Coyote and the Kid

Thomas Hallock

We flew out West one pill short. My son takes Vyvanse, a time-released amphetamine and controlled substance, for ADHD. The week before Thanksgiving, his psychiatrist wrote two scripts to last through the year, then somewhere in the holiday rush—finishing up school, Christmas shopping, people coming and going—the second prescription disappeared. My wife Julie realized we were running out the day before we left town. We turned the house upside down, called the psychiatrist's office, searched through piles of gift receipts, unpaid bills and medical files, but no luck. I had a week-long research trip through Oregon and Washington, a working vacation for our newly minted family. On six of those seven days, the kid would take medication; the seventh, we would just have to bear. The nurse advised us to choose an uneventful time to go off meds, keep the rules in place and soften the consequences.

Since adopting our son, then seven, Julie and I have struggled with medication. For reasons we will never know, probably cocaine in utero, there is some bad circuitry in his frontal lobe—the part of the brain that fights impulse and provides focus. When he was in foster care, the state relied upon a pharmaceutical cocktail to keep his moods in check, and with each behavioral episode (understandable, given his stress) the court upped the dosage, so he came to us taking three times the Ritalin recommended for a child his size. In his first year with us, Julie and I cut his pill intake from seven a day (plus an inhaler for asthma) down to two. Properly medicated, our son is quick witted and affectionate, energetic but sweet. Off meds, a walking id, he jumps on furniture, throws toys and loses his temper. Even without the blocked neurotransmitters, the kid must work through challenges far greater than most adults can handle. He lost his parents, bounced around the system, and landed in a "forever home" (to use the rosy language of adoption-speak) with unfamiliar rules. Then an unexpected stability brought his past traumas to the surface. Adoption has forced all of us to change. A reluctant parent, Julie traded her quiet scholarly life for this bundle of raw emotion. Drawing from a well of patience far deeper than my own, she settles the kid's troubled moods. I pushed for having a child, yet he and I struggle. Petty power conflicts lead to flairs of vitriol, "you're not my real father," and occasional hitting or bouts of uncontrollable weeping. I get bossy, inflexible, and against the advice of every adoption handbook ever written, flat-out angry.

Travel, despite the conventional wisdom, has helped us come together as a family. After signing the documents that joined us legally, we celebrated with a trip to the Georgia Sea Islands and St. Augustine, where I had a couple of book talks. The following July, we loaded up a rental car and drove to suburban Atlanta, then to North and South Carolina. The best man at my wedding, a homebody who lives in Chapel Hill, criticized me for putting my wanderlust ahead of parental duties. But life on the road, as any pilgrim knows, can build deep bonds. The car has served as a surrogate metal womb. Our son has a knack for burying his head in a novel through long drives. He loves the days full of adventure, then sharing a king-sized bed at night with mommy and daddy, not to mention the steady diet of fast food and motel pools.

Turns out, the kid is a road warrior. So less than a year after our adoption, we set out for the Pacific Northwest. I had Coyote in my sights, a central figure in traditional Indian literature and a complicated character under any circumstance. In the months before leaving, I tore through several volumes of mythology and pinned each landmark from the stories to an online map of the Columbia River, or nChe-wana (the "big river"). The dots formed a backwards letter "C"—a giant arc starting from the river's mouth then turning from the Oregon border up the Yakima, across the Columbia plateau in central Washington, and into the Cascade Mountains. With an itinerary having presented itself, I lined up interviews with scholars, locals and natives—anyone who would talk to me about the traditional literature, Indian culture and fish. The plan struck me as the perfect balance of parental obligation and scholarly rigor: the kid was missing school but Julie agreed to help with homework each morning while I conducted interviews; in the afternoons, the three of us would venture together onto an archetypal landscape.

But Coyote and the kid had more to teach me. The stories are not just sites for the literary tourist. They date back from time immemorial, early ethnographers first set the dry bones of these tales to paper in the early twentieth century, and a range of scholarly as well as creative types—from Carl Jung and Claude Lévi-Strauss to poets Gary Snyder and Peter Blue Cloud—have taken a stab at understanding the elusive canid trickster. Academics studying Coyote note his insatiable appetite for sex and food, his lawlessness (even as he makes the laws), and an emblematic connection to place. Traveling with family, however, revealed still one more side. His stories ground relationships. Coyote marks the boundaries of a community. His antics, not meant to be imitated, speak to the role of individuals within society. Coyote steals and satisfies himself, yet by negative example, his stories reaffirm collective values. They reinvent a shared world out of whack. Barre Toelken, one of the more insightful critics, emphasizes the healing purpose: Coyote stories "re-establish reality and order after a break with it has taken place, through disordered living, through bad thoughts, or through witchcraft." To that list, I would add crack cocaine. Or a self-involved father. Coyote is medicine.


