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Totems: Coyote, Part 1

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman

I AM COYOTE, the Trickster, Imitator, the Sacred Clown, Creator of humans, Bringer of fire, the Old Man that never ages. What were you expecting? I am never what you would expect.

I am first in line after Great Spirit. Whenever you think you’ve got it all figured out, I am here to trip you up, so you know that you don’t know everything. I, of course have always known everything, all along. I don’t trick you to be mean, though sometimes I am. I would have you see your own follies through mine.

I am Changing Person. I can change into anything. I can even bring myself back to life. When I teach you (force you, that is) to change, your spirit will renew itself so you can progress further on your path away from belief in separation. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. My job is to keep you on the most direct path to Liberation. Then, we can have fun creating together – well, side by side anyway. After all, I am Coyote … ha-ha ha-ha ha-ha Ho!

A few years ago, I was walking my dog by the river. In a thicket of bushes was a coyote, beautiful white teeth gleaming, tan and brown body, russet tail tipped with black. It reminded me of the coyote I’d found 13 years before when, after rounding a curve in a country road, I saw something in the road before me. Just recently hit by a car was a young coyote – beautiful and perfect. I pulled over to take it off the road. After dragging it past the treeline, sprinkling tobacco, and asking for its spirit to be taken up by the four directions, I hid it under a bush and covered it with more brush. Exactly a year later, I went back. The skeleton was unmoved and completely free of flesh and fur.

Coyote (Canis latrans) most likely originated in the Pleistocene era, and may have descended from an even older form of carnivorous animal. Though having some wolf genes, coyote is smaller and more lightweight. Often called "the brush wolf" coyote’s fur is shaggier, its muzzle narrower, and the ears stick up large and pointy. These are helpful clues if you are seeing one at a distance, and cannot tell if it is a wolf, dog, fox or coyote - its relations in the canine family. Also, coyotes carry their black-tipped tails low, not proud and erect like a wolf, straight out like a fox, or curled like a dog.

Eastern coyotes are generally bigger and bushier than their western counterparts – more suited to forest living, and a cold climate. If you have this power animal, you will have stamina and endurance. Have you ever run a marathon? Coyotes are able to run for hours in search of prey. For those who want to differentiate between coyote and dog tracks: tracks of both tend to be oval-shaped. Coyote’s front toes are parallel; side toes point straightforward, kind of tucked in, so you don’t usually see the nail marks on the side. Dog tracks are more spread out, and the heel pad is closer to the front toes. Coyotes walk more on the forward part of their foot; the back pad hardly registers. They direct register, so their trail is a tighter, straighter line than a dog or a wolf. In the snow, you may think you are seeing only one coyote’s tracks because successive coyotes will step directly into the leader’s tracks. Wolves may do the same thing, but dogs – never.

If you’re close enough to see their yellow eyes, you will feel their wildness. There’s a Hopi story about how coyote got her yellow eyes. One day she heard Skeleton Man singing a song, and she asked him to teach it to her. When he sang it, his eyes flew out of his head, and when they finished travelling, they popped back in. He agreed, but cautioned her to face the South when she sang it, and not move around. She wanted to see the canyon full of game animals that he described, so she faced the south and indeed, she saw them. She got so excited, she ended up facing north, so her eyes could not find her. She then bent down to feel around for her lost eyes, and when she touched something that felt like eyes, she popped them in her sockets, and went home. When her children saw her, they ran away, afraid, because she had put two yellow gourds in her head for eyes, and looked frightening. Coyote Woman’s descendants have yellow eyes too.

Where can you find coyotes? Anywhere from the Arctic Circle to northern South America. Though originally thought to be indigenous to arid grasslands and deserts of the Southwest and the Plains, some new proof indicates that coyotes originally inhabited the East Coast too. Paleontologists have found remains of coyotes in East coast caves from the last Ice Age. One thing is sure: with the disappearance of wolves, the resulting imbalance propagated populations of smaller mammals, the prey of coyotes. One of the reasons coyotes have been so successful at dispersal throughout North America is because colonial America virtually exterminated wolves. People were afraid of wolves, wiping them out in short order, as they cleared forest for pasture and farming. Coyotes filled in their territory, which previously had been further north and east. They adapt more easily than wolves if they have to move to a new habitat.

