The Trickster and the Miistaakiists

Coyotes are cunning creatures. With slim, sleek builds, they’re hard to see, their fur the color of stone. Their yellowing teeth make their sneaky demeanor something more sinister, like there’s something to hide. They are tricksters, loners, and some of the smartest survivors in nature. The ways of Coyote, their lessons, are central to my ancestors and many other Indigenous groups around Turtle Island (North America). The Coyote represents much, but the most central aspect we learn is to see that there are two sides of everything; the Coyote and his ways represent that dichotomy and duality in all things. They are jokesters, truth seekers and inherently playful creatures. In nature they are paradoxical, walking the tightrope between the darkness and the light. To my people, the Piikani Blackfeet, some of our stories represent the Coyote as a demi-god of sorts, a version of the creator of our world, and a creature that often gifts wisdom to us. There is a similar rhetoric of the Coyote in several different Indigenous cultures, each with their own understanding of stories and lessons — even my Irish ancestors had folklore of the tricksters. I have heard many stories depicting the Coyote as creating some sort of problem and then, ultimately, learning from it. Whether the Coyote is stealing, scheming, or providing wisdom, there is always a lesson to be learned where the Coyote is concerned. Because the Coyote is part of our creation story, I often think of him as a part of both the spirit and the living world, another way the Coyote shows his duality.

As human beings, we live in a constant state of paradox: happiness in sad times, laughter in the midst of grief, anger within joy. We are so used to these paradoxes that at times we don’t immediately recognize them. The mixture of emotions, however, is what makes us human, something that bonds us closely as a species. Through our emotions we learn to deal with duality, mixtures, and compendiums of opposites. If you look around, that is how much of the world or worlds are as well. In my culture, our belief is that we are closest to the sacred connection of the living and the spirit world in times of grief as well as times of laughing — times in which the barrier between worlds is the thinnest. Two seemingly opposite emotions serving a similar purpose — a compendium of opposites — like the Coyote. Tricks, jokes, and pranks are creations of laughter and so to us, the Coyote, as a form of all of that, is the creator of a sacred time between two worlds. Laughter breaks down a universal barrier, the logical mind. As the tension leaves your body with an uncontrollable smile and joyful feeling radiates around your body, for a moment, you let your guard down. In laughter, we are able to listen for a moment to our ancestors. For this reason, laughter is medicine and a form of healing. So to us, Coyotes are also healing creatures for giving us jokes and laughter. My people take these teachings everywhere we go.

When I go outside I think about Coyote’s lessons a lot, mainly the difference between wisdom and foolishness. The juxtaposition and the fine line between type 1 and type 2 fun is something I’m all too familiar with while adventuring. When I first got into mountain activities I began with hiking 14,000-ft. peaks in Colorado. I thought all I needed was a backpack, hiking boots, a car, and my basic outdoors knowledge from camping and fishing growing up. I quickly learned how wrong I was. It was dark when I set out on my first solo trip up a 14er, the stars were still twinkling in the sky and my heart beat with anticipation of the view to come. Forcing myself to walk slowly I set out toward a peak I couldn’t yet see. The trail was long and winding and the sun began to rise and I finally passed through the trees and into the krumholz. A fantastic glow surrounded me and I caught my first glimpse at the false summit of Mt Elbert. Step by step I walked up, looking down at my shoes mostly. At the top of the false summit I noticed some dark clouds, signs of a building storm. They were too far away, I thought, and I continued up. At the summit things began to go sideways, the dark clouds were right above me and the hair on my arms stood straight up. I knew immediately I had made a mistake and I needed to get down, fast. I felt the electric shocks of the storm as I ran and stumbled back down the trail to the safety of the trees. I’ll never forget that sickening electric feeling as all the hair on my body was electrified and stood on edge. It was almost like my body knew I was in trouble before I did. I walked the line and was almost caught in a very dangerous situation because of it; if I had been on technical or slippery terrain, the story would have been much different. We walk that line constantly as outdoor athletes.

A good day turns bad and then dangerous more quickly than I had ever imagined. While backcountry skiing, the magic can quickly evaporate as an avalanche barrels down, drowning a slope. In climbing it’s all down to a scary fall, a bad protection placement; sometimes, the danger is a mental barrier, fear of the unknown. One second you’re doing the things you love to do most and the next second you question why on earth you like to do these sports. If you’ve ever pushed yourself in the backcountry there’s always that moment, the invisible line in the sand, where you question what exactly you’re doing. The tightrope suddenly becomes hard to stand on and you either choose to be safe or you fall to either, unknown side.

