Coyote and Raven: A Mandan Tale of the End of Creation

Imagine this:

You’re a young hunter; you and your band scout for buffalo, and drive them into a coral, where you take them down.

The buffalo provides food, shelter and clothing.

The tribe uses every part. This is a sacred pact; an understanding between man and animal that nothing should go to waste out of respect for the life taken.

This is how your world works.

But one day, Raven flew over head. It shrieked:

“Get Bitter! Get Bitter!”.

From the day this started, the meat turned inedible when the Raven flew overhead.

Your people have started to starve.

And then Winter will come.

This spells certain death.

*

Among the Mandan* people of South Dakota (and formerly North Dakota), Coyote isn’t a trickster, the way he is in the stories of many other indigenous American tribes.

[*Mandan is a Europeanized name; they have many titles for themselves in their native tongue]

For these people – whose number are only just recovering after being nearly wiped out by smallpox in the 1830s – Coyote was a great creator God. He was never malevolent, and so when Coyote entered the village, he was greeted with joy.

However, he was taken aback. While he saw plenty of meat hung out to dry, the people were all gaunt.

He asked them what was happening, and one of the elders explained their situation with Raven.

Coyote took a bite of the meat, and found that it was indeed too bitter to eat.

However, Coyote had a plan.

*

Coyote had a young girl build fire outside of Ravens tree, while he put the men to work building a snare. While they did this, he lit his pipe and called for his ally, Big Spider.

He gave the pipe over to Big Spider, whose wisdom Coyote did not question.

“It will be easy to snare Raven, and burn him in the fire. However…”

Coyote waited for Big Spider to continue.

Big Spider was silent for a very long moment before speaking again.

“Some of his feathers will fly up into the air, where they will transform into birds. Raven will be finished when a white Raven emerges, and makes a prophecy. ‘At the end of world, there is a white Raven, a sign that all things are about to end.'”

Coyote nodded his head in understanding.

*

As the men went out to hunt, Coyote went to where Raven lived.

He waited for Raven to come out and curse the meat, which indeed he attempted to do as the men returned successfully from the hunt.

As soon as he died, he grabbed Raven by the neck, threw him the snare, and tossed him in the fire. But before he did, he looked hard at the strange creature.

Yes, it had the body of a Raven, but the hairless head of a man at the end of an abnormally long neck.

Coyote might have even felt pity for this strange looking – but very malevolent – creature.

Still, he placed Raven in the fire.

As Big Spider had predicted, several feathers went up into air, all turning into birds.

He clubbed Raven’s unburned bones to pieces. Finally, the moment arrived.

The White Raven flew up, saying:

“When I return again,

know it is the end”

And with that, was gone from sight.

*

Coyote reported the prophecy to the Mandan people.

And that’s who they’ll know,

When the world will end.

*

I modified this story from the version at firstpeople.us (go to Native American Legends, where there is a massive list of legends alphabetized by tribe). I wish I could credit authorship, but none was explicitly listed on the page.

My interest in Mandan culture was sparked, in part, by the paintings of George Caitlin (1796-1892), who spent enough time with the Mandan people that he the first European American who was allowed to paint their sacred ceremonies, including the okipa, their holiest and most private ritual.

Here’s another one of Catlin’s works, this one of a young Mandan woman.

catlan
Portrait of Sha-kó-ka, a Mandan girl,
by George Catlin, 1832

And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention my other interest, Coyote. While he’s not a trickster in this story, he certainly remains an object of my fascination. Here’s a modern representation of Coyote by artist Rick Bartow.

nothing coyote
From Nothing Coyote Creates Himself. Artist Rick Bartow, currently on display at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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