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December 2017

Winter Legends of the Northern Paiute

When James Gardner and Wilson Wewa met after a lecture at Smith Rock State Park, neither knew the journey they were about to embark on. Their years long collaboration culminated in the book Legends of the Northern Paiute, as told by Wilson Wewa, a collection of twenty-one original and previously unpublished Northern Paiute Legends, compiled, edited, and introduced by James Gardner. These legends were originally told around the fires of Paiute villages during the “story-telling season” of winter and are best read out loud and commemorating the voice of the original Paiute storytellers. In celebration of the winter season, we would like to share a legend from the book.

Legend 13: How the Stars Got Their Twinkle and Why Coyote Howls to the Sky

Book cover featuring Smith Rock pinnacle, known as Monkey Face or to the Paiute in Central Oregon as Numuzoho the CannibalA looong time ago, Coyote was walking along one evening. Actually, he was on his way to go to the restroom. He got up and he was walking to go out into the sagebrush and go to the restroom.

Then he looked up in the sky and the stars were starting to come out. There were just a few of them at first, the way it happens. Then more stars came out. So Coyote started thinking to himself, “I wonder what makes all those little lights up there in the sky? At first it starts out with one or two. Then some more come out. And pretty soon they all start to twinkle. I wonder what makes that happen?”

So he did what he went out to the sagebrush to do. Then he walked up on a nearby hill. He sat down on a rock on the hill and was looking up in the sky. As the sun went down lower and lower in the west, the stars were coming out in the sky, just like he expected. “It happens every night,” he thought. “All those little lights in the sky. I wonder what they are?” Then he got up and went back to his willow hut.

Coyote fell asleep and dreamed that he went to go see his grandma, the spider, Old Lady Spider. So the next day he got up and thought to himself, “I’m going to listen to my dream and do what it says.” So he went to see the grandma, Old Lady Spider. He told her, “I need you to make me a long rope, a real long rope.”

“What do you want a long rope for?”

“I’m going to do something, and I need a real long rope.”

“Well, I can’t be making a rope for you to do foolish things!”

“No, no, no!” said Coyote. “It’s for something good.”

She looked at him, “I don’t know. Every time you do something, you get yourself in trouble.”

“No, it’s not going to be for something like that. It’s going to be for something good.”

She thought and thought about it, and finally decided to listen to him. So she told him, “Okay, I’m going to make you a rope. How long do you need the rope to be?”

He said, “I need a rope long enough to go up there in the sky, all the way up to the clouds.”

She looked at him again and asked, “What are you going to do with that rope? Why do you want a rope that’s so long?”

“Well,” said Coyote, “I’m going to do something special, and I need a real long rope!”

She finally decided, “Well, he can’t make such a rope. And whatever he’s going to do, he is going to get in trouble anyhow. So, I guess I’ll make the rope for him.”

Coyote was very happy. He went back to his home and did other things. His grandma started making him a rope, because she knew how to make real strong rope. And when she was finished she sent someone to get him and tell him his rope was ready.

Then Coyote came and took the rope. And he got his bow and his arrows and left. He thought, “I need get closer up to the sky.”

Coyote knew where there was a mountain called Pine Mountain. So he went up on that mountain and looked up at the sky. Then he got an arrow and tied the rope to the end of it. Pretty soon, when the day started turning to evening, he drew the arrow clear back in his bow, and shot it up into the sky!

Then he waited. And pretty soon his rope came tumbling back down to earth and got piled up again. He thought, “That didn’t work!”

Then he went over to a big juniper tree that had a fork in it. He put the bowstring between the fork in the juniper tree. And he put the arrow in it, and put the rope on the arrow again. Then he pulled the bow way back with both hands, and shot the arrow up into the air.

This time it went far up. And as it went he started getting scared, because his rope pile was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Pretty soon he was almost out of rope—and then pretty soon it stopped!

He looked up, and the rope was hanging down from way up in the sky. So he grabbed the rope and pulled on it. But it wouldn’t give, it wouldn’t pull down. He pulled on it more, and it still wouldn’t pull down. So he jumped up and grabbed the rope—and it held him up!