I’ve also found the thin line in time spent advocating for human rights. A moment that changes the way someone thinks, or the way you think. This year has been nothing short of hard — we’ve all been forced to draw lines. From the line of staying home and resisting the urge to go adventure to a line with your relatives where you no longer will listen to their “soft racism.” I may be a Native person, but I am not exempt from racist relatives. We’ve had hard conversations this year and I’m hitting myself for not having them earlier. I once rode a line between what I believe and what I say to my family. This year I eradicated that line and I hoped to bring some change to the bigotry in my family. I thought about the Coyote during these conversations as well — the way that the Coyote became a part of this process, tricking me into becoming more firm in who I am as I pushed back at the white privilege exuded in relations. The lessons of the Coyote too were in this pandemic as we were forced to stay put, be still, to get to know ourselves on a level we never have before.

As a mountain athlete, the most difficult thing for me is sitting still. Quiet, stillness, and staying put aren’t my fortes; I wanted to ski, to travel, to climb, but we needed to stay home. Tricked into learning more deeply about myself I pursued knowledge, started a new job, and sat further with my purpose as an Indigenous rights advocate. I dreamt a lot in those first few months of social isolation — of the way that climbing makes my heart leap and the euphoric sensation of biting cold air on my nose. Somehow I felt calm and optimistic that I’d get to rediscover outside again soon. Grief of what and who we lost came next in the trying times. I lost loved ones and watched as the world seemed to unravel. We have all watched the epitome of human selfishness and sadness. The lessons of the Coyote are in that, too.

The teachings of the Coyote are never easy to understand in the moment, and that’s the point. He is a ‘compendium of opposites’ which we are almost never supposed to understand in this life. I believe there’s a reason why we often say “opposites attract,” the reason negative and positive magnets come together. Opposite doesn’t mean apart, but the aspects of a whole. We put together opposite words all the time when we go into the backcountry. The very idea of a sufferfest is an oxymoron. If you’re a mountain athlete or athlete in general, you understand the idea of suffering for the glory of something. Maybe it’s winning a game, or summiting a peak, or even just the self satisfaction of exercise and giving your body life — athletes know that opposing feelings will get us to the finish line. Now while I hate looking at being outside in the simplistic, colonial sense of ‘glory,’ ‘conquering,’ and ‘success,’ I do, however, stand by the feeling of “I did it” and all the joy that comes with that.

When I was in high school, before I even knew what mountaineering or climbing was, I began to create a fear of failure. I wondered what other people would think when I’d fail in a lacrosse game, or fail a math test. My anxiety for the giant F in school festered and I’ve seen it throughout my time in University and, eventually, in all my sports. In many of the Indigenous stories I’ve heard about the Coyote, in one way or another the Coyote messes up. He may steal things and act with selfishness, only to realize his wrongs and accept the failure and faults. The Coyote in a way represents the inherent selfishness of humans; our fears of failure and our imperfect behavior. Even wrongly identifying a mountain as something to conquer, not something to be respected, is a lesson of the Coyote. There is a common notion of having no rhyme or reason to what we do outside. After climbing my first 14er, Quandary Peak, at the age of 18, I was hooked to mountain pursuit, but I couldn’t figure out why. Most people I talked to about it told me I didn’t need a why, only a passion for it, but that’s never sat well with me as an Indigenous person. When it comes to being on the land the why doesn’t necessarily need to be tangible, but I’ve been taught that Mother Nature isn’t someone to be used for my pleasure.

Thus, when the bitter cold air stings my cheeks and my brown braids fly backward in the wind — my tires skidding as I navigate the red dirt — it’s so much more than pleasure. When my forearms quit on me and I free fall to the next quickdraw — it’s more than the self satisfaction of success. As I slide down the mountain, cutting through the sparkling snow — I find gratitude for this sweet life. Because, you see, it’s about connection. It isn’t tangible, you can’t see it or hold it, but I feel like my ancestors are traveling with me. That’s why the stories of the Coyote are so important to us, it’s not because we believe the Coyote could talk or have cognitive thought, but so that the lessons of my ancestors are never lost.

Micheli Oliver

Micheli Oliver was born and raised on the lands of the Cheyenne, Ute, and Arapaho peoples, also known as Colorado. She has climbed and skied all of the Volcanoes in Washington, completed 35 of the Colorado 14ers, and told the stories of Indigenous peoples for brands such as Natives Outdoors, On the Land Media, Powder Magazine, and Patagonia.

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