THE TRICKSTER

 Trickster Characteristics Vizenor on Trickster Babcock on Trickster
Contemporary T-Tale-"Breath of Coyote" Interpretations by Native Americans Today Bibliographical Information

Many people find the trickster intriguing. The trickster character appears in the narratives of many Native people throughout North America as well as in much of the rest of the world. Even in our own culture people catch glimmers of the trickster in characters like Br'er Rabbit, Wily Coyote, and Bugs Bunny. It's difficult to pin down the trickster to any fixed set of characteristics or given forms. Part of his/her attraction is defiance of classification and analysis. Sometimes the trickster appears as human, sometimes as animal. The most popular animal forms trickster takes are coyote, raven, and hare.

The "trickster" plays tricks and is the victim of tricks. The trickery of such stories extends as well to symbolic play regarding cultural forms, rules, and worldview.

Trickster Characteristics (neither definitive nor absolute)

Amorality (neither good nor bad)

Usually: Selfish

But also (often)

Strong appetites (for food & sex)

Irrepressibly Sympathetic

Footloose (little responsibility)

Humorous

Callous (mean spirited - sometimes)

Lovable

Foolish & Clever (~ simultaneously)

Culture Hero

TRICKSTER'S FUNCTION (again--this is tenuous & debatable)

Although trickster's actions and personality may seem ridiculous or extreme, some scholars have noted that he/she serves an important purpose in traditional and contemporary narratives. Trickster may work as a kind of outlet for strong emotions or actions in which humans cannot indulge. These actions are at the margins of social morality and normal behavior, so humans can express and feel things through the trickster that would be unsafe to express or experience outside of stories.  In this sense the trickster is a kind of "escape valve" for a society. (See the Barbara Babcock link for more on this.)

In spite of his/her flaws, the trickster often represents the introduction of good things to society.  He/she might bring to the culture (wittingly or unwittingly) important knowledge, food, medicine, customs (like marriage), clothing, and other good things, often in spite of his/her intentions.

Trickster is also very humorous, and much of this humor stems from the fact that he/she so often does things that are apparently wrong or acts in obviously stupid or foolish ways. In hearing trickster episodes, people laugh at and with his/her stupid or silly antics. Such laughter can lift one's spirit, but might also reinforce social morals and correct behavior because one can look at the trickster and say, "I would never be that stupid!" Barre Toelken discusses such trickster functions.

Trickster's humorous situations and silly actions may liberate and/or heal listeners through laughter. Many anthropologists (see for example Barre Toelken's discussion of the Yellowman narrative) have documented the abundant laughter that typically accompanies narrative performances of trickster tales.

MORE ABOUT TRICKSTER:

See what Gerald Vizenor (Anishnaabe writer and scholar) says about Trickster.

See what folklorist Barbara Babcock says about trickster.

A Breath of Coyote

Here is a Modern Version of a Trickster Tale (collected from my research in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). This represents how the trickster lives on in today's world:

Ogimakwe (from a Michigan Nishnaabe community) tells a story involving the traditional coyote character as a trickster (coyote often shows up as a trickster in Native American stories). Ogimakwe changes to a slightly more sing songy tone as she begins.  

This little boy was out wandering around.

And he was,

he heard the sound of the whippoorwill,

the song of the whippoorwill,

which was really beautiful. 

 

So, he was out wandering around looking for the whippoorwill.

And he walked on this particular path,

And he came along coyote [pronounced kye oh= tay]

who also had a very nice song

And coyote said to the little boy 

                

AWhy are you following me?@ [in a whispered voice]

And the little boys says,

AWell, I=ve been listening to,

all day, you know, evening,

to the sound of the whippoorwill                 

And I want to find out where he=s at.@                  

 

And coyote says,

ADon=t you like my songs?

I sing too.@

And he reared his head back and howled out of tune

 

The little boy covered his ears and he said

AWell that nice, but [laughing]

I would really like to go find and listen to the sound of the whippoorwill

 

So,

Did you hear this before?                                                           

Mary: No. 

Ogimakwe: Oh.

