Explore the Role of the Trickster Figure in Native American Literature

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Who is the trickster figure in Native American culture? What roles do the tricksters play? Drawing on the readings we have done so far for this course, explore what types of language or symbols the trickster is associated with and their relation to cultural values. In your answer, be sure to consider how the trickster figure relates to native American oral culture (the role of ‘stories’ for example). It sounds simple enough to consider the role of the trickster in Native American culture, but examination of various literatures from The Norton Anthology of American Literature leads one to discover the ambiguity of the term ‘trickster’ within this individual culture. The trickster figure can be seen on one hand simply as a composition of amusement, a form of entertainment within a culture of oral storytelling which held, and still holds, great prominence in the culture of Native Americans. This amusement does, however, create moral messages, potentially forming an educational portrayal, widening the perspective of the trickster’s role. The appearance as a powerful and potentially dangerous figure is emphasised in the texts which I have studied. Often the trickster appears to hold superiority and wisdom over others, presenting its commonly perceived role as a powerful creator, present since time began. This is especially prominent in the Coyote trickster, who is discussed by Guy H. Cooper in Coyote in Navajo Religion and Cosmology, an article to which I will reference. As well as exploring the trickster itself, the ways in which the trickster character educates the reader/listener is also important, contributing further to its wide role in the culture of Native Americans. The ambiguity of the trickster has ensured excessive scholarly analysis, and I plan to examine specific essays in William J. Hynes’ and William G. Doty’s Mythical Trickster Figures in order to analyse this universal yet culture specific fictional figure to a satisfying extent. It is difficult to deny the amusing and entertaining nature of many Trickster tales, even when one does appreciate the moral messages that lie behind the comedy. The Winnebago Trickster Cycle is no exception to this rule, presenting an elaborate and comical transformation of the trickster into ‘a handsome woman’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 106) using various organs of an elk to create sexual female parts. This bizarre transformation and the following intercourse with ‘the fox…then the jay-bird and finally the nit’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 106) creates a jocular tone which will have contributed to the oral effect of the tale to those who were listening to it, many of whom would have been children. Moreover, the tone of the tale will induce those who are listening to it, making it’s later moral message more valuable. Comedy is also present in the Navajo tale of the Coyote, Skunk and the Prairie Dogs, although in essence the witticisms present are slightly more sadistic. The trickster himself, the Coyote, fakes his own death in order to trick others and ultimately kill them. To the modern reader, this presents a dark and almost hysterical comedy, emphasised by the continuing repetition of ‘[laughter]’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 118) as the trickster ‘used the clubs on them…they were all clubbed to death’(Norton Anthology, 2011, 118). The ‘laughter’ described can be taken in two different ways. As it is physically written on the page, the laughter may present the trickster himself laughing about the tricks he has played on ‘those small animals’ (Norton Anthology, 2011, 118), or it may exemplify the laughter of those who are telling and hearing the story. In this case, one may be given insight into the sinister potential of Navajo humour, which could reinforce the stereotype of Native Americans as savages. The former reading of the description of ‘laughter’ is more likely in speculation, however, as the narrator appears to later take pity on the animals that the trickster has killed, referring...
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