Man Gets Fire from Coyote


We were in 3rd Grade at Margaret Keating School when Mrs. Damm told us how man came to have fire. While I don’t recall the tale word-for-word, I have cobbled several versions of the story together, recreating what was passed down to us…

Coyote had no need for fire. So he seldom concerned himself with it, until one spring day when he was passing a human village.

There the women were singing a song of mourning for the babies and the old ones who had died in the winter. Their voices moaned like the wind prickling the hairs on Coyote’s neck.

“Feel how the sun is now warm on our backs,” one of the men was saying. “Feel how it warms the earth and makes these stones hot to the touch. If only we could have had a small piece of the sun in our teepees during the winter.”

Coyote, overhearing this, felt sorry for the men and women. He also felt that there was something he could do to help them.

He knew of a faraway mountain-top where the three Fire Beings lived. These Beings kept fire to themselves, guarding it carefully for fear that man might somehow acquire it and become as strong as they.

Coyote saw that he could do a good turn for man at the cost of these selfish Fire Beings. So Coyote went to the mountain of the Fire Beings and crept to its top, to watch the way that the Beings guarded their fire.

As he came near, the Beings leaped to their feet and gazed searchingly round their camp. Their eyes glinted like bloodstones, and their hands were clawed like the talons of the great black vulture.

“What’s that? What’s that I hear?” hissed one of the Beings.

“A thief, skulking in the bushes!” screeched another.

The third looked more closely, and saw Coyote. But he had gone to the mountain-top on all fours, so the Being thought she saw only an ordinary coyote slinking among the trees.

“It is no one, it is nothing!” she cried, and the other two looked where she pointed and saw only a grey coyote.

They sat down again by their fire and paid Coyote no more attention. So he watched all day and night as the Fire Beings guarded their fire.

He saw how they fed it pine cones and dry branches from the trees. He also saw how, at night, the Beings took turns to sit by the fire.

Two would sleep while one was on guard; and at certain times the Being by the fire would get up and go into their teepee, and another would come out to sit by the fire.

Coyote saw that the Beings were always jealously watchful of their fire except during one part of the day. That was in the earliest morning, when the first winds of dawn arose on the mountains.

Then the Being by the fire would hurry, shivering, into the teepee calling, “Sister, sister, go out and watch the fire.” But the next Being would always be slow to go out for her turn.

Coyote waited through the day, and watched as night fell and two of the Beings went off to the teepee to sleep. He watched as they changed over at certain times all the night long, until at last the dawn winds rose.

Then the Being on guard called, “Sister, sister, get up and watch the fire.”

And the Being whose turn it was climbed slow and sleepy from her bed, saying, “Yes, yes, I am coming. Do not shout so.”

But before she could come out of the teepee, Coyote lunged from the bushes, snatched up a glowing portion of fire, and sprang away down the mountainside.

Screaming, the Fire Beings flew after him. Swift as Coyote ran, they caught up with him, and one of them reached out a clutching hand. Her fingers touched only the tip of the tail, but the touch was enough to turn the hairs white, and coyote tail-tips are white still.

Coyote shouted, and flung the fire away from him. But the others of the People had gathered at the mountain’s foot, in case they were needed.

Squirrel saw the fire falling, and caught it, putting it on her back and fleeing away through the tree-tops. The fire scorched her back so painfully that her tail curled up and back, as squirrels’ tails still do today.

The Fire Beings then pursued Squirrel, who threw the fire to Chipmunk. Chattering with fear, Chipmunk stood still as if rooted until the Beings were almost upon her. Then, as she turned to run, one Being clawed at her, tearing down the length of her back and leaving three stripes that are to be seen on chipmunks’ backs even today.

Chipmunk threw the fire to Frog, and the Beings turned towards him. One of the Beings grasped his tail, but Frog gave a mighty leap and tore himself free, leaving his tail behind in the Being’s hand, which is why frogs have had no tails ever since.

As the Beings came after him again, Frog flung the fire on to Wood. And Wood swallowed it.

The Fire Beings gathered round, but they did not know how to get the fire out of Wood. They promised it gifts, sang to it and shouted at it.

They twisted it and struck it and tore it with their knives. But Wood did not give up the fire.

In the end, defeated, the Beings went back to their mountain-top and left the People alone.

But Coyote knew how to get fire out of Wood. And he went to the village of men and showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood.

So man was from then on warm and safe through the killing cold of winter thanks to Coyote.

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