Native American Literature


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The Trickster

The nature of the character conveniently called the Trickster is in fact an elusive one. The ambiguity inherent in his nature and the source of his power are a mystery to his creators and creditors. Dorsey and Kroeber identify the Arapaho “Nihansan” clearly as both a Trickster and a Transformer. Lowie finds the Crow Indian figure to be similarly ambiguous, writing that “Old-Man-Coyote not only figures at different times as transformer, trickster and founder of customs, but changes his character even in the same part of the cycle. At one time he assumes towards Cirape the part of a benevolent physician, at another he is humiliated by his friend's superior powers thwarting an attempted theft, again he is the trickster duped by his companion's luck or cunning.”24 One persona, the sum of all possibilities, can encompass at least three distinct roles: the aggressive Culture Hero like Monster-Slayer, the cunning Promethean Culture Hero, and the bumbling, overreaching Trickster.

His behavior is always scandalous. His actions were openly acknowledged as madness by the elders who performed the stories with obvious relish on many winter evenings. Yet these same respected voices would solemnly assert the sacredness of these very tales, which always involved the most cavalier treatment of conventionally unassailable material like sexuality or religion. To many Westerners reading these stories for the first time, it seemed at best a puzzling inconsistency and at worst a barbaric mystery that in many tribal mythologies this idiot and miscreant was in some unaccountable way also the culture hero.

The trickster figure is variously personified in a number of regional cultural traditions: in the Far West as Coyote, in the Northwest and Arctic as Raven, in the East as Hare, in the North Woods as Canada Jay or Wolverine, on the Plains as Spider or Old Man. Tricksters are well known under these guises; few have a generic name, like the Winnebago's Wadjunkaga or “tricky one,” that does not imply an animal form. Yet despite their tail, paws, muzzle, or beak, and inevitably, odor, they are properly spoken of as personified, for they are imagined as behaving like humans in thought as well as deed, and their outward appearance is predominantly anthropomorphic. They can exchange their animal and human forms at will, and frequently do so to evade or deceive others, but their motivations are recognizably human.

The tales, too, are protean. Sometimes a story is told anecdotally, a compression of traditional humor and wisdom that derives its power from its pointed applicability to the situation motivating its telling. At other times it can be elaborated with the addition of great detail, the multiplication of incidents, and extensive dialogue. Most collections of trickster stories gathered by anthropologists before 1940, however, are impoverished performances, the result of poor elicitation methods and hand-recording. The real art of such storytelling is only visible when stories are performed in appropriate situations.25

Some Trickster stories, especially those focusing on bodily function, undermine man's belief in his own ability to govern himself.26 Typical of these are stories surrounding the Winnebago Trickster's ropelike penis, which he keeps in a box he carries with him (as if he had it under complete control) but removes only too readily, commanding it to slither across a lake and have intercourse with the chief's daughter bathing near the far shore. Most of these tales, including those focused on food like the Laxative Bulb or the Reflected Fruit, are in the best burlesque tradition and provide a telling commentary on the great lengths to which men will go to satisfy an enormous desire to which they surrender themselves and yet over which they pretend to maintain absolute control.

A second type of story uses these bawdy elements to heighten a satire on social or religious customs. A widespread story known to folklorists as the Duped Dancers speaks to the hazards of blind faith, the inordinate curiosity about sacred things, and the naked vanity apparent when power is desired for its own sake. Hungry as usual, Trickster encounters a group of animals or ducks who appear to him as a possible lunch. He deceives them with the offer of sacred songs into dancing with their eyes shut, at which moment he slays them. Unfortunately he falls sleep as the ducks are roasting and wakes to find that his anus has failed to guard the meal as he directed and all has been lost to a hungry fox. In the tale's fullness, comic if not poetic justice is well served, for the Trickster and Tricked have both been shown to be victims of their appetites, and the noblest institutions of man susceptible to being converted into the meanest, although not without great cost to all. Nevertheless, the very suggestion in a community of belief that ritual may have its origins in such self-delusion is dangerous to contemplate.

A third type of tale, one in which Trickster appears in human form, is an undisguised attack on the dangers of institutional power in a social setting. Typical of these are stories of Trickster's “bad” behavior at clearly identifiable tribal rituals, such as the Winnebago story of Trickster at the Warbundle ceremony. Another widespread story, Trickster Marries the Chief's Son, illustrates the danger of confusing the power of the office with the power of man. What is so horrific about the story is that the chief has behaved in an unthinkably dangerous, foolish, and autocratic way. He has pledged his son's hand and the tribe's future to a woman who is an absolute stranger, without kin of any kind in the village. He has accepted her on the recognizance of an old woman, whose stereotyped position in Winnebago literature as a marginal figure living at the end of the village should signal distrust, especially when she assumes the role of town crier, normally reserved for people of high standing. That the chief should encourage his daughters to address the disguised Trickster as “sister-in-law” suggests that for him the personal satisfaction of his son's marrying what appears to be an attractive woman is more important than his responsibility to conclude a sound marriage for the sake of the tribe. The shock of recognition that accompanies the disclosure that the “bride” is Trickster is a measure of the ease with which people in the most responsible positions can pridefully delude themselves and precipitate their own downfall.

