Who is the trickster figure in Native American culture? What roles do the tricksters play? Drawing on the readings we have done so far for this course, explore what types of language or symbols the trickster is associated with and their relation to cultural values. In your answer, be sure to consider how the trickster figure relates to native American oral culture (the role of ‘stories’ for example).
It sounds simple enough to consider the role of the trickster in Native American culture, but examination of various literatures from The Norton Anthology of American Literature leads one to discover the ambiguity of the term ‘trickster’ within this individual culture. The trickster figure can be seen on one hand simply as a composition of amusement, a form of entertainment within a culture of oral storytelling which held, and still holds, great prominence in the culture of Native Americans.
This amusement does, however, create moral messages, potentially forming an educational portrayal, widening the perspective of the trickster’s role. The appearance as a powerful and potentially dangerous figure is emphasised in the texts which I have studied. Often the trickster appears to hold superiority and wisdom over others, presenting its commonly perceived role as a powerful creator, present since time began. This is especially prominent in the Coyote trickster, who is discussed by Guy H. Cooper in Coyote in Navajo Religion and Cosmology, an article to which I will reference. As well as exploring the trickster itself, the ways in which the trickster character educates the reader/listener is also important, contributing further to its wide role in the culture of Native Americans. The ambiguity of the trickster has ensured excessive scholarly analysis, and I plan to examine specific essays in William J. Hynes’ and William G. Doty’s Mythical Trickster Figures in order to analyse this universal yet culture specific fictional figure to a satisfying extent.
It is difficult to deny the amusing and entertaining nature of many Trickster tales, even when one does appreciate the moral messages that lie behind the comedy. The Winnebago Trickster Cycle is no exception to this rule, presenting an elaborate and comical transformation of the trickster into ‘a handsome woman’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 106) using various organs of an elk to create sexual female parts. This bizarre transformation and the following intercourse with ‘the fox…then the jay-bird and finally the nit’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 106) creates a jocular tone hich will have contributed to the oral effect of the tale to those who were listening to it, many of whom would have been children. Moreover, the tone of the tale will induce those who are listening to it, making it’s later moral message more valuable. Comedy is also present in the Navajo tale of the Coyote, Skunk and the Prairie Dogs, although in essence the witticisms present are slightly more sadistic. The trickster himself, the Coyote, fakes his own death in order to trick others and ultimately kill them.
To the modern reader, this presents a dark and almost hysterical comedy, emphasised by the continuing repetition of ‘[laughter]’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 118) as the trickster ‘used the clubs on them…they were all clubbed to death’(Norton Anthology, 2011, 118). The ‘laughter’ described can be taken in two different ways. As it is physically written on the page, the laughter may present the trickster himself laughing about the tricks he has played on ‘those small animals’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 118), or it may exemplify the laughter of those who are telling and hearing the story.
In this case, one may be given insight into the sinister potential of Navajo humour, which could reinforce the stereotype of Native Americans as savages. The former reading of the description of ‘laughter’ is more likely in speculation, however, as the narrator appears to later take pity on the animals that the trickster has killed, referring to them as ‘little’, a noun which emphasises vulnerability. This sympathy is subtle but noticeable, and can be seen to foreshadow the Coyote’s downfall in the tale.
Coyote is later punished for his crime against nature, when he flings the dead dogs to the ‘east…south…west…[and] north’, demonstrating a lack of care for his food, a show of great disrespect according to Navajo culture. Eventually, the trickster is reduced to ‘begging but to no avail’ for the food belonging to Shilna’ash, formerly inferior to Coyote throughout the tale. This is an example of a common feature of trickster tales, which ‘can be seen as moral examples re-affirming the rules of society’ (Hynes, W. Doty, W. 7).
Beneath the comedy, whether light-hearted or vicious, the punishment or humiliation of the trickster teaches those who are listening to the tale how to behave, and warns them to comply with cultural rules. The Winnebago Trickster Cycle ends in the trickster nearly drowning in his own ‘dung’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 110), a situation which is surely universally undesirable. So although the tricksters in both these tales entertain themselves and their audiences, they also end up in situations which are not to be taken light-heartedly.
This demonstrates the importance of the trickster orally, as moral messages are conveyed whilst interest of the audience is still obtained, this interest being evident partly from the fact that these tales, which are rather unsophisticated and simplistic on the surface, are still being explored and closely examined today. The Trickster figure is also used to convey the importance of nature, the prominence of which is deep in the heart of Native American belief. In The Winnebago Trickster Cycle, the trickster is both punished by nature and saved by nature.
The trickster’s arrogance urges him to eat the bulb that claims ‘ “He who chews me, he will defecate; he will defecate! ” ’(Norton Anthology, 2011, 108), believing that his superiority will allow him to avoid the fate that the talking bulb has foreshadowed. As the bulb begins to take effect, the trickster still insists that he is a ‘great man’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 108) and will not be the victim of a laxative bulb. Referring to himself as ‘great’ is ironic considering his former actions in this particular tale, presenting the ‘amoral’(Norton Anthology, 2011, 100) nature of his character.
