Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, interns, or past contributors.
In the folklore of the Tohono O’odham, who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico, the coyote features heavily, as both companion to other heroes, and savvy trickster. In 2012, Bernard Siquieros, the curator of education for the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum (and pictured above), visited the Tucson Medical Center to read “Coyote Saving the Saguaro Seeds.” In the story, the coyote shows his clownish side, asking to see what the badger hides in its closed hand. As soon as the badger opens its hand, the coyote slaps the contents away, scattering saguaro seeds over the nearby mountainside. The survivability of both the coyote and Tohono O’odham folklore are testaments to the power of the oral tradition—the Tohono O’odham did not officially recognize one single writing system for the Nation until 1985.
Speaking of survivability—there are few coyotes more famous (or resilient) than Wile E. Coyote, the Looney Tunes cartoon character who tried valiantly, and always failed, to catch the Road Runner. In many ways, Wile is the distillation of the common traits associated with coyotes in folklore: he is at one wise, sneaky, and intelligent (see the Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions he builds to catch his prey) while also being susceptible to failure (the slapstick humor by which he fails). Let’s just be thankful for cartoon physics for keeping the poor Wile alive.
But lots of coyotes are not so lucky. Unlike wolves, which have overcome old suspicions to be generally considered a wise, majestic creature we ought to keep around, coyotes are still seen primarily as a nuisance in the Americas. Why the hatred? In Tucson, one of the modern-day cities that reside within traditional Tohono O’odham territory, a 2009 study found that 42 percent of an urban coyote’s diet is pet cats. The Arizona Game and Fish Department regularly kills coyotes to protect pronghorn sheep, a practice that gets both praise and vitriol. The cat-eating can’t help, but some have even argued that the coyote’s folklore-inspired image, that of the sneaky trickster, actually still harms its image in the eyes of your typical 21st Century American. Another testament to the survivability, and lingering resonance, of old stories. And the wolf—this big, brash, and bold underdog—steals away all our love again.
This edition of Fairy-Tale Files is brought to you by Fairy Tale Review managing editor Joel Hans.