Words And Places native literature from the american southwest

Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories

With Helen Sekaquaptewa

woman on ground in a field planting corn

For Comment and Discussion



One of the reasons stories are told to Hopi children is to teach them the values which are important to Hopi people. "Lisen to the stories," an uncle told Helen's audience before we videotaped, "They will tell you how to be a Hopi. That's something very, very important."

Both stories reinforce what Helen's; family calls "the Hopi work ethic." Since their emergence into this world Hopi people have prided themselves on their ability to sustain themselves through their own labors. They are taught from birth to work hard at growing and storing food. The Iisaw stories on this tape are stories about what happens to one who would avoid hard work. Compare this theme in the stories with the quotations from Me and Mine above, and also with George Nasoftie's statements about Hopis and work in "Natwaniwa: A Hopi Philosophical Statement."

A second value reinforced by these Iisaw stories is pride and self-confidence. "You're not just any coyote, you are a Water-Coyote," the scavenging coyote is scolded by his cousin from Payutmovi in Helen's concluding song. The message seems clear in her first story as well: don't try to be something you are not. Be proud and satisfied with what you are.



This story is called a tuuwutsi in Hopi—a story about make believe things. Tuuwutsi are distinguished from stories which are ka’atsa (not false), stories which actually happened, Hopi history. "Aliksa'ii" is the traditional opening for Hopi stories. It's meaning is not known, but many speculate that the interjection "ali" which means "good or delightful" has something to do with it. (Notice how "ali, ali . . ." is used in this sense in the coyote song Helen sings.) When the storyteller says "aliksa'ii" the audience would respond "oo." Be sure to note Helen Sekaquaptewa's comments on that custom early in the story. "Paiyukpölö" is the traditional closing for a Hopi story. It means literally "now to here it ends." "Pölö" is a shortened form of the verb pölöla which has at least two relevant senses. Pölöla is the action of giving form to something, say shaping a ball of clay. It also is used to describe the manner in which birds and animals consume grasses down to the stub. Both of these senses seem very appropriate metaphors for storytelling.

Compare these formulaic openings and closings with those used by Apache teller Rudolph Kane in his Ba'ts'oosee stories in this series. Dennis Tedlock writes on the function of such formulaic frames in his superb essay "Pueblo Literature: Style and Verisimilitude," in Alfonso Ortiz, ed., New Perspectives on the Pueblos (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico, 1972).

Songs and Stories


Folklorists might call the first story Helen tells a cante fable, a singing tale, because it includes a song within the telling. The song Helen includes translates as follows:

plaque, plaque, plaque
plaque, plaque, plaque
that which is contained, that which is contained,
ph, ph, ph, ph

She says that other tellers of this story may use other songs. For example, a neighbor of hers tells the story using a song with Navajo words, presumably for greater comic effect.

We should also note that Helen remembers learning two kinds of songs: "Some were parts of stories, and some songs by themselves." Note that the final coyote song is in that sense the reverse of a cante fable in that it is a song which contains a story. Compare the way these two coyote pieces are told/sung.



Many of the stories which Rudolph Kane tells on this videotape have been recorded far from Cedar Creek, Arizona. Folklorist Stith Thompson reports that "The Theft of Fire" episode alone was told by at least sixty-five different tribes over virtually the whole of what we now know as the United States. The Tarbaby episode, which many of us know from the Uncle Remus of Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, has an extremely wide international distribution. Despite years of intense study, folklorists are unable to agree as to how to account for the wide distribution of stories of this sort. Some argue that the story must have originated in one place and diffused out from there; others speculate that the same story can spring up of its own accord in a number of widely separated cultures.



The word for bird in Hopi is tsiro . Notice how Helen Sekaquaptewa uses that word in her telling, shaping it into the onomatopoeic expression "Tsiii-ro-ro-ro." Consider other vocal and gestural ways Helen enhances the story. How important is it that we see the telling? That we hear it?



