Frank B. Linderman,
Old Man Coyote
(John Day Co., 1931;
Bison Books, 1996)

I imagine there are lucky travelers who still find themselves a place at a Crow Indian fire, where the Old Ones sit and tell the ancient stories of their people. But for those not fortunate enough to be at so friendly a fire, there are the books of Frank B. Linderman. During my own travels through Crow country in southeastern Montana, I picked up a collection titled Old Man Coyote.

Linderman has a wonderful narrative voice in his stories, retaining the flavor and style of the tales as they were told to him by the likes of Walks-with-the-wolf, Fine-feather, Bird-in-the-ground and Cold-wind, back in the early days of the 20th century when Linderman (called Sign-talker by his Native American friends) spent much time at their fires.

Old-man-coyote, not to be confused with the trickster Coyote (who also appears in this volume) is both cunning and foolish. The tales sometimes have lessons to to teach, but they seem primarily designed to amuse.

Old-man-coyote's cunning is demonstrated in "Old-man-coyote and the Bulls," in which he tricks two of the Bull People and, later, several of the Duck People into providing him with an effortless meal. (Many Native American stories give human traits and abilities to the animals, but it must be somewhat disconcerting to kill and eat someone with whom you'd just had a conversation!) His foolish side manifests in "Old-man-coyote's Pride Has a Fall," in which he loses a meal to Coyote after challenging a pair of saplings to a test of strength.

Sometimes, the tales explain something of the natural world -- for instance, the reason the fox's nose and the tip of his tale are black ("Old-man-coyote and One-Man"). There are tales of hard-won love, malicious trickery, awesome bravery and ferocious monsters. Readers may also find startling similarities to legends from distant lands; "How the People Got the Buffalo," for instance, runs parallel to a well-known selkie story.

By no means a comprehensive tome of Indian lore, Linderman's Old Man Coyote is a delightful introduction to the stories unique to the Crow tribes. It could be a great stepping stone to further study into this fascinating subject.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001

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