he went around and poured water on their models, dissolving the earth, and spoiling their work.

In the morning early he finished his model of humans, and gave life to the humans long before the others could make new models. And so it was that human beings were made by the coyote.

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