Greatness also suggests superiority, conveying that at this point in his random exploration, the trickster still believes he will beat the forces of nature which are in the process of inflicting upon him. When trickster eventually ‘fell, down into the dung’ that he had produced as a result of chewing the bulb, the narrator emphasises the importance of the trees in saving him from his self-inflicted plight, claiming trickster ‘almost died’ and if ‘the trees had not spoken to him he certainly would have died’.
It seems that despite the trickster’s ‘rude mockery’(Hynes, W. Doty, W. 7) nature was still willing to take pity on him and guide him to safety. Both the power and the kindness of nature are demonstrated, and the effect of the bulb and pity of the trees call attention to the arbitrary and tentative nature of established cultural patterns, nature being at the very heart of these patterns.
So the tricksters role is not only to enforce moral laws, but also to demonstrate the consequences of attempting to defy natural forces within the natural world. After closely reading my chosen texts, it has become apparent that a common role of tricksters (particularly Coyote) is to share a superior knowledge with human beings, essentially emphasising their naivety. In the Navajo Creation Story, Coyote seems to appear from above, as the ‘sky reach[ed] down’ and the ‘earth rose up’.
The Coyote and companion, Badger, are referred to as ‘children of the sky’, which complies with Cooper’s view that Coyote ‘seems to have existed from the beginning’(Cooper, G 182) referring to the ‘primordial medicine bundle, from which all creation ultimately originates’. Considering this, the Coyote already seems to hold a superiority in this tale and in other trickster tales. In the process of creation, it is Coyote who reveals ‘ “If we do not die, we shall soon overrun the world.
There will be no room for us all” ’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 32), which is an extremely important revelation in hindsight, and demonstrates the view that Coyote ‘accorded a knowledge above that of the other beings’(Cooper, G 183). In this sense, the trickster is represented as all-powerful, helping to shape the life patterns of the Native American people from the very beginning of the world, further emphasising the true ambiguity of the trickster figure and the difficulty to classify its purpose.
The Coyote’s potential superiority also manifests the Native American view that human beings do not necessarily hold any kind of prestige over animals in terms of wisdom. In fact the ‘people saw the wisdom of his words’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 32), suggesting that they had no reluctance to take advice from Coyote, continuing to emphasise the Native American traditional confidence is nature and the faith in what it produces. The Winnebago trickster can also appear to be superior to human beings, but in a contrasting way to Coyote.
The Winnebago Trickster Cycle frequently demonstrates the naivety of human beings, as trickster fools an entire tribe into thinking he is a ‘handsome woman’(Norton Anthology, 2011, 106), and does so, it appears, for a long expanse of time. It is questionable whether the trickster’s ease in conducting his treachery against human beings is a result of his intelligence and skill or human naivety. The trickster is undoubtedly intelligent, but his schemes are spontaneous and a modern reader is likely to criticise the over-trustworthy nature of the tricksters victims.
Perhaps one will go as far as to suggest that trickster tales also demonstrate the dangers of deception, as those who are deceived arguably culminate in a more negative situation than the trickster. The Winnebago Trickster Cycle describes men of the tribe as ‘all ashamed’, as their original spiritual values have effectively been destroyed by what trickster sees as a light-hearted hoax. The trickster appears to cause trouble and leave it behind with no evidence of guilt or penitence, and this can be viewed as a warning to the audience, especially considering the potentially credulous nature of Native American culture.
Perhaps the trickster, therefore, is an early form of social and religious criticism, demonstrating the potential flaws of an overly trusting society. This view is potentially over-analysed, but the ambiguity of the trickster continues to present multiple possibilities of meaning, claimed to be ‘perhaps the most bewildering to the modern reader’(Hynes, W. Doty, W. p13), allowing one to explore the cryptic nature of this ancient figure. I have stressed throughout my paper the oral and literary dubiousness of the trickster figure and its influence in Native American culture.
Centuries of speculation have only increased this ambiguity as modern scholarly and critical opinion reveal multiple views. It is important to consider the oral effect of the stories as they are being told rather than written. Orally, it would appear that the main objective of the trickster figure was to entertain, but the Winnebago Trickster Cycle and Coyote, Skunk and the Prairie Dogs also present moral messages in a subtle manner whilst continuing to entertain the audience.
The trickster figure can therefore entertain but also warn it’s audience of the danger of breaking social and ethical laws, furthermore helping to maintain the moral fibre of Native American belief. The Winnebago Trickster Cycle in particular demonstrates the vital importance of nature in this particular culture, conveying that the power of natural forces can not be defied by any one, not even trickster. In this sense, the trickster’s role is to epitomize the role of nature in Native American belief, emphasising its power to inflict distress as well as practice kindness with great ease.
The trickster also has influence over human beings, suggesting a potentially spiritual superiority demonstrating the belief that human beings do not necessarily hold dominance in terms of wisdom and capability in the spiritual hierarchy. There is also a possibility that the trickster could be used as a form of social and religious criticism, warning the contextual Native American society against the ease of acceptance and trust leading to an overly naive attitude, the consequences of which can be negative.
This view may be obscure, but this only emphasises further the utter ambiguity of the trickster figure. Ultimately, it is difficult to pin point a precise or particular role when considering the trickster in Native American culture, but its multiple oral and literary functions have led to great scholarly fascination over centuries, and this appreciation and examination of the trickster has proved it to be a culturally challenging literary issue still open to speculation of its ambiguous purpose.