***

Our journey started at Snoqualmie Pass, east of Seattle, where Interstate 90 threads through the Cascades then cuts across the Columbia Plateau. We were heading to Toppenish, the heart of the Yakama Reservation, where I had an interview at a tribal college. Julie was driving. The kid was in back. I rode shotgun and shared a story from the mythic age called "The Qui-yiah, Five Brothers," told by the Yakama-Klickitat Simon Goudy to the rancher and Indian advocate Lucullus McWhorter. The Qui-yiah ("spears made from antelope horns") stood by a lake high in the mountains, at the "lodge of the Wah-nun-pace-ye Yeh-Kah," or red-cheeked "chief of all beaver." Across the plateau, Yeh-Kah had "flooded all the level land with water." The five brothers vowed to spear Yeh-Kah and create a fertile valley for the people. They waited by the red-cheeked beaver's lodge, letting several impressive beavers file past. Then a smaller one appeared. The youngest antler brother recognized Yeh-kah and a battle ensued, geologic in scale.

The two combatants wrestled across the Columbia Plateau, wiping out dams and lodges, rolling towards the nChe-wana. If Yeh-Kah could reach the "big river," he would survive. In Toppenish, or Cee-cee, not far from the tribal college, the Qui-yiah grabbed some river rush. The rush held fast to the banks and the beaver did not reach his goal. The youngest brother triumphed. The five Qui-yiah then scattered the dead beaver's ribs far and wide. Each rib became a tribe. The smallest formed the Puget Sound people, "all short and squatty"; another became the Pish-wan-a-pums, or Stoney Rock people, a branch of the Yakamas; a third was thrown toward Thappenish, near the headwaters of the Toppenish River; others towards Wenatchee and The Dalles, along the Washington-Oregon border; the longest landed in Pendleton, in northeast Oregon, forming the Nez Percé and Umatillas, "tall people and large." Other parts of the beaver became animals and birds; salmon and sturgeon were formed from the tail. The Qui-yiah declared their work done. The country was made "ready for the Indians."

End part one of the story. Across Snoqualmie Pass, light flurries pasted the windshield of our rental car. Big rigs, tires chained, clanked up the grade. After the epic battle, the five Qui-yiah looked for a lake where they could hide. Because of their antlers, the brothers needed deep water! They tried Lake Cle Elum first, then Lake Kachess, then Keechelus. On the east side of the Cascades, the interstate hugged the north bank of Lake Keechelus. We should look for antelope horns, Julie joked, but we would not find the Qui-yiah here. The had brothers moved on. After five (sacred) days in Keechelus, Coyote discovered them. The trickster mocked the brothers, so they retreated to another lake, Enum-Klah-Pah, a "place of hunger" in the rocky north Cascades, where "nobody troubles much."

Coyote stuck around to shape the land. Ravenous, he led the salmon upriver. Misadventures followed. The rival Lalawish, or wolves, stole Coyote's food. Coyote stocked the Yakima with salmon and sturgeon, and brought King Salmon to the Satus River; he refused to feed the Thappenish because they would not give him a wife. (On the east side of the Cascades, we pulled into Cle Elum, a ski area famous for the television shows Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure; we refilled on gas and espresso at a strip mall.) Here Coyote showed the Indians how to build a fish trap, and in nearby Roslin, he left a waterfall. "As long as you live," Coyote said, "you will have salmon along this river."

The interstate forked below Ellensburg, in south-central Washington. Julie pulled onto Highway 821, a narrow two-lane that traced the angry, swollen Yakima. Brown BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) signs marked the tribal fishing spots down the basalt valley. The history of salmon in the Pacific Northwest is garishly wrong, an easy target for liberal outrage. Dams built in the mid-twentieth century destroyed the spawning grounds recounted in myths, depleting a fish stock that holds the center of native religion and culture. Today the Columbia's reservoirs drive a regional economy. They irrigate orchards, vineyards and farms across the dry plateau; they float barges to the unlikely international port of Lewiston, Idaho; the dams spin turbines, lighting homes and powering factories from Portland and Seattle to California. With the salmons' decline, hydroelectricity has replaced calories as the river's main source of energy, leading to political battles that historian Richard White calls "desperate, hostile, and occasionally crazed."

