Another Native Writer, Another Coyote Metaphor
Nonfiction by Timotéo Montoya
I learned about Coyote from a man named Opler. Morris Edward Opler was an American anthropologist who wrote ethnographies about the folklores, kinship systems, and lifeways of many Athabaskan tribes of the Southwest, my tribe, the Lipan Apache, included. Opler was a good man, by all accounts, and by all accounts I mean exclusively his writings and his Wikipedia page–I never met him. I remember pawing through his book on Lipan Folklore when I received it, looking for something vital, identity forming, life giving. It was a gift from my father. I would buy the book over and over again after gifting it to visiting family members, in the hopes that they could help me find what I was looking for between its pages. They couldn’t.
In Opler’s book there are quite a few stories about Coyote, I remember reading them and feeling a bit unfulfilled. I wanted more. I wanted some wisdom that would be up there with the words of John Trudell and Black Elk I grew up with as a urban turned rural native. I didn’t get that. I got something I couldn’t understand.
13, After-School Green
I was 13 when I was attacked the first time. A short kid, with big bags under his eyes, and an angry quick walk, came up to me while I was sitting and laughing with my friends. He punched me in the face two times before I knew what was happening. My friend jumped up to defend me, only to be intercepted by tall muscular teen a few steps away. As I rinsed my face in the nearby stream and watched my blood and tears swirl with the dark waters and leeched oak leaves, I asked myself why over and over and over again. My body still holds onto that question.
I’ve learned to read between the words in Opler’s translations. I tried for too long to make sense of them directly. There would be odd verbs and nouns that seemed out of place, or incorrect. There would be words like ‘Dragon’, to describe some being, instead of calling it a spirit or monster. I would reread each passage, attempting to translate it back to some semblance of indigenousity I was sure it innately held that Opler had just misinterpreted somehow. I started to hate Opler. I figured he was just a white savior type, got his kicks by leaving his family and extracting information from native peoples to satisfy his phd thesis. I doubted he felt any sense of connection with the people he interviewed, or the lands on which they lived. But he sure wrote a lot of books…
Home, 13, Sierra Foothills of Northern California
After the meeting was over, lunch was served and the folks who had stayed up all night praying were readying to head home. I went down toward my house, looking to clean up a bit before saying goodbye. The supple green valley in the Sierras I called home drank in the early spring sun. The heat felt good on my skin after the long cold night. I took a detour before I got to my house. I climbed up on the roof of our tool shed, took my shirt off and laid out on the hot, sandy tiles, and started tanning myself. I wanted to look more like my uncles whose brown singing faces and deep voices were fresh in my mind. It was vitally important in that moment for me to lay out under the sun. My 13-year-old self didn’t know why. My body still holds onto that question.
I read a story from Opler’s book on Lipan folklore called Coyote Helps Lizard Hold Up The Sky. When I first read that title, it had promise. It seemed grand, important even. A story that
could help explain why the sky is the way it is. Why we are the way we are. When I first read it, I figured it was just a kid’s tale, just a joke so we could laugh at the stupidity of Coyote.
Right before Coyote was about to eat Lizard, Lizard told him that the sotol stalk he was resting on was holding up the sky, and he needed help holding it up because he was getting weak. Coyote obliged, and supported the sotol stalk by himself, afraid of being crushed by the sky. Lizard ran away promising to bring back water and food. It took Coyote a whole day in the desert sun before he learned that he had been duped by Lizard. He was left hot, hungry, and miserable.
A quaint enough story, certainly nothing mythic or important. I was a disappointed. On the bottom of the page, in nearly indiscernible print, Opler wrote some footnotes for this story saying, “this is not just a children’s tale, every story they tell has a point. This story was supposed to teach the young children not to take things at face value, and to be careful with who you trick or take advantage of, they may remember you and seek retribution.”
Opler taught me what my own people’s stories were supposed to mean. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy. Opler worked with the Japanese internment camps in the 40’s and was a strong voice of reason against them. Why did Opler do the work he did? His Wikipedia won’t say. Maybe he just hated his wife and liked to get out of the house.