The effectiveness of Trickster in undermining social order makes him the appropriate vehicle for attacking the pomposity and revealing the ulterior motives of invading peoples as well. The Plains Cree tell a marvelous story of how Wisahketchak the Trickster went furtrapping.27 After mixing up some poison and fat into little cakes, he gathered all the furbearing animals together and began to preach to them and concluded his remarks by offering them this “communion.” With their skins he settled his debts at the post. The tale is a stinging attack on the perceived relation between Catholic priests and the French fur trade, historically documented as a matter of policy, which bound a man's body and the labors of this life to a credit system at the trading post and the efforts of his spiritual life to a postponed reward beyond the grave. Native Americans also adapted many European tales like the Money Tree or Excrement Gold, in which the native Trickster pokes fun at the white man's avarice or stupidity by taking advantage of his preoccupation with power and self-importance.

In The Trickster (1956), from which many of the preceding examples are drawn, Paul Radin advanced a Jungian interpretation of the Trickster as an image of man's psychic evolution “from an undefined being to one with the physiognomy of man, from a being psychically underdeveloped and prey to his instincts, to an individual who is at least conscious of what he does and who attempts to become socialized.”28But anthropologists question what some psychologists take for granted; it is not at all clear, although terms like “cultural patterns” might seem to suggest it, that there is anything like a collective community psyche that might generate what Jung calls a “collective representation.” And insofar as all psychoanalytic systems reflect Euro-American cultural patterns, their usefulness outside those spheres is even more limited than within the domain of their origin.

A second area of difficulty with this psychological interpretation is structural and folkloristic; insofar as it represents long-term changes, character development of this type requires an ordered sequence of events in coherent narrative. Cycles of Trickster tales cannot be random aggregations of stories linked only by a picaresque protagonist, but must show an integration of plot and theme over an entire sequence of tales. More likely than not, however, the patterning of the Winnebago cycle is not an inherent feature, but the consequence of a long historical association with neighboring Algonkian peoples, whose Trickster cycles conclude with culture-hero episodes as a result of the later accretion of origin myth material from the Midéwiwin society. Most Trickster tales are not told as elaborate cycles, but emerge singly, where circumstances provoke their telling for didactic purposes, or a few at a time in the evening. In neither case does the function seem to be to display the image of an evolving psyche, for the brevity of the tales and the fact they are told singly or in pairs preclude the narrative expanse needed to show great change. Rather an enduring, polyvalent symbol is unveiled, one that holds all meanings in suspension without development, climax, or the ultimate resolution of ambiguity.

Both Radin and Franz Boaz were rightly criticized by M. L. Ricketts for their attempts to separate Trickster cycles into tales of deception, which they had judged to be original to the figure's characterization, and tales of transformation and explanation, which they had judged to be intrusive. Tales like the Theft of Fire, which feature a cunning Trickster/Transformer who uses deception to acquire a fit gift for mankind at the cost of some bodily transformation, support Ricketts's claim that “the Trickster-transformer-culture hero is in origin a unitary figure, despite his complexity.”29 And through his choice of example tale, Ricketts hints darkly at what he considers the Trickster's most vital function: parodying shamanic practices like human-animal transformations, consulting spirit advisers, leaving the body for soul-flights to other worlds, and so on. The recognition of structural similarities between narrative and ritual, plot and action, point to a mutually affirmed world view assessed from different perspectives. But the difference is not, as Ricketts suggests, a matter of credibility—that ritual reverences what trickster tales parody—as much as it is the loss of vitality that comes when belief is institutionalized in normative cultural practices. It is not the religious conception of the world but its unquestioning acceptance that Trickster undermines.