Drawn to the Columbia for these environmental reasons, I expected to complete an easy academic equation for reading in place. I loaded up library books with post-it notes, keyed my notes to an online map and set out for the remembered earth. But sometimes a rock pile is just a rock pile, and the visit to an inundated waterfall, or fishing site I cannot legally enter, can only say so much. Coyote stories work more subtly and more slowly on us; they challenge us to examine ourselves and our relationships in ways we may not immediately recognize. Missing from my initial analysis were people.

What is your stake in this literature, a Yakama elder in Toppenish asked me, why are you seeking out our stories? She told me the "Origin of Basket Weaving," a legend that took me years to understand. A young girl, as the story goes, lived alone along the White Salmon River, under an old cedar (or Nánk) tree. The cedar tree felt sorry for her. Realizing the shunned girl needed something to do, the tree taught her how to make baskets. Nánk told the girl to gather bear grass, berries and plants for dye; the cedar tree offered her own tender roots for material. The girl's first basket did not hold water. Reassuringly, Nánk sent her pupil on a journey to discover designs. On her own, the girl noticed the diamonds on a rattlesnake's back, the peaks of sacred Patu (Mt. Adams) and the reflection of evening stars in a brook. She returned to the White Salmon River and made a basket. Her second effort held fast, but despite the girl's evident pride, Nánk said it should be sacrificed. The girl reluctantly complied, then she was instructed to make five more baskets for her elders. The girl did not want to give those away. But she did. Enter Coyote. While traveling down the nChe-wana, he noticed the girl's handiwork. He declared that her people would be famous for their weaving. And so they are. Antique Klickitat baskets today sell for several thousand dollars.

The first time I heard this story, at the Yakama Cultural Center, I took careful notes then filed my notes away. I heard the story again from Virginia Beavert, a ninety-year old elder, who included it in her 1974 collection Anaku Iwacha, or "The Way It Was." I met Beavert at the institute for indigenous languages at the University of Oregon, where she was completing a Ph.D. in linguistics. (Now complete.) Dr. Beavert stands five feet tall, and despite three strokes, speaks with a disarming crystalline laugh. She was raised in the "old way" by her Klickitat great-great grandmother, sleeping on a dirt floor and using apple crates for furniture. She did not learn English until she was eight years old, when non-native friends (a Japanese girl and African-American boy) taught her the gift of explaining Indian culture to outsiders. In her firm, friendly voice Beavert told me the story of Nánk and the basket weaver a second time. I brought her citrus from Florida as an offering. She spoke while carefully removed the pith of a tangelo with her fingernail, dropping the zest into a neatly cupped peal. I tore through my orange and hid the wreckage of my own peal under a thin paper towel. When my son first learned that he would be adopted, he did not want to go. He loved his foster parents, Amy and Ed; he called them "mom" and "dad." Their home came with video games and other kids to play with. When he was told he had to leave that home, he asked if he could return to his initial foster parent, a widowed grandmother with bottomless compassion who used to own a Dairy Queen. Our family unit formed against his will. Since then, the kid has struggled to find his special skill. We signed him up for baseball, but after taking an inside pitch in the knee, he refused to bat. He tried tennis but hated the pace of instruction. Cello, drums, scouts and guitar were all a bust. Children with ADHD buckle at multi-step tasks. A mistrust of authority worsens the problem. The circuitry in our son's brain, coupled with a missing parent at key stages in his development, make it hard for him to process instruction.

Nánk, a natural child psychologist, breaks basket weaving into steps, offering guidance only when necessary. She lets the girl discover things for herself. All of us must learn our own strengths, on our own terms. A child needs something he or she can do well—drums, baseball, basket weaving, whatever. Independence paradoxically requires trust. And trust takes time. Nánk does not rush. She gives without judgment. She gives from the roots.


***

After three days on the Yakama Reservation, we reached the moment to go off meds. I finished an interview at the tribal college while Julie coaxed the kid's sparking neural receptors through some pre-algebraic equations. We started for The Dalles, an old Indian trading town on the Oregon side. We had one goal for the day: cross the nChe-wana without a tantrum.

