Native Americans believed in the concept of good and evil much in the same way we do today. They believed in a benevolent being from whom all things good came and an evil one that taunted them, blurring the differences between right and wrong. In many tribes, that evil being was referred to as the trickster.
The Chinook considered the blue jay to represent him while others chose the raven or the crow. Still other tribes used the coyote. The Micmac used the hare in this role.
The list representing this creature or being is extensive but almost all of them have one thing in common. It is an animal or bird rather than a human being that proved the bane of the red man’s existence. On the flip side, in most instances the force for good – the creator, god or Great Spirit – was envisioned as a man or woman.
In many cases, the trickster was considered a force capable of both good and evil. His acts were often contradictory in nature. Perhaps that had something to do with the contradictory nature of life, which brings great joy one moment and equal sorrow the next.
However, whether man or animal, these so-called gods had many of the same qualities as human beings. They experienced love and hate. They made mistakes and accomplished goals. They lusted and they pitied. They were clever, creative and often cruel.
In a Tsimshian story, for example, raven tricked a wise Indian chief out of the prize of daylight. He did this by transforming himself into the needle of a spruce tree. Then he made certain that he pierced the eye of the chief’s daughter in order to impregnate her.
Once he was born as a human being, raven took the box of daylight from the chief, turned back into a bird and flew away with it. One might consider his gift of light a blessing for man, but they would be wrong. He released it accidentally when some fishermen refused to give him the food he wanted. In a fit of rage, he opened the box, allowing daylight to escape by mistake.
In my “Native American Myth: Why the Blue Jay Has No Friends” I illustrate the characteristics that are often attributed to animals known as tricksters of jokesters in Native American culture. In this story, the song of the blue jay was used by Native Americans to help them determine the seasons.
When a jay sang, they knew that berries should be ripening for spring. But blue jay didn’t like being used by man and he began singing at the wrong time just to throw him off the trail. That meant more berries for him and less food for them.
When the people began to shun him for his tricks, it made him mad and he decided to spend time with his animal friends instead. But he was mean-spirited and took his brothers’ food and destroyed their homes for sport, making himself a pariah once again. He was, in essence, the quintessential trickster.
The hare got the title of trickster because he declared war on the sun. He thought it shone too brightly in the sky, burning him as he scavenged for his food. To get even with the sun, he seduced his daughter and then pushed into her father’s burning heat so that she was burned alive.
The Hopi Indians considered the coyote a trickster because he made their sheep disappear. That meant they often went hungry or without adequate clothing. Eventually, they drove the coyote into Navajo territory where he was finally got outwitted and killed.
However, in some areas, coyote meant more than mere tricks. He symbolized death itself. The Chinook wove tales about how he caused the first man’s death. But in other tribes he was revered. The Miwok credited him with the world’s creation.
For every tale of evil, there were equal tales of good. Perhaps that was due to the Native American’s belief in balance. Perhaps it was because, like we do today, they found the two went hand in hand.
Whatever the reason, their beliefs permeated ours in ways we did not comprehend. Or maybe it was more the fact that we never were that different after all.