In the course of their daily lives, most people, regardless of the culture in which they live, never question the cultural symbols embodying the principles by which they make sense of their experience. Living entirely “within” them, so to speak, they take them for granted until the experience of something radically different challenges the validity of the model itself, as the Galilean controversy did for Catholic Europe or the pillaging of Tenochtitlán by the returned “culture hero,” Quetzalcoatl/Cortez, did for the Aztecs. As useful for ordering experience as cultural categories are, however, the culture of which they are a part would ultimately fail if catastrophe were the sole means by which anything could be called into question. Here is the virtue of a fiction like Trickster and his stories. As a made thing, a fiction, both the character and the narrative in which he lives have their own sets of rules that proclaim their artificiality and hence their “unthreatening” nature. Outside the system of norms established by the myths of origin and transformation, he becomes a useful, institutionalized principle of disorder. As an “outsider,” Trickster can suggest the dangerous possibility of novel relationships between form and function (The Bungling Host story), sex and role (Trickster Eats the Children), belief and practice (and of the religious satires like The Skull Trap or the Offended Rolling Stone), kin and clan (Trickster Marries the Chief's Son), even appetite and will (The Laxative Bulb, the Giant Penis). He provides, in Barbara Babcock's terms, the “tolerated margin of mess” necessary to explore alternatives to the present system, to contemplate change.30 In response to questions from Barre Toelken, the Navajo storyteller Yellowman offered this explicit correlation between fiction and reality: “Why tell them [the stories] to adults? ‘Through the stories everything is made possible.’ Why did Coyote do all those things, foolish on one occasion, good on another, terrible on another? ‘If he didn't do all those things, then those things would not be possible in the world.’”31 In his flauntings and his failures, Trickster offers us through his inversion of norms a reflex image of what is probable, preferred, or absolute, and a direct image of what is possible.

This ambiguity inheres in the storytelling dynamic itself. The tales first mobilize the audience's inclination to alter or abolish the system or categorical restraints by developing the story through the eyes of the Trickster figure, in whom, as Jung suggests, we recognize, however guiltily, some of ourselves. The tale then compels the audience to reaffirm those same beliefs that it has been momentarily permitted to question by manipulating it into laughing at the humiliation of the figure with whom it has so recently and so closely identified. Yet in this ambivalent situation, even laughter is suspect of more than one interpretation, as Bruce Grindal discovered collecting Trickster-figure tales among the African Sisala.32 He observed that while adult storytellers valued the outcomes of the stories, laughing at the Trickster's humiliation which served them as a model for punishing contrariness, juvenile listeners responded more to the deceptions in the plot, ignoring the outcome and interpreting Trickster as a model for evading responsibilities derived from adult-sanctioned social categories. While it is commonly supposed that Trickster tales are told to illustrate the consequences of unacceptable behaviors, so that the affirming, concluding laugh, which liberates the audience while it condemns the Trickster, is the consequential one, Grindal's work with juvenile auditors suggests that the critical laughs are the intervening ones that sustain Trickster and implicate the audience in his madness.

By calling a particular category into question, the Trickster tale effectively establishes the much larger principle that all of culture, not just behaviors or institutions but the rules that govern them, is artifice. In this way, he deprives the distinction-making process of any ultimate and absolute necessity. From the perspective, then, of all those who have a great deal invested in the established social order, Grindal's Sisala elders, for instance, Trickster tales can be viewed as dangerous, corrupting. Among the Winnebago, Radin noted that members of the tribe trying to introduce the Peyote cult in the face of conservative opposition used Trickster in two ways. On the one hand they used him as a model for their own innovation—an “anticulture” hero, if you will—pointing especially to his satire of the traditional Warbundle Ceremony; on the other hand, they willingly used his characteristically superficial reading of situations, a trait that constantly gets him into trouble, as an image of the conservatives' opinionated foolishness.33

To the degree that man is never fully enculturated, the child and dreamer in each of us acknowledges that we are, as Clifford Geertz suggests, “unfinished animals.”34 Trickster is in the business of keeping us that way, of insuring that man remains “unfinished” by fossilized institutions, open and adaptable instead to changing contemporary realities. Trickster is the image of man continually creating himself, never finishing the task of distinguishing through encounter the Me from the not-Me, complementing the Culture Hero, whose function is to model the norm. Together the two save us, one from sterility and the other from anarchy. It is not true, as Ricketts would have us believe, that “he has ‘gone away’ and no longer has any direct influence in the world.”35 His name may have changed, his animal mask exchanged for another, but the Trickster is still around somewhere, just going along.

Notes and References 

In order to conserve space, the following abbreviations are used in this section and in the Selected Bibliography: AA, American Anthropologist; ARBAE and BBAE for the Annual Reports and Bulletins of the Bureau of American Ethnology; AMNH-B and AMNH-P for the Bulletins and Papers of the American Museum of Natural History; CO, Chronicles of Oklahoma; JAF, Journal of American Folklore; PAES, Publications of the American Ethnological Society; and RFTE, Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition. In order to reduce the number of notes, in-text references have been used wherever possible. When either in-text references or notes for chapter 5 lack page numbers, they refer to unpaginated poetry chapbooks.

