MISSION - "Why Coyote stories?" Curtis Yehnert asked the crowd gathered to hear his presentation at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute Saturday afternoon. Then he answered the question. "From the Arctic to Mexico, from the Pacific to Atlantic, Coyote stories exist."
Storytelling, he said, is the way a people can understand their place in the world and in time.
Yehnert has encountered Coyote stories in many cultures, from his time living on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to the University of New Mexico in Gallup. He believes that Coyote demonstrates many of the character traits of the people, which explains why it is so pervasive in tales spanning the Western Hemisphere.
"Coyote created the earth and killed all the monsters that would hurt the people, and then he created the people," Yehnert said. "But while he was a creator he was also a destroyer. He is known primarily as a trickster. He's a mix of sacred and sinful, therefore he's a paradox."
"Is Coyote an Indian or a real coyote," one of the audience members asked.
"He's very much an Indian," Yehnert replied. "He isn't exactly an animal. He isn't exactly a spirit. He's something in between."
Coyote stories are old and sacred, according to Yehnert. They are accompanied by taboos, according to the tribe's beliefs. For example, he said one tribe believes the stories should be told only at a certain time of year.
"Other people believe the stories must remain oral, and must be told only when two or more people who know the story are present, and can only be told once per season," he said.
Yehnert thinks the taboo against committing the stories to writing is based on the belief that once something is written down, it doesn't have to be told to be remembered, and therefore it doesn't change. Storytelling, he said, reflects subtle changes as culture changes - something that can not occur with the written word.
Yehnert, the chairman of Western Oregon University's humanities division, said the stories reflect a culture's values, but those values are often revealed in ways that are confusing to those outside the culture.
"To Natives, wisdom is more mystical and intuitive," he said. "There is a difference in the expectation of a story. To the Western culture, stories are lineal, while in Native cultures, they are more circular. Stories are not told for the point at the end. The point of the story is the relationship to the spirits."
Yehnert said that the Coyote Cycle of Tales is not really unified. "We have a temptation to organize them because there are so many of them," he said.
Coyote matures throughout the tales, according to Yehnert. He said that in the beginning he is naive, always hungry and his body is hard to control. Coyote has to learn through the stories how to catch food and how to be socialized.
"These tales are important because children were taught how to get food by the time they were six years old," Yehnert said. "The girls had digging sticks and the boys, bows and arrows."
Humor also is prevalent in many Coyote tales, Yehnert said. "Laughter is a culturally verified way of teaching values and recognizing disharmony," he said. "Laughter releases tension."
Yehnert told several Coyote tales, including the Nez Perce tale, Coyote Visits the Land of the Shadow King, which he said showed striking similarities to the Greek myth of Orpheus.
He said it's common to find similar tales in various cultures. There are two ways this could happen, according to historians. One is simple diffusion, word reaching from one culture to another. The second is polygenesis, in which myths arise from dealing with problems of the mind, psyche and heart."
After the presentation, Douglas Minthorn praised Yehnert's program. "We need to let it out," he said. "We need to tell the stories ourselves. I want my children to know, and my grandchildren to know. Every reservation I went to had its own Coyote stories. We need to tell them."