Native American Folktale
The wily and creative coyote, leading all the forest animals, manages to steal fire from the ferocious Fire Keepers. And so human beings are saved from destruction by cold, and everyone learns the importance of cooperation.
From the oral tradition of Northern California's upper Klamuth River Karuk people, this tale offers cultural wisdom, tradition and humor. In Native American oral tradition, the Trickster assumes many roles—he can be Old Man Coyote, Raven, and the Tricky One, among others; whatever his guise, the Trickster often scandalizes, disrupts and challenges, but always he's a creative force in transforming the world and a potent conductor of spiritual forces.
Long ago, when the world was young and human beings were brand-new to Earth, winter came just as it always had. Everyone in the forest was prepared. The animals' coats grew thick, and they readied their nests and warrens and caves for the long months of cold; the pines and spruce offered shelter while the other trees slept.
But the humans were not so adaptable. They were startled by the cold winds, shocked by the darkness. Their hair did not grow thick, and their homes were not warm. They were unprepared for such change. They feared they would never survive.
And so the animals gathered and said, "We must do something to help the humans."
"Fire. They need fire," Coyote suggested.
"Yes," the others said in unison, but then each one looked down at the ground. They felt afraid.
Way up in the mountains, nearly hidden from sight, there lived three giant and monstrous creatures known as the fire keepers. They had stolen a piece of the sun, and they guarded it fiercely.
"The fire keepers will never give away their treasure," Chipmunk chattered.
"The fire keepers are even grumpier than I am," growled Bear.
"Who who who can help the people?" Owl lamented.
"I will," Coyote said, and he stood up tall.
If anyone could steal fire, it was Coyote, the wiliest of the animals.
"You must go soon," urged all the creatures, for the cold had settled in, and they understood it would not leave the land for many months.
Coyote set off into the mountains. From a distance he spotted the fire keepers circling their glowing flames. He shivered at the sight of those sharp claws, like daggers, and at their eyes that glowed like tiny, red suns.
A branch crackled beneath Coyote's paws.
One of the fire keepers turned. "Who's there?" he demanded, peering out in to the darkness. "Who dares to try to sneak up on us?"
But Coyote remained still and silent, and after a while the fire keeper stopped staring and walked back toward his companions. "Time to sleep," he said. At that the other fire keepers rose and walked toward their cave. All but one.
Coyote felt the fur on his back rising. He was prepared to race in and steal the fire, but the last fire keeper just sat very still, staring into the dancing flames he was guarding.
For several days Coyote stayed at his post, watching the fire keepers coming and going. Soon he understood they always left one to guard the fire.
There was just one solution, but he would need help. And so he slipped quietly away, racing back to the forest. There he told the others of his plan.
"I'll help," Chipmunk squeaked.
"Who, who, who, who would not?" Owl added.
"Hope I don't croak," Frog said as he hopped to Coyote's side.
And the tallest tree in the forest bowed in the wind and agreed to do his part in this plan.
"Let us go," Coyote said. So he and Chipmunk, Owl and Frog began the long climb up the mountain.
That night Coyote stood and watched as the fire keepers said goodnight and walked to their cave, leaving one guard behind.
After a few moments, when all was silent, Cyoote let out a long, mournful "Hoowwwwlllll…"
"Who's there?" the fire keeper leapt to his feet and stared with those burning eyes out into the night, but Coyote was safely hidden behind a rock.
The fire keeper's eyes glowed like coals. "Who are you?" he took a step toward the sound.
At that moment Chipmunk scampered forward and reached into the fire. He grabbed a flaming coal, and carrying this on his back, he ran.
But as Chipmunk raced downhill, the fire keeper saw him and gave chase. When he was almost upon little Chipmunk, he reached out his long, clawed arm, but just before those terrible talons reached the coal, Chipmunk tossed it to Frog who was waiting to catch it. Three hot fingers streaked poor Chipmunk's back, leaving three white scars that have never healed.
Now Frog had the coal, and he was leaping with all his strength downhill.
"Stop!" The fire keeper reached again, catching poor frog by the tail. Frog, with all his strength, tossed the burning ember to Owl.
Furious, Fire keeper yanked off frog's tail which never grew back, but now Owl had the fire clutched in his wings and he was racing towards home in the forest.
When Owl turned and saw the terrible monster about to grab him in his arms, his eyes grew as round as marbles. He never blinked again, but he did toss that fire down into the forest, and the tallest tree caught it and swallowed it whole.
The fire keeper shrieked. "You'll never get another coal," and he turned and ran back to the safety of the fire. The forest was no place for him. Too cold. Too dark.
The animals cheered. And then they stood and stared up at the tree. "What do we do now?" Bear asked, for the fire was trapped inside the tree.
Coyote stepped forward. "I'll show you," he winked, for he was proud to be so clever. He reached up and broke two branches from the tree's embrace, and these he began to rub together. Fire burst out of those branches.
That very night the animals gave human beings fire, and the humans were always grateful to clever Coyote and his friends for this precious gift. From that day on they understood that all creatures depend on each other.