1. The prehistory of North America and ethnographic circumstances of tribal cultures are described in Robert F. Spencer, Jesse D. Jennings, et al., The Native Americans (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

2. Knud Rasmussen, “The Iglulik Eskimo” RFTE 7, no. 1 (1930):229.

3. Richard Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance (Rowley, Mass.: Newberry House, 1978), p. 38ff. The description of performance throughout this paragraph follows Bauman.

4. Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 124.

5. Judith Irvine, “Formality and Informality in Communicative Events,” AA 81 (1979):773–90.

6. Alan Dundes, The Morphology of North American Indian Folktales, Folklore Fellows Communications, 195 (Helsinki, 1964).

7. Andrew Wiget, The Oral Literatures of Native North America: A Critical Anthology 2 vols. (Ph.D. diss. University of Utah, 1977) 1:86–87.

8. Gladys Reichard, “Literary Types and the Dissemination of Myths,” JAF 34 (1914):274.

9. These stories can be found in J. O. Dorsey and A. L. Kroeber, “Traditions of the Arapahos,” Field Museum, Anthropology Series 5 (1903); J. R. Swanton, “Tlingit Myths and Texts,” BBAE 39 (1909); C. M. Barbeau, “Loucheux [Kutchin] Myths,” JAF 28 (1915); Roland B. Dixon, “Maidu Myths,” AMNH-B7, no. 2 (1902–7).

10. J. N. B. Hewitt, “Iroquoian Cosmology,” ARBAE 21 (1903).

11. Reichard, “Literary Types.” See also Stith Thompson, “The Star Husband,” in Alan Dundes, The Study of Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 414–74.

12. Alanson Skinner and John V. Satterlee, “Folklore of the Menomini Indians,” AMNH-P 13, no. 3 (1915). Also Laura Makarius, “The Crime of Manabozho,” AA 75 (1973).

13. Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

14. William Fenton, “This Island, the World on Turtle's Back,” JAF 75 (1962):283–300.

15. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964), also Elli Kaija Köngas, “The Earth-Diver,” Ethnohistory 7 (1960):151–80.

16. Jesse D. Jennings, ed., Ancient Native Americans (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1978), pp. 256–58, 409–12.

17. Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin and R. W. Moore, “The Emergence Myth in Native America,” Indiana University Publications in Folklore 9 (1957):66–91.

18. Donald Bahr, “On the Complexity of Southwestern Indian Emergence Myths,” Journal of Anthropological Research 33 (1977):317–49.

19. I have based my paraphrases on Ruth Bunzel, “Zuni Origin Myths,” ARBAE 47 (1930), and Washington Matthews, “Navaho Legends,” Memoirs of the American Folklore Society 5 (1897).

20. Laura Thompson, “Logico-Aesthetic Integration in Hopi Culture,” AA 47 (1945):540–53.

21. This and the preceding quotation from ibid., p. 541.

22. Adrian Recinos, Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), and Miguel León-Portilla, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).

23. Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton, The Navaho (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946), Chapter 9.

24. Robert Lowie, “Myths of the Crow Indians,” AMNH-P 25 (1927):7.

25. The reader is directed to videotaped performances of Trickster narratives by Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi) and Rudolf Kane (White Mountain Apache), part of the series Words and Place: Native Literature of the Southwest, produced by Larry Evers (New York: Clearwater Publishing, 1981).

26. The following Winnebago stories all appear in Paul Radin, The Trickster (New York: Schocken, 1972).

27. Leonard Bloomfield, Sacred Stories of the Sweetgrass Cree, Bulletin 60, National Museum of Man (Ottawa, 1930).

28. Radin, Trickster, p. 136.

29. MacLinscott Ricketts, “The North American Indian Trickster,” History of Religions 5 (1966):334.

30. Barbara Babcock-Abrahams, “‘A Tolerated Margin of Mess’: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 9 (1975):147–86.

31. J. Barre Toelken, “The ‘Pretty Language’ of Yellowman: Genre, Mode and Texture in Navaho Coyote Narratives,” Genre 2 (1969):221.

32. Bruce T. Grindal, “The Sisala Trickster,” JAF 86 (1973):173–75.

33. Radin, Trickster, pp. 148–50.

34. Clifford Geertz, “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 46–47.

35. Ricketts, “Trickster,” p. 343.

Source Citation

Marling, William. "Chapter 1: Oral Narrative." Native American Literature. Andrew Wiget. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985. Twayne's United States Authors Series 467. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Sept. 2010.

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