Fire, Folklore and Family Day

Art Installation, “third beach”. Melany Nugent and Trent Noble.

The campfire light flickered over the floor as we sat around the circle, sipping hot chocolate, enthralled by the rise and fall of the storyteller’s voice.

“Coyote laughed at Crab. ‘Of course I will race you! How can you win, if you can only run backwards?'”

I had never heard these stories before, which is why I went to today’s Family Day event at the local art gallery – the promise of a First Nations storyteller giving Okanagan legends was too good to pass up. The “campfire” is an art installation comprised of rock, charcoal, and clear sheet plastic, with a projection of a digital fire on it. The effect is mesmerising, real and not-real at the same time, the reflections dancing over the walls and the floor of the room reminiscent of both an actual fire and the play of light at the bottom of the lake on a summer’s day.

There were stories of “How Coyote Got His Name”, of “Coyote’s Race”, of “The Boy Who Grew Up With Grizzly Bears”. The one that most tickled my fancy was “Coyote’s Race”. I can’t give it to you in the words of the original storyteller, the way First Nations stories are meant to be told. But when I asked today’s re-teller*, David Florence, if I might share a piece of it here, he thought it could be all right for me to tell  bit of it in my own words. So here goes:

Coyote and the Race of Frog and the Turtles

Frog had won races against many animals, each time for his win taking away their tail. One day, Coyote said to his friends, the turtles, “I will get back your tails for you, don’t worry!” He went to Frog and said, “Will you have a race with me and my friends? The stake is all our tails, mine and the turtles.”

Frog agreed, hoping to add Coyote’s beautiful tail to his collection.

But Coyote said to the turtles, “Here is what you must do. Dig yourselves into the path along the race track, one of you every few hundred meters. The first one of you must jump into the air and come back down hard to raise a big dust cloud. Then the next one digs himself back out of the ground, and also jumps up and makes a dust cloud, and so on.”

And that is what they did. The race began, and the first turtle jumped up and came down and made a big dust cloud. When the dust settled, Frog saw far ahead of him a turtle running along the track. He ran as fast as he could to catch up with him, but the turtle jumped and made another big cloud of dust. When that was gone, there was a turtle again, far ahead of Frog. He ran as fast as he could, but try as he might, he could not catch up with the turtle. Finally he saw a turtle crossing the finish line far ahead of him, and he collapsed on the ground.

“Oh please,” he said to Coyote, “I’m so exhausted, let me rest for a while!”

“Did you let the other animals rest before you took away their tails?” said Coyote. “No, you shall not rest! Give me back the turtles’ tails, and your own too!”

And that is why Frog is such a small, weak creature, who jumps into the water to hide his ugly backside which has no tail on it at all.

What struck me about this tale is how very much it is like the Grimms’ “The Hare and the Hedgehog”, the tale of how the quick, proud hare is being tricked by the slow, humble hedgehog and his wife into exhausting himself running back and forth and thus losing the race. Unlike the similar “Hare and the Tortoise” with its moral of “Slow and steady wins the race”, here the moral is “Simple people working together can beat the proud.” Two tales from almost opposite sides of the globe with nearly the same structure and message. I told David Florence about “The Hare and the Hedgehog”, and he laughed.

Incidentally, in the story of the race of Coyote and Crab, it’s Coyote himself who gets tricked. Crab clicks his pincers and gets hold of Coyote’s tail hairs, hanging on through the whole race. At the finish line, Coyote turns around looking for crab, and crab lets go, flying across the finish and winning the race. I learned today that sometimes, Coyote the Trickster can also be the tricked. I’m still chuckling about the image of Coyote whirling around, calling, “Crab? Where are you, Crab? Hey, Crab!”

In the long, cold, dark Northern winters of the past, David Florence told us, the Okanagan people gathered around the fire in the middle of their big pit house, a space probably about as large as the room we were in today. Their fire was not an art installation with digital projections, and they weren’t sipping hot chocolate from Tim Horton’s paper cups. But the stories are the same, whether they are told in Okanagan or in English.

Life, the Universe, A Fire and Folklore. Together the people are strong.


*Note: From my understanding, in First Nations storytelling the exact wording of the original teller is important. David Florence collected these tales from local people, and he read them to us from a paper so he would not “put his own words into it”. I appreciate his permission to tell a small part of it in my own words, and apologise for any mistakes I doubtlessly made in the retelling, having only heard the story once. If you want to read a very similar tale in the voice of a real Okanagan storyteller, check out “The Turtles Won the Race” told by Josephine Shuttlesworth (scroll to the bottom of the page past the error messages). In that one, it’s Coyote himself who gets tricked by the turtles, and it’s even more similar to “The Hare and the Hedgehog”.