The Trickster as a Teacher

by Gayla Nelson © 2001

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        I am totally fascinated with the trickster in Native American Mythology.  He is many things: shape-shifter, culture hero, transformer, but in all aspects - a great teacher.  His existence is of paramount importance within the culture for he brings to it such a rich and complex characterization of how we should live and treat others.  The concept of the trickster has opened, for me, an entirely new world and a new approach to viewing mythology.  His creation in mythology has served a wide variety of purposes and regardless of the form he takes or the manner in which he is described, he is, above all things, a teacher.  Three of his many teaching methods are the use of example and consequences, reverse psychology, and something similar to divine intervention when he acts as a culture hero.

        There are many books that I could recommend for the study of the Trickster, but the stories I will refer to come from two: The Storytelling Stone: Traditional Native American Myths and Tales, edited by Susan Feldmann, and American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz.

        The desire to learn, like the desire to teach, is a form of appetite.  The trickster, being all-appetite, seems always to be teaching, but not always to learn from his own lessons. He may appear, as he does in the story "Bat", to be without any form of loyalty or commitment.  He may seem to portray only a lesson on what one should not do, but within the story, he teaches. He offers proof of his loyalty to each side and they accept it during a battle. It does not say, nor seem to matter, how long he goes back and forth, switching sides; loyal only for as long as he needs to be to keep himself safe and on the winning side.  He gets away with this the entire length of the war.  It is only after it is all over that he is called forth and punished for his trickery.  He has taught all those who heard this story about the consequences of "straddling the fence" and not taking a stand.  The consequence for the trickster in this story is isolation.

       Self-serving trickery is seen in the Cheyenne myth "Coyote Dances with a Star." This story shows, by negative example, why it is important to listen and to learn from our mistakes.  And as an additional lesson, it also teaches the often painful, but necessary value of patience.  He dances with a star until he is tired and wants to let go.  The star tries to tell him that he is too high up to let go, but he will not listen and lets go anyway.  It is only by benefit of having numerous lives that he is eventually allowed to get back to his original shape.  Not long after that, having not learned a lesson here, and still believing he can do whatever he wants, he decides to dance with another star. This one is a comet. Because of poor judgment, he finds himself going so fast that he literally comes apart. This time, however, he does learn his lesson.  The price he pays is the loss of two of his four lives and a hand, which he eventually regains.  He now has to learn patience, but he has at least learned from this mistake.

        The Pawnee use the turtle as trickster to show the effects of reverse psychology long before it was labeled as such.  In the story, "The Big Turtle's War Party" everything is in reverse.  When the turtle recruits help to "go on the warpath," he auditions coyote, fox, hawk, and rabbit, and despite the fact that they run or fly fast, he tells them they are slow and does not choose them to help in his battle.  Instead, the inanimate objects of flint knife, hairbrush, and awl are all chosen.  They were all effective in his battle.  Each was able to do harm and the turtle is pleased.  No matter what the people suggest they do to him, things that surely would kill him, he agrees with, and he points out how this will backfire on them and they will be hurt. They believe him. When they suggest exactly what he wishes to have happen, to be thrown into the water, he acts the opposite, and ultimately gets his way.  His use of reverse psychology is highly effective, yet many people think that this is a twentieth century invention.  As a method of getting people to do what we want them do do, reverse psychology is often utilized. It has obviously been around for a very long time and is not an invention or discovery of the white man's science.  He merely labeled it and believes that if he labels something, then he owns and controls it. The trickster tales show that this was used long before a white man ever set food on American soil.

        Sometimes the trickster is a co-creator.  He can teach us that we should be careful about what we wish for because we just might get it.  In the Algonquian story, "Glooscap Grants Three Wishes," those who do not heed the advice given, and through impatience and greed, grab for immediate gratification, wind up getting exactly what they wished for - to such an extreme that it kills them or drives them to suicide.  Only the one who followed the directions of Glooscap and did not ask for something frivolous were rewarded with a safe return to his home.

        Perhaps my favorite trickster story is from the Kalapuya tribe, entitled "Coyote Takes Water from the Frog People."  The idea that someone could own water and charge others for its use was not a popular notion with the Native American culture.  The trickster fools those who are in the wrong, and in so doing, releases the water for all the people to enjoy.  Like Robin Hood, the trickster robs from the rich (those with water) and gives to the poor (those without water).  He uses his trickery in a heroic manner.

        It seems impossible to measure the impact that the trickster has had on those who have ever heard the stories about him.  He is so multi-faceted that he is impossible to define.  The stories about him have taught generation after generation and the lessons learned from the trickster have applied to humanity from the time they were first told in the oral tradition to present day situations.  The trickster’s contribution to Native American Mythology is critical to any understanding of the culture and provides an enriching aspect of the mythology and legends to be found within that culture.

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