In folk tales where the
presence of the trickster figures is significant, are figures generally of
animals with human traits, also are God- like figures. Animals who are known
for their ability to explore new territories and to fit in wherever  urban  and wild both the environment like coyote,
raven, dragon fly, racoon and spider are chosen as a trickster figure in Native
American oral tradition.

The coyote is the oldest traditional
Native American Trickster figure and a significant symbol in its culture and
oral tradition. The coyote is seen in all the myths, legends and stories of
Native American tribes, known for his crafty
intelligence and covertness.  The
word “coyote” is, however,  a
Spanish alteration of the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the animal, coyotl. The same folktale
narrated by storytellers may differ from tribes to tribes according to their
culture and values, and similarly, with a number of tribes the function and
importance of the trickster figures also varies.   In
some of the tribes’ myths and folktales coyote is a revered culture hero who
creates, teaches, and helps humans, while in some other tribe, he plays the role
of an anti-hero, an epitome of negativity like greed, recklessness, and
arrogance. The coyote is also functions the character of a comic trickster,
whose lack of wisdom gets him into trouble while his cleverness gets him
escape. Furthermore, the coyote is even present in combination of all three
characteristics in one folktale.

A trickster figure controls / regulates the world we live
in, not an ideal but a real world. The good and negative traits they posses
reflect upon the idea of life according to Native Americans, who believe life
is a mix of bad and good. They are considered as culture heroes because they
benefit the community in one or the other way. The tale of coyote as trickster
serves many purposes in the life of people, his unpredictable characteristics
are always connected to the community’s experiences of handling  unpredictable surroundings one after the
other. People learn about their own weakness and foolishness and learn to laugh at themselves and their occasional acts
of self-deception.

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Moving with the pace of modernity, Sherman Alexie, Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. (October 7,
1966), grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is a poet and a writer. In his
writings, he embeds his personal experiences as a Native American, his growing up on reservation along with ancestry of several tribes. His  collection of twenty two  interconnected short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) became popular largely, further
he got  inspired to direct a film  Smoke
Signals (1998)  which is  based on this collection. A collection of
stories with recurring characters Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds – the- Fire,
who are two young Native Americans living on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
The stories describe their relationships,
desires, and histories with family members and others who live on the
reservation. These twenty two stories are narrated through the medium of
flashbacks, dream sequence, storytelling, surreal images and diary entries. Alexie
through his writings informs that the reservation is just not the experience
that Native American claims to have suffered, but it’s the effect on their identity
and culture that is present even in the absence of reservation with present
multicultural society.

Borrowing the role played by trickster
in oral tradition who teaches a lesson, Alexie uses humor as a method to
approach/ bring into light the difficult issues residual in the society
alcoholism and poverty. Through his collection of stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie himself plays
the role of a trickster for the society, as he challenges on the language
conventions and stereotypes, through presenting a trickster figure in his
works. He depicts the
history of despair, deprivation and racial discrimination of being Native
American- from a Reservation and how one tries to maintain once tribal identity
to survive in White society.

Builds -the –Fire is one of the trickster figure in this story collection that
is represented similarly to coyote. The trickster is considered to be one of
the oldest mythological figures in the Native American oral tradition.  Thomas Build- the- fire is the man who
obliges to the community needs and acts as a teaching aid that contributes to
the benefit of couture to survive. Thomas Build- the – Fire is present in the
three stories ‘ A Drug Called Tradition’, ‘This is What it Means Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona’ and  ‘ The Trail of Thomas Builds- The- Fire’.Thomas, who is shown alone without a companionship and
also inferior to others in physical strength but is indestructible like a
coyote. As he is the only one who survived when his house sets on fire and his
parents died. He even faces the humiliation and beatings from his coequals, and
the rejection he suffers for being an Indian whenever he leaves the
reservation. A trickster is known for teaching lessons majorly through stories,
similarly Thomas Build –the –Fire narrates the stories that confronts with
Euro- American version of both past and present. Thomas Build- the- Fire
inherits the story telling ability, as his grandfather, Samuel Builds- the-
Fire is bestowed with the talent of narrating the story spontaneously. Although,
Thomas Builds- the- fire is never appreciated his story telling feature and is
always ridiculed. For him these stories mark an important connection with his
family as he remarks,

The role of Thomas of
a storyteller gets erased on his reservation; he is not portrayed as a warrior
or savage, but a child whose childhood and adult life is full of atrocities,
and without a companion. In one of his recollection of story Thomas
narrates,   Thomas breaks his arm and is made fun of by
other students, who are jealous however. 
The courage of a trickster that Thomas possesses, influences him to make
an attempt and bring his childish dream into reality and gain something that
other student cannot.  Towards the
begging of the life of Thomas and Victor both could relate to stories of brave
Indians. But eventually, with time, only Thomas is the one who is still
connected to the tradition, storytelling beliefs and does not get corrupted by
White’s influence. Thomas always remained victorious in his path of
storytelling and his connection with the roots, while other students were
defeated because of them falling into assimilation. 