South of Toppenish, Highway 97 zig-zagged into the Horse Heaven Hills. A sign just below the ridge warned, "no service station, 59 miles." I checked the gas. A smidge below quarter tank. We doubled back and forth, climbing switch backs. The gas needle dropped. The kid started to fidget. He whistled. Julie asked him to stop whistling. He stopped. Then he kicked the seat. He whistled some more, tossed his stuffed bear across the back and started kicking the seat again. The road traced the Satus River through scrubby, unpopulated reservation land. A bald eagle swooped into the valley and followed us for several miles. "Buddy, check out the eagle," I said, grateful for the distraction. No response.

In an old Wasco story, set on the Columbia, there lived a giant chief with enormous feet. The poet Jarold Ramsey included this legend in his collection, Coyote Was Going There. I asked Julie to read it while I drove. The jealous chief lorded over a vast longhouse, with five fireplaces and a hundred wives. Fearing intruders, he forced his slaves each night to rake sand around his compound, so all footprints would be visible. If any of his hundred wives bore a son, he would murder that child. One day, news came of a young beauty in the village of Wasco, which we would soon pass. The chief wanted her as another wife, so he made a tribute to her father, then took her away. The young beauty soon gave birth to a boy. The other wives disguised the baby's gender, lest he be killed, and the mother escaped her tyrant husband. The child grew up in his mother's village. He resolved to battle his father. The mother taught her son how to enlist the power of thunder and lightning, grizzly bears and elk, but even their supernatural strength would not be enough to kill the chief. The son sought additional help from whirlpools, long-legged water spiders and yellow flies.

An epic oedipal struggle followed, but before we reached Wasco, the story would cease to matter. The kid and I squared off for a battle of our own. We fought over windmills. The hills outside Goldendale are studded with them. Enormous silver blades slice lazy arcs across the lapis sky. A marker explained where motorists could see four volcanos in the distance. I pulled over and asked the kid if he would like his picture taken with the windmills. He walked towards the marker then stopped, distracted by ice on the gravel easement. (The kid had never left Florida before living with us.) "Hey buddy," I asked, "can I get a shot over here?" Silence. He kicked a shard of black ice across the road. "Let me get a picture of you with the windmills." He cracked the black ice under his heel. "Okay," I mumbled, "no picture."

I walked toward the car. The kid refused to budge. I circled around, grabbed his arm, and shoved his fifty pounds into the back seat. Julie, now driving, pulled onto the blacktop. I had run out of patience. Realizing his loss, the kid screamed, "I want my picture taken with a windmill." Tears welled below his eyes and puddled around his buck teeth and bunched-up lips. Mouth wide open, he bellowed again, "I want my picture with a windmill." The tantrum lasted twenty miles, to the state road that traced the Washington border above the Columbia River Gorge, past the elegantly austere Maryhill Museum and bizarre replica of Stonehenge. Mount Hood peeked between the clouds to the Southwest, and as the sun set over the red Horse Heaven Hills, I swear, the silvered volcano started to shimmer. "Now I'll never get my picture taken with a windmill," the kid wailed. "Buddy," I answered, just a little too mean, "you're probably right."

On cue, the Maryhill Winery appeared on our left. "Do you want a bottle," I asked. Without answering, Julie cut a three-point turn across the double-striped highway, parked in the lot and disappeared into the tasting room, leaving me alone to mollify our inconsolable son. He and I never reached closure on the windmills. But we did strike a compromise. If he could stop crying, I would let him shoot five photographs of the gorge at sunset. He settled down. He shot picture after picture, until Julie emerged from the tasting room, thirty minutes later, with a resigned smile on her face, clutching a brown paper bag.


***

Our one night in The Dalles passed without incident. The next morning I wrapped up a final interview, with a musician-friend, at funky Holstein's coffee bar on the east end of town. ("Salmon are spirit.") Julie helped the kid with homework until ten, then came to catch up on her own five-day backlog of grading, emails and overdue book proofs. I coaxed our son through multiplication tables, we bickered over a writing exercise (he told me I didn't understand writing), and when we reached a point resembling completion, I declared school out of session, leaving Julie to some hard-earned quiet, coffee and wireless internet.