Highway 26, near Hatch New Mexico, 30, Sunday
I left the Arizona desert with a busted lip and a bad sunburn. My voice, dry and cracked, surprised me as I ordered fast food in a tiny border town. It was a weekend I wouldn’t forget. A weekend with good friends and teachers. The kind you leave feeling exhausted but much stronger and more deeply held. I had been driving for a couple hours, simmering deep in thought. The sun had just set behind the Gila, leaving the landscape tinted a purple hue that drew away all the greens and grays from the world. The tires of my car cracked with a change in the cement surface as I went over a bridge. The arroyo underneath was dry, like so many other bridges in New Mexico. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him. A coyote, dodging into the grass on the side of the road. He was alone from what I could see.
I wondered if he saw a lizard there in that grass, and if he listened to its lies or not. I tried to make some meaning of seeing him, maybe he had a message for me? Maybe he would tell me what I had always been looking for? Maybe we just happened to be in the same place at the same time? My body still holds onto those questions.
I fill my mind with the footnotes. I think I am living there more often than in the stories themselves, hoping to find answers laid out plainly.
Thank you for your footnotes, Morris Edward Opler, you privileged son of a bitch. Thank you for writing, for caring, for saving, for riding in, fully clad, on the white horse of academia. Thank you for leaving your family behind and spending time with a people you surely loved instead. Damn you and thank you.
I’m not sure how he would feel about that last sentence. Did he know when he wrote his textbooks that their overpriced plastic covers would be on the dusty bookshelves of the descendants of the peoples he wrote about, instead of in the hands of every Southwest Anthropology 101 student? Was that conceivable to him? That we were still here. If he had known that, would he have written them differently? Would he have paid attention to certain aspects more closely? Would he add in the footnotes how much they laughed when they told their stories, their cheeks rising so high their eyes were forced close? Would he show us detailed graphs of how they held their hands during important parts of the story, how their fingers and lips arced between lively gestures and smoking cigarettes? Would he tell us what he felt when he heard the stories? Would he tell us if they made his eyes well up and nose run, or if they made his skin crawl? Would he even tell us if he believed in the stories they told? Did he even know why he was really there, amongst my people and their lands?
Cochise Stronghold, Dragoon Mountains, 30, Saturday
I woke up close to 3:30 am. The temperature had dropped below 20 and my head felt like it was in an ice bucket, while the rest of me sweated. My body was sore from the long hike the day before, and the mix of hot and cold only made that more apparent. I tossed and turned for an eternal ten minutes before situating myself with a beanie and an extra blanket. The nylon tent was doing little to keep anything out but wind. That’s when I heard them. Coyotes, a lot of them. They yapped and yapped; their voices reverberating through the night. It was impossible to tell where they were located, but it was somewhere in the amphitheater of hills I found myself in. What I could tell was that they were together, not spread out over the landscape. They were singing from one place. I drank them in, too tired to question for whom, or for what reason, they sang and chatted. I just let them do it. They sang my body to sleep. No questions this time.
I pray for him now a days. I grieve that I need Opler. I dare anybody to make it seem easier and simpler than it is; to make things black and white and still be satisfied. There is always something between the words. There are always people between worlds. When we force answers and conclusions, this or that, to the things that matter, we belittle them. They are meant to be lived in. These questions. To be attended to, breathed into, given life and mystery. They are meant to be misunderstood, and then clarified in the tiny text of the footnotes, and then relinquished back into their own confused sovereignty so they can continue to teach us more about ourselves and the world.
I don’t trust lizards. But I wonder at sotol stalks piercing the sky from their limestone rooting. I wonder how my ancestor’s eyes sparkled when they told their stories to a white man who asked too many questions. I wonder why we long for what we aren’t? Why we question what we’re missing? Why we seek captive wholeness when questions expand the edges of our Self? I wonder at junipers whipping in the wind. I wonder if they have a story for me and what it is about? I wonder if a coyote’s coat changes throughout the seasons just like mine. I wonder if I will ever get close enough to one for it to tell me. My body still holds onto those questions.*
* I hope Opler would say something here about how the world is given life through our questions not the answers to them. I hope he would tell us that he learned that from a great elder I have never heard of who had many wonderful tales to tell. I hope he would encourage me to be like that elder one day.
Timotéo Montoya is an enrolled member of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he spends his days laying under junipers, writing, reading, creating electronic music, mountain biking, and supporting others through his work as a life coach. His artistic work largely revolves around Indigenous Futurisms in which he has multimedia projects under the name Cathartus, a podcast called The Indigenous Futures Podcast, and a writing project that includes a series of Indigenous futurist science fiction novels.