The following is another version of the first Iisaw story Helen tells. It was recorded at Old Oraibi (from Quoua'waima) and published by H. R. Voth.

"In Oraibi the people were living. At Ishmovala the Coyote lived. Away over there at Kahkangwovakaavi lived a great many Chiros, and they were always dancing there. One time the Coyote was walking about east of their village. The Chiros saw him as they were dancing. They were singing as follows.

Ishawu, ishawu, hohoongyanikay colmoki
Coyote, Coyote, to dance is longing.
Ishawn, oomii hongina.
Coyote upward dances,
Aatkamii hongina,
Downward dances,
Machiwa, machiwa, chirorororo.
Is called, is called chirorororo.

The Coyote was looking at them and wanted to dance along. 'Very well,' the Chiros said to him, whereupon each one of them gave him some feathers: one some wing feathers, another some tail feathers, and so on. They made for the Coyote wings and a tail, and put small feathers into his body, whereupon the Coyote was very happy. 'Thanks,' he said, 'that you have made wings for me. I am going to dance with you now.' Hereupon they danced, again singing the same song. The Coyote danced with them. Now they were flying upward somewhere and arrived somewhere away high up. Now they crowded around the Coyote and said: 'Why, this is my wing;' why, this is my tail; why these are my feathers;' some of them had given him these things, and now they took everything away from him, and alas! they began to descend. He arrived at the earth and died. The Chiros laughed at him. 'Thanks,' they said, 'that you have died, because you very often do commit depredations on someone's property. That is why you were going about again.'

H. R. Voth, Traditions of the Hopi
(Chicago: Field Museum, 1905) pp. 201-02.

The Recording


All original tapes recorded for this program have been archived in the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona. Copies of this videotape without English subtitles are available to Hopi speakers through the Division of Media and Instructional Services, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721.

This program was made possible by a grant from the Education Programs Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Related Readings


There are nearly three thousand entries in W. David Laird's annotated Hopi Bibliography (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona, 1977). It is the most comprehensive bibliography of writing about Hopis available.

In addition to Helen Sekaquaptewa's Me and Mine (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1969), other Hopi life histories are of interest: Elizabeth White's No Turning Back (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1964) and Don Talayesva's Sun Chief (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1942). More recently Harold Courlander has published Albert Yava's life story as Big Falling Snow (NY: Crown, 1978).

Ekkehart Malotki's collection Hopitutuwutsi: Hopi Tales (Flagstaff; Museum of Northern Arizona, 1978) offers readers ten stories from Third Mesa in a bilingual format. Malotki's introductory essay gives a succinct overview of Hopi storytelling. Truth of a Hopi: Stories Relating to the Origin, Myths and Clan Histories of the Hopi (Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1967) has been a preferred source on Hopi stories since its first appearance in 1936. It was written by Edmund Nequatewa.

Four of Helen Sekaquaptewa's lullabies are the subject of an essay by her son Emory and Kathleen M. Sands. "Four Hopi Lullabies: A Study in Method and Meaning" appeared in the American Indian Quarterly, 4 (1978), pp. 195-210. The "so'yok manawya" lullaby Helen sings at the beginning of this videotape is translated and discussed there

Larry Evers, ed., The South Corner of Time: Hopi, Navajo, Papago, and Yaqui TribaT Literature (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1980) gives a full range of Hopi oral and written literature.

Return to the contents page for
Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories

By This Song I Walk: Navajo Songs | Seyewailo: The Flower World Yaqui Deer Songs | The Origin of the Crown Dance: An Apache Narrative and Ba'ts'oosee: An Apache Trickster Cycle | Iisaw: Hopi Coyote Stories & Hopi Songs | Natwaniwa: A Hopi Philosophical Statement | Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems | Songs of My Hunter Heart: Laguna Songs and Poems | A Conversation with Vine Deloria, Jr. | Home