Coyote’s penchant for hunting small rodents like mice, moles and voles allows it into every biome. Around human settlements, they are curious and investigative. They prefer sandy or brushy slopes, or rocky ledges, but are also adaptable about their living quarters – caves, hollow logs, or a fox den of the right size is just fine. In a pinch, a drainage pipe will do. Most animals die out as cities expand; not so with coyote. Instead of fleeing, they stay put and let the city expand around them. Los Angeles is ideal because of intermittent undeveloped areas, gardens, and ravines filled with scrub and bushes. Add food-laced trash, small urban animals and throw-away food scraps, and you have a coyote paradise.

Females bear just one litter a year after being courted by more than one male. Once she has chosen, they mate in late January in the Northeast. The sole breeding pair of the pack may remain mated for years; sometimes for life. After a gestation period of 63 days, she gives birth to on average, six furred, blind pups. When food is abundant and there aren’t too many other coyotes in the neighborhood, the litter may be larger. Conversely, when the local population is high, litters have fewer pups. The father will bring food for the nursing female, and she will regurgitate it for the pups. Fathers are just as devoted to the family as mother coyotes. He will guard the pups, and help raise them. If the mother is killed, the father will raise the pups by himself or with the help of an older sibling. Normally older siblings (orbit animals) are tolerated in the family’s range, but not their immediate territory. That is reserved for the mating pair and their current pups, which are full-grown at nine months. If there is enough food, an older female or two may remain a few years to help raise the new litter. Males though, tend to leave to establish their own territory and family, anywhere from 18 miles away to hundreds of miles.

As early as a few days old, coyote pups participate in social play. Like all canids, coyotes have a strict ranking order, so how do the pups know that the others are not being aggressive, and are just looking for some roughhousing? Besides refraining from biting as hard as they might, pups "bow" (rear legs in standing position, while forelegs and head duck low to the ground). As they get older, two pack mates may greet each other by rearing up on their hind legs and nuzzling each other’s faces. On the other hand, an aggressive encounter may begin the same way, later developing into a wrestling match, which includes rolling and biting.

Coyotes are like built-in RV’s. Wherever they decide to settle in or rest, they are home – anytime, anywhere. Like most canines, before lying down they circle a few times creating a depression, then lie down nose to tail in a ball, holding in warmth. Besides communicating through sound, they use facial expressions, body/tail posture, and scent marking, especially at the natural borders of their territories, like streams and tree lines. Urine conveys information about gender, status, reproductive state and health. In order to avoid fatal conflicts, coyotes and wolves mark territory.

You’ve heard the expression, "lone wolf." Well, coyotes can be loners too. Being a loner can be dangerous, because invading a pack’s territory can get one killed; at the least, in a fight for its life, if food is scarce. Deep-toned howling warns intruders away, while high-pitch summons other members of the pack. Coyotes have a built-in GPS system for finding other coyotes. It’s their singing, which creates a kind of map, detailing where in the landscape, others are. A coyote howl is actually a series of high-pitched yelps, followed by a long siren wail. They also use a wide range of distinctive howls, barks, squeaks, yelps and whining for communicating. Often called "Talking Dog" by Southwest tribes, coyotes use combinations of all the above. It’s not true that coyotes howl after they’ve made a kill. Oh - and those multiple barking sounds may be the work of only one coyote due to their ability to use different intonations. If your power animal is coyote, you like to verbally express yourself. Is singing your primary art form? Even if you work in other art forms like dance, writing or the visual arts, you may love to sing. Truly, it is one of the best ways to express oneself because it carries so much feeling.

For Healing for you or your animal, Training, or Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call Cie Simurro at 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com

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