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The Importance of Indigenous Oral Traditional Storytelling: Part 1

By Chad Valdez (Diné/Navajo)

When I was young, I remember my eldest brother telling me stories that felt lived in. They were experiences, lessons, entertainment, and they were about our culture. When I think of oral traditional storytelling, it’s his voice that plays in my head. For some, maybe it’s their mother or their father, a friend who could make up stories easily, or perhaps that silly uncle who only came around when you least expected it. At the time, I didn’t realize how important those stories were. Those stories stayed with me, especially the scary ones, which were the ones I enjoyed most, but I didn’t know how much there was to learn from them. 

When I was older, I became enthralled with the idea of epistemology. What is knowledge, and how do we come to understand it? In a Western worldview, the question can be difficult, burdened by philosophical “thinkers” who try to understand the intricacies of what they sometimes label as a “problem.”  In an Indigenous worldview, it was simpler. Experience and storytelling. With a foundation of this worldview and my own cultural experiences, I began to gather stories. 

For many Indigenous Peoples, passing down knowledge and experience came through the vehicle of orality in storytelling. 

With Winter here, the tradition of storytelling is stronger. When we are all gathered together, family, friends, and community, it’s to be expected that a story will be told to keep us warm. So, it only makes sense to begin thinking more about oral traditional storytelling with a story. In Dinè culture, coyote stories are told in the winter, which is one of my favorite types of stories. Below is one that my mother passed down to me, “Coyote Brings Fire.” While listening, I encourage you to think of the idea of knowledge and experience that was passed down through this story. I also invite you to listen for the voice of the storyteller in your life, the one who you remember telling stories like this. 



Coyote Brings Fire

After the sun, the moon and the stars were placed in the sky, days and nights were made, as well as the four seasons. The weather changed and it was no longer agreeable. It became too warm or too cold. This was hard on the First people since they still lived in brush dwellings or in caves.  The people started complaining about the weather but didn’t know what to do. 

Coyote also felt the cold since he lived in his too large den. He would sit outside and warm himself in the sun but when he would return to his den, it was much too cold. He became angry and said, “What use is my house if it’s too cold to live in!” 

Then he thought about Fire Man’s Mountain. It was always warm there, maybe even sometimes too warm. But he thought if he could just have a spark of that fire, maybe that would keep him warm. But being the Coyote he was, he did not want to make the journey to Fire Man’s Mountain. It was too far, and it was uphill, and Fire Man was a mean man. He also had guards that protected his mountain. 

Coyote wondered who he could entice to go up and bring fire back down for him. He decided to visit his friends to see how they were doing in this cold weather. He went to Badger Mesa first to see Badger. When he got to Badger’s home, he noticed that Badger had put a stone slab in front of his door to keep out the cold wind. He moved the stone, and Badger yelled at him to put the stone back in place to keep out the cold. 

Coyote noticed that it was warm in Badger’s house because it was small, and Badger, his wife, and his three children were keeping each other warm by being close together.  Coyote asked Badger if he noticed it was getting colder and colder. Badger said he noticed and that he had collected enough food for his family to hopefully last through this cold season. He had also collected grass to put on the floor to keep it dry. Coyote was not happy, he wanted Badger to be miserable with him. He asked Badger, “What am I going to do? My house is too big and the cold air goes through one door and out the other!” Badger told him, “You’re the one who wanted a big house, a small house would’ve been warmer.” 

Coyote said that he thought that a fire would help everyone and asked Badger if he would help him get a spark of that fire. Badger told him no, he was happy and warm in his house.  So, Coyote left in a huff and went to see Skunk. When he got to Skunk’s house, he noticed that Skunk had put a pile of leaves to block his door.  The coyote made a tunnel through the leaves and finally entered the skunk’s den. The room was filled with Skunk’s wife and his 12 children. He noticed it was very warm in the den, but there was no room for him to sit, so he had to stand in the doorway. He asked Skunk if he had noticed that it was getting colder and colder. Skunk said he noticed, that was why he had collected leaves for his family to sleep on and to keep the cold from coming in through his doorway. 