I drove the kid to the remains of the river. The Dalles Dam turned Celilo Falls into Lake Celilo in 1957, destroying one of the most productive fisheries in North America. Here, the nChe-Wana dropped through a narrow slot on a flagstone table, tumbling dramatically through rapids and over a famed waterfall. Indians from the Great Plains to California and Alaska gathered at Celilo for over ten thousand years to fish, trade, gamble and frolic. The history of Wyam, or "falling water," matters more than words can say. The fishing spots had names: tayxaaytapama, a bed of pale stones contrasting to the scarlet spawning salmon; spawilalatatpama, the falls where nets were used; and anxanaycas or "standing place," where men stood seven abreast to dip net with twenty-foot poles. Today those names murmur in half-silence under the reservoir. Indians still fish and Celilo survives as a hardscrabble town, severed from Wyam by the train tracks and the interstate. Arid winds still barrel up the gorge. But the element that once dried a season's catch now makes Lake Celilo a perfect spot for windsurfing. I would no more windsurf here than dance on my grandmother's grave.

I walked the kid to the spillway and read him a story that Che-Pos Tocos, a Wishram, told Lucullus McWhorter in 1916. Five beaver sisters (Yuka-mah) were blocking the nChe-wana at Celilo, stopping the fish. Coyote disguised himself as a baby, climbed into a basket and floated downriver to the sisters' lodge. Against the advice of the youngest Yuka-mah, the sisters took the disguised trickster in. Each morning, they left Coyote behind and dug for roots. While they were gone, Coyote carved five wooden hats, then he started to destroy the dam. When the sisters discovered his mischief, they clocked Coyote on the head, shattering his first cap. They hit him again and broke the second hat, then a third time and a fourth. Before the fifth blow, Coyote destroyed the dam. "Ha-a-a-a-aha!" he howled. "The new people will come and all will have fish. You cannot keep the Salmon this way. Salmon must be free for all."

Salmon are spirit. Salmon are law. My son knows fish. We live three blocks from Tampa Bay; fishing is one thing he and I can do without fighting. The kid also harbors a keen sense of right and wrong. In foster care, he met other children who had suffered unspeakable abuses, and the early exposure to those crimes has piqued his capacity for outrage. After listening to the Coyote story, he vowed to take action on the dam. We discussed the consequences of ecoterrorism while tossing rocks into the spillway. Then he shot a quick video, panning from the imposing wall of concrete, draped with an American flag, to the unnaturally roiling channel, to the makeshift fishing stations, cobbled from discarded lumber and the trusses of an old radio tower.

It was just past noon. I promised Julie another hour at Holstein's and the kid a berry milkshake from the Burgerville back in The Dalles. He had held up his side of the bargain by visiting Celilo. He asked if we could toss five more rocks into the river. I agreed; he tossed ten. We started up the pocked gravel road, turning our backs to this catastrophe—because, being non-Indians, we could. We could walk away from Lake Celilo. But the Coyote stories have entered family lore.

I can think of no harder task than bonding as a family after foster care. A wounded child must re-learn how to be a kid, while accepting rules from people he did not ask to be his parents. Julie and I, in turn, must absorb the unprocessed rage of an eight-year-old who never got to be five, six, or seven—who challenges me, especially at every turn. Most of the time, when he says "I hate you" or "you're not my real father," I let the mood pass, but the anger is unrelenting and the hurtful words can lead to hitting. When we go places where the usual families gather, to school functions or the ballpark, I find myself longing for the same easy affection other kids show their parents.

But I am grateful the kid did not suffer more serious abuse. And we thank the miracles of modern pharmacology. The pills provide moments of equilibrium, allowing him to be a child and us to be a family. With proper medication, counseling and time, new bonds can form over old wounds. Slowly, the trust will come. Julie and I need patience. Kids test boundaries. Coyote marks limits. The stories about him are powerful medicine. If the kid pushes me, our family therapist says, then I must be his dad. To remake his world, to shape his mental landscape and re-channel the neural pathways in his brain, we must give from the root. For deep down, I know already, this wild child has become my son.

Author Portrait

Thomas Hallock is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. His academic publications include From the Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics and the Roots of a National Pastoral (U of North Carolina Press) and William Bartram, the Search for Nature's Design: Selected Letters, Art and Unpublished Writings (U of Georgia Press). "Coyote and the Kid" comes from a book in progress called A Road Course in American Literature.

View the website of Thomas Hallock