Summary of "Old Man Coyote and the Rock"

by John Cagney Nash
Stories referencing North American Indian pantheon have messages for all people.

Stories referencing North American Indian pantheon have messages for all people.