Coyote asked Skunk if he would go with him to Fire Mountain to get a spark so that everyone could be warm. Skunk was mad and said, “I don’t want to go to Fire Mountain, I don’t need fire to keep my family warm!” Coyote knew he couldn’t change Skunk’s mind, so he shuffled through the leaves and went to see Gopher. When he got to Gopher’s house, he could not find a door. There were just mounds of loose sand. He knew Gopher and his family were home because he could hear them crunching on nuts inside. “Gopher, let me in, I need to talk to you.” 

Gopher told him that he couldn’t let him in from his side, otherwise the sand would fall into Gopher’s house. Gopher told him to dig his way into his house if he wanted to come in. Coyote was too lazy to dig, so he yelled at Gopher, “I’m not going to dig my way in, but if you get cold and freeze to death, don’t blame me. I was only trying to bring you a spark of fire!” Gopher laughed at Coyote. He said, “I won't freeze. I have moss to keep my family warm, and I have plenty of pinon and seeds to keep us fed until it gets warm again. So, Coyote turned away and left. Was he the only one who did not have a warm bed and food stored away?  Now he was going to see Mole, but Mole would be sleeping, and no amount of yelling would wake him.  So, visiting Mole would be useless.  He wondered who else he could find to help him get a spark of fire from Fire Mountain. He needed someone who could run. He knew he could outrun anyone, but he didn’t feel like running. Maybe someone who could fly through the air. Then he thought, why didn’t I think of this before, the birds are the messengers I can use. They can fly to the top of Fire Mountain and snatch an ember, and return before it burns out. 

So he left to seek the Bird colony and find someone who was willing to go. He trotted south to the Bird people. The Bird people were not prepared for this cold weather, but their country in the south wasn’t as cold as the northern part where Coyote lived. Owl and Eagle did not mind the cold, but the songbirds were very concerned, so they called a meeting. Hummingbird, Bluebird, Finch, Canary and all the summer birds were there. All the summer birds were at this meeting, and much noise was made as they all were talking at the same time. 

Coyote heard this racket from quite a distance, and he made his way to the noise. As he walked up, he asked what the ruckus was all about. Finch answered and told him that it was getting colder and colder and the days were getting shorter. Coyote told Finch he was concerned about the same thing. He told the Bird people that if they could help him, he would help to keep them warm throughout this cold season. The summer Birds were so excited and gathered around Coyote to learn how they could help him. He told them there was only one warm place, and that was near Fire Mountain. If they can get a live ember, they will be able to keep their homes warm.

The Bird people thought about this but they did not think this was a good idea because their houses were made of sticks and dry grass. Some left, but some still stayed to listen to Coyote explain how to get the fire. He told them it would take someone who had strong wings and could fly very fast. He must be able to carry a stick and put one end of the stick into the flames and, as soon as it lit up, carry it quickly back before it extinguished. Flicker said it didn’t sound too difficult, and they wanted to be the one to try it. Coyote was excited. He went back to the First People to tell them that he had found someone to bring back fire to start their fires. The people gathered and decided it couldn’t be just a single stick, a bundle would be better. They took dry reeds and made a bundle of tight reeds woven together. The people said it would light easily but burn slowly.  

The people went with Coyote to see Flicker start his journey to Fire Mountain. First Woman told Flicker to be very quiet when he flew close to Fire Mountain because Fire Man would get very angry if he saw someone trying to steal his fire and would shoot fire arrows at him. Flicker was scared but knew he couldn’t turn back. Flicker flew to Fire Mountain but noticed there were two guards that were placed there to protect the mountain. The guards looked like big flies. They had eyes and smaller eyes inside of the bigger eyes.