By now the sun was descending to the point where it was going to go down. So he started climbing up the rope.

And he climbed and he climbed and he climbed. He looked down, and the earth was getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

When he got way up there he could see the house where he lived, way over there. And he could see the people, starting to put sagebrush on their fires. So he kept crawling up the rope.

Pretty soon he could hear people above him talking, so he kept climbing up the rope. He knew that somebody was talking up above him, so he kept climbing up the rope.

Pretty soon he got to the bottom of a cloud, and he crawled through it. When he got up above the cloud he came out of the hole. He looked around, and there was land up there, just like on the earth.

So he crawled out of the hole. Then he could see that there was a fire, and there was somebody standing by that fire. So he started walking toward that fire.

When he got closer it turned out to be a lady. She was standing there with a dress on. It was decorated with abalone shells on the fringes. And every time she would move the firelight would hit those shells, and they would sparkle. Pretty soon another lady joined her. And as it was getting darker, still another lady joined her.

Pretty soon you could hear a lot of talking, as a whole bunch of people were coming. They were ladies. And they all had abalone shells tied all over their dresses, on their headbands, and on their moccasins and everything.

Then they started singing and dancing all around the fire. And when they were dancing all those abalone shells would sparkle.

As the Coyote was looking at them, he started getting shorter and shorter. He looked down, and realized that he was starting to sink into the land up there!

One of the ladies told him, “You’re going to fall back through this land. You have to dance, or you’ll fall through!”

So he started dancing, and he came back up! He started dancing with them, and they danced and they danced. Coyote liked being up there, because there were lots of pretty women. He didn’t want to leave.

Then he got tired of dancing, so he sat down. But when he sat down he started sinking again! So he jumped up and started jumping around and dancing with the ladies again. And then he came back up on the land.

But he was getting more and more tired. And he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to stay up here! Every time I dance, I’m fine. But when I get tired and sit down, I start sinking! I think I might fall back to earth!”

So he danced over where the hole was, and he grabbed the rope, and he started pulling it up. There was a pole over where the ladies were dancing, and he thought “I’m going to tie myself to that pole. That way if I get tired and start to sink in, then I’ll be tied to the pole!”

So he tied himself to the pole, and nobody said anything. And as he was tied to the pole the ladies were dancing, and he was dancing with them. That went on for four nights.

Pretty soon he got tired. By the fifth night he was so tired he just couldn’t dance anymore. He really didn’t want to leave those beautiful women. He wanted to stay up there and dance with them all the time. But his feet were getting tired. And his legs were getting tired.

Pretty soon they were building the fire for the dance. Everybody started coming out, and they were all dancing. But he was just exhausted. He was so tired that he quit dancing—and he started sinking again. He thought, “My rope is going to hold me this time. I won’t fall back to earth. I’ll climb back up when I get my rest.”

But when he was sinking, the rope was pulled through the fire and caught on fire! Then he fell from the sky, with the burning rope trailing behind him—he looked like a falling star. He hit on the earth at a place we now call “Hole-in-the-Ground.”

When Coyote stood up, he went up on Pine Mountain again. And he looked up at the sky and the clouds. He wanted to be up there with all those beautiful women dancing in the firelight. He wanted to be up there dancing with the women with the shell dresses on. He wanted to stay up there and dance with them forever!

He went back to his grandma Old Lady Spider again, and asked her to make him another rope. But she told him, “No. You would just use it for something foolish. I’m not going to make you another rope.”

Coyote kept thinking about what he saw up there. And every night when the sun went down he would go up on the hill and look up into the sky. When the first star would come out and start twinkling, he would start crying “howwuuu, howwuuu!” And he would cry out, “I want to be up there, I want to be up there.”

Soon more stars would come out. And the more stars that came out the more Coyote would cry out. He didn’t want to leave all those pretty ladies up there in the sky, dancing around the fire, with abalone shells tied all over their dresses, sparkling in the firelight. That’s how the stars got their twinkle.

Now every time the stars come out at night the Coyotes go up on the hills and cry out. They want to go back up in the sky and dance with the beautiful ladies dancing around the fire making starlight.

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