 Only at the time of Victor’s father’s death,
the importance of Thomas’s stories is understood by him at first. Earlier each
and every person considered Thomas as abnormal rather than realizing the fact
that his stories can teach them great lessons, just like the stories of coyote.
Alexie uses Thomas to depict and confront the ridiculous notions of Indian
representation. Again, as a subverting storyteller Thomas falls into a
flashback to the summer when natives were celebrating the Fourth of July and
Victor asks Thomas to tell him a story. 

Through this incident Alexie marks
comment on the situation of Indian reservation life, as he points out the
inability of the boys to be warriors turns them to commit a crime. Storytelling
for Thomas is a medium to communicate the importance of one’s tradition and
tribal identity, the
communal ties, the dreams, and the hope which are getting erased by the
influence of White and thus no more believing in the above. Similar to many
other natives who are suffering from poverty and alcoholism, Victor also goes
through the same. Alcohol implies the influence of Whites that is afflicting
Native American slowly leaving them with their broken dreams, loosing of their
real traditional identities, without which one cannot fly.  But with the help of Thomas stories he finds
an alternative in the traditional message to take care of one another and thus
started to understand the significance of the traditional identities.  

The first story “A Drug Called
Tradition” talks about the tradition of taking drugs according to Victor and
Junior. The role of Thomas, of a storyteller begins from this story. Along with
Victor and Junior, Thomas too intakes drugs and begins narrating the story, to
which victor does not believe during this story it brings back the tradition of
dancing. The tradition which was meant only for Native Americans, and does not
involve White men. “Then the boys sing. They sing and dance and
drum. They steal horses. I can see them. They steal horses” (Alexie 21).  Native Americans keep their glories as victors
instead of as victims. Here, Thomas brings the past which was fictional to the
present reality, as it depicts the characters at the present moment, regaining
their proud Indian way of life untainted with alcohol or drug intake.  Thomas emphasizes on the fact that one must
be aware and feel proud to carry one’s original Native American identity,
rather than a stereotypical identity. 
Victor and Junior throw away the bottles, thus portrays success of Thomas’s
story which convinced them for their rebirth of tradition identity.

In the story ‘The Trail of Thomas Builds- The- Fire’
where Thomas plays the larger role is on a trail on the charge of two murders.
Judge asks him to proceed with his testimony, where he narrates four stories.
Here, Thomas performs both as the protagonist and the story itself, as like a
trickster Thomas builds on cross cultural references, stereotype and humor. The
trail of Thomas can be seen as a trial against the belief in the power of
storytelling. “Builds-the-Fire has a history of this kind of behavior … A
storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous”
(Alexie 93). While the BIA members were planning to accuse him of various
charges, Thomas knew of what crime was he actually guilty of. Along with the
storyteller being on trial, Alexie also depicts the hopelessness of the social
situation of the Native Americans. The response marked towards Thomas as ‘dangerous’
signifies the threat among the people of criticizing the society. Thomas’s
stories are not even accepted in the court room, denial of his stories
represents the denial of the history through his eyes. Represented as a
trickster Alexie disguises the criticism in humor, and who interprets the past
through the stories of Thomas, that travels between history and myth, Natives
version and Euro-American version of the stories.

In his first story he narrates himself as a pony who was
taken captive and transported to Walla Walla valley. The story is set for Sept
8, 1855, and narrates how hundreds of captured ponies were being killed. The
motive behind the story as a tragedy was to gain sympathy of the people present
in the courtroom as he tricks them for a pony as Native Americans. During the
description of the slaughter of the hundred of horses, many of the people
present in court room fell into the trap. “Most of the Indians in the courtroom
wept and wanted to admit defeat” (98) 
His successful attempt to gather the emotional support towards his
remarks to the beginning of the story where his story telling was considered as
dangerous. It proves the power that lies in storytelling (while Thomas was
considered as abnormal) that Thomas is dangerous, not only to the “white”
American system, but also for many Native Americans.

“A new story was raised
from the ash of older stories” (Alexie 98), therefore, Thomas closed his eyes
and narrated another story in the flashback, and represented himself as a
warrior named Qualchan. This story comments on the false promises made by White
men to Native Americans, moreover, killing of them.  The story again raised awareness among the people
regarding their self pride, community pride, willingness and confidence to
regain their Native American cultural identity and heritage of the people in
the reservation. Thomas portrays the importance of storytelling, because of
which he was shunned in the community that it is through the stories one is
connected to its past cultural identity of the community and one’s family.
Thomas focuses on the acceptance and recognition of the past, and also
signifies that through storytelling the culture can be preserved to pass on to the
next generation.  After he is charged for
imprisonment and is made to sit in the bus, still the power of storytelling is
recognized by the other prisoners: “You’re that storyteller. Tell us some
stories, chief” (Alexie 103).

No matter how long the officials’ tried
to control and erase the truth with the help of stereotype, but the power of
storytelling brings back the ill- treated Indian identities as proud warriors.
Thomas’s attempts to glorify storytelling are a medium to shed the vision of
oppression and the stereotypes, and to achieve the lost traditional ideals,
further to preserve them for the generations to come. Native Americans were
trapped in the white structured culture falling into self- fulfilling
stereotypical image, but Thomas through his story telling, believes to change
and retaliate  against the troubles and
gain the real Native American past and present. 


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