[Note: It was a common practice for Ogimakwe to interrupt her own stories with an aside about whether I=d already heard this one. I think this was one of her narrative strategies, partly perhaps to prepare what she wanted to say next and partly to assure my interest/attention.]


                         So the coyote, being as cunning and as crafty as he is, said,

AWell, I know where he sings,

So follow me

 

So the little boy followed him.

And the coyote went through some thick brush,

and the little boy fell down and got skinned up and

the coyote=s running,

ACome on! Come on! Hurry up! Follow me!@ [in a high voice]

Then he went off here,

and he went through some thorns, and, and

fell down again, and

It=s starting to get light.

And when he finally reached the place where the                

whippoorwill has been singing all night

the whippoorwill was gone.

 

And he could still hear the coyote howling off in the distance.

 

So the little boy wandered home,

all cut up

beat up,

skinned up knee,

and as he became an older, wiser man,

he realized that there are many paths in this world,

And there are many ways to get in to what you truly love,

he says

But you should always stay true to your path,

no matter what,

and always keep an eye out for coyote.

 

This story offers a metaphorical message for how the Trickster still lives on in the imaginations of contemporary Native Americans.

 

Ojibwe scholar Kimberly Blaeser also recognizes the persistence of the trickster in today's world:

As we speak of Trickster today, you must try to blow life into the image, to imagine Trickster as life energy, to allow Trickster to step out of the verbal photograph we create . . . . Because trickster stories still have power: the power to bring us to laughter, the power to baffle us, the power to make us wonder and think and, like Trickster, just keep going on. (1993)

 

Ogimakwe "has blown life into the image" with her story, which indeed helps us to "wonder and think" on various levels, of the possibility of "just going on."

 

SOME INTERPRETATIONS OF THE TRICKSTER by contemporary Native Americans

 

Ogimakwe offers her own explanation of the story immediately after she tells it:

[Laughing]

So, you know, to me it was just saying that um,

Don=t let someone of somebody pull you off the path

that you know is the right one to be on in the first place.

He knew how to get to go see the whippoorwill.

And the second thing is, is,

watch out for those people that are like coyote,

cause there=s many of them and they=ll try to,

always want to pull you somewhere else,

let you wander around,

get a skinned up knee

and everything else.

And then you miss

what was at the end of your true path, you know

 

So that was kind of a cool little story

  

         

 

Such an awakening to possibility is precisely the function of trickster tales that has endured and continues to ensure tribal survival. William Bright says about the trickster figure: "Coyote has . . . been around a long time; he has seen everything and tried everything B and if he has not learned everything, he has surely learned that the key to survival is to keep trying." . . . What . . . statements [like this] point to is the recognition of the prerequisite to survival and continuance, not submission to defeat, not even triumph, for both are only temporary.

                                        ~Kimberly Blaeser, 1993  

 

Bibliography (& suggestions for further reading)

 

Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara. "A Tolerated Margin of Mess=: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered," Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 11, no. 3, 1975: 147-186.  

 

Blaeser, Kimberly M. "An Introduction" and "Trickster: A Compendium" in Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History, and Spirit, ed. Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994 (originally published 1993): 3-8, 47-66.  

 

Bright, William. A Coyote Reader. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1993.


Erdoes, Richard  (Editor), Alfonso Ortiz (editor). American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Penguin, 1999. 

 

Hynes, William J.  (editor), William G. Doty (editor), Carmin D. Ross-Murray (Editor). Mythical Trickster Figures : Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. University of Alabama Press, 1997.

 

Lopez, Barry Holstun. Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America. Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977. Includes foreword by Barre Toelken.

 

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969; New York: Schocken, 1987.

 

Toelken, Barre and Tacheeni Scott. "Poetic Retranslation and the 'Pretty Languages' of Yellowman" in Traditional Literatures of the American Indian: Texts and Interpretations. Ed. Karl Kroeber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981, pp. 65-116.

 

Vizenor, Gerald Robert. The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to a Wild Baronage (Emergent Literatures). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

 

___. "Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American Literature" in Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History, and Spirit, ed. Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994 (originally published 1993): 67-83.  

 

 

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