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University Of Oklahoma Professor Finds Lifelong Lessons In Native American, Other 'Trickster Tales'

MS Ranganathan

A coyote, running away from men who wish to imprison him decides to outsmart them using their weakness - greed.

The coyote hides money in a tree, and when the men find him, he says he wants to make a deal. He said if they would let him go they could have his magic money tree. The coyote shakes the branches and money falls to the ground.

He tells them he gets to keep this money but at the same time the next day the tree will grow more for them. The coyote says if they give him their packs of food, he will leave and the tree is all theirs. The greedy men agree and the coyote takes their horses and food and never sees them again.

There is a long tradition of tricksters, like the coyote in Native American story telling.  Rabbits, foxes and even monkeys find themselves learning - and teaching - life lessons by challenging convention and causing mischief.

University of Oklahoma English and Native American Studies professor Joshua Nelson teaches his Native American literature classes about the stories starring the cheeky coyote or the rambunctious rabbit and other character that cross the line.

“Probably no accident that rabbit and coyote show up over and over again and they’re just kind of skittish and fun to watch in their own regard,” the Cherokee Nation citizen said. “We can’t help but think that there is some kind of sentience in these animals and we can look at them that they’re plotting right. That they don’t care what we think they’re up to; they’re going do it anyway by hook or crook.”

He says these animals are the most well known of the tradition. But the stories can feature any character that gets into shenanigans and breaks the rules. Nelson says sometimes these tales are goofy, other times they can be offensive.

“A lot of the animal stories, like about how possum lost his tail or how tortoise got his shell broken, these are palatable and no one’s going to suffer a great deal of harm via these,” He said. “But some of the others, look like they belong to more of an adult audience.”

Nelson says that when he introduces the topic to his students, they often list popular characters like Bugs Bunny or Thor as an example of a trickster. While these characters don’t stem from the Native American tradition of trickster tales, they share the same tendency to get into trouble.

“It looks like just about all kind of cultures show up with somebody taking on the role of violator and it’s someone who’s typically kind of attractive,” he said. “He goes against the grain and we’re just sort of absolutely riveted and fascinated by those people who are willing to break the rules.”

Sometimes the tricksters go so far past the boundaries of propriety that Nelson hesitates to present them to his classes. He says that when he teaches his class about stories written by Gerald Vizenor, a key member of the Native American Renaissance literary movement, the character’s actions often are often out of hand. But still, Nelson believes there is a larger understanding that we have to take away from these more difficult trickster stories like Vizenor's.

“Quite frankly he’s hard to read because he really does embrace that notion of going too far, so that literature that he offers us up, I’m frequently uncomfortable with,” Nelson said. “I’m always a little leery on how appropriate it is to offer it up to my students so there’s a lot of sexual humor, there’s a lot of scatological humor, and in Vizenor’s hands, it’s always smartly done, but at the same time, It’s sexual, it’s scatological and goes too far, right. So I think it’s always a careful balance to try and figure out where we value violation and what it would mean if we actually indulged in violation. So the trickster character as maybe an outland figure really does help us to mediate that. So I still teach it but maybe you got to say you know, alright kids, don’t do this at home.”

He says even though some of these trickster stories can be seen as offensive or inappropriate, Nelson thinks they can make us laugh while still teaching lessons about the consequences of overstepping boundaries.

“I think we would be impoverished without these sorts of stories, so even as we watch someone doing something stupid, violating rules, going too far, in either their violations or in the jokes they are telling or whatever else, we still need this,” Nelson said. “It’d be like a world without punk rock or something. We are just sort of better for having even mistakes.”


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