The guards saw Flicker, but they did not move until Flicker got close to the flame with his bundle. They flapped their big wings and this caused sparks to fly into the air. The sparks burned the underside of Flicker’s wings and he dropped the bundle. He hid from the guards and finally made his way back to First People, who were waiting for him. They did not recognize him as he flew over them because the underside of his wings was red.

First Woman was concerned for her people and told the Bird People that they needed someone who had very good sight and very powerful wings to try to get fire. First Woman noticed Hawk standing off to the side and asked him if he would try. Hawk was very vain, he had beautiful feathers with long wings, and a beautiful white tail. He was actually pleased that First Woman asked him.  He strutted and preened in front of the other birds and said he would go. He said he would not bring back a tiny spark, he would bring back one of Fire Man’s fire arrows. He wasn’t afraid. So Hawk flew to Fire Mountain and flew way above it, looking for the two guards, but couldn’t see them anywhere. Suddenly, sparks started to fly towards him, but he couldn’t see where they were coming from. So he got lower and lower, still not seeing them anywhere. Then, the guards appeared out of nowhere and were so surprised at their appearance that he slowed down. But once he slowed down, they were able to shoot sparks at him.

Hawk quickly flew away and back to First People. As he got closer, he could hear them shouting and pointing at him. He could not hear what they were yelling until he landed. They came running to him and yelled, “Your tail is red, your tail is red!” as they pointed at his tail. When Hawk looked back, he saw that all the 12 beautiful white feathers he had had been burned to a yellowish red. From that day on, he was known as the Red-Tailed Hawk. When Hawk told his story to everyone, they did not know what to do. Hawk told them that the guards’ eyes were strange.

Then Coyote came up with an idea. He went to First Woman and asked to make him a bundle and tie it to his tail. Then he ran to the salt marsh and grabbed salt crystals and placed them inside of his mouth, inside of his cheeks. He also found several bright-colored shells. Then, he trotted off to Fire Mountain. It was evening by the time he got to Fire Mountain. He started singing softly before he got too close to the guards so he didn’t spook them. “I am Coyote, I wander, I wander around. I am Coyote, a troublemaker I am, a troublemaker I am.” The guards heard the singing and the tinkling of the shells. They were very curious to see who was brave enough to get near the mountain they guarded.

They saw Coyote and yelled at him, and told him that they would burn him if he got any closer. Coyote told them he came as a friend and that he brought them gifts. The guards yelled that they did not have friends and he better not get any closer. Coyote stood still but kept singing and shaking the shells. He told them it was magical singing, and he was bringing them cold water to drink and soft sand to stand upon since they stood on hard rock all the time. The song was nice to listen to, and cold water and soft sand was very tempting to them. They asked Coyote what he wanted in return for these gifts. He told them nothing, just to stand by their warm fire if that was okay since it was a very cold night. They told Coyote they saw no harm in allowing him to stand near the firepit, so he made his way to the fire with his back to it. They demanded their gifts. They also saw Coyote was standing too close to the fire and told him to back away from it.

Coyote told them to come near and get their gifts.  As they crept closer, he spit the salt crystals into their eyes. They screamed. Then Coyote swished his tail, which had the bundle tied to it. It went through the fire, and he started running down the mountain as fast as he could. Fire Man heard all this commotion and ran out and started throwing fire arrows at Coyote, but Coyote zigged and zagged as he ran and the arrows missed him. Coyote finally made it back, out of breath, to First Woman and collapsed at her feet. He told her she needed to quickly cut the ties to his tail or else he would fully light on fire. Squirrel quickly ran up and used his sharp teeth to cut the binding, but sadly, the tip of Coyote’s tail, which used to be white, was now tipped with black from the fire.  

To this day, Coyote’s long, bushy tail is still tipped with that black. It was a small price to pay to keep everybody warm, and Coyote had another story to tell. 


--Chad Valdez (Diné) is a 2023-2024 Cultural Survival Indigenous Writer in Residence.

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