Understanding historical events, that have taken place on our American continent ever since our human species arrived, facilitates understanding of our perceptions and behavior of today. And one striking example of this is the dramatic change that took place in the life of our native wild dog: coyote.
In his newly published book, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, author Dan Flores wrote that Native Americans called coyote “Medicine wolf,” and they held coyote “in reverential awe.” He added: “Across the last 10,000 years, Coyote has been America’s Universal Deity.”
Why this reverence and respect? Well, Coyotes lived alongside Native Peoples who had numerous opportunities to observe the intelligence, behavior, and survival skills of this wild canine. They observed them survive against all odds; they observed their resilience and delight in being alive.
Our Native Peoples somehow intuitively understood coyote’s unique ability as a wild canine to live alongside them and be at ease in doing so. Both were at ease in this relationship.
Then 500+ years ago, enter the Europeans, replete with their own world view. As Coyote is unique to the North American continent, the Europeans who first came upon them did not quite know what to make of them. But with the invasion of millions and millions of non-native cows and sheep, and the carnage of Coyote’s native prey, coyote’s survival skills, once so revered by our Native Peoples, came into play once more.
And so began a completely different relationship with our human species — a relationship that tragically continues today across the continent.
So, I believe that this newly published book should be a must read for all Americans, whether you are a farmer or rancher, a suburban or city folk. And I think that what is so important about this book is how the author links a perspective or worldview to the human behavior that flows from that. And he doesn’t write in generalities — over and over and over again he gives innumerable historical accounts of human perspectives and the resulting behavior.
There is such a need for our generation to take that wider, broader, more distant view if we are not to remain stuck in the 16th-Century perspective — and behavior. And that wider, broader view really “gets” that our coyotes today are just as capable, and at ease living alongside us as they were with our Native Peoples.
But are we at ease? What keeps us from being at ease? Fear….lack of understanding of who Coyotes really are… our just not knowing how to behave in their presence…or just not understanding our place on the landscape?
What do you want to pass down to your children and your children’s children? Fear, narrow views of who has a right to be on the land? Or respect and awe and wonder? What would your young child ask of you?
In closing, Dan Flores wrote of Adolph Murie, a biologist in the first half of the 20th Century who was one of the few who understood at that time how vital carnivores were to a healthy ecosystem.
During Adolph’s research of the coyotes in Yellowstone at that time he “had stood rapt, watching a coyote trot along a trail with a sprig of sagebrush in its mouth. At repeated intervals it had tossed the sprig joyously into the air, caught it, then trotted on. ..an animal that took such pleasure of being alive in the world.” Close your eyes…and envision that happening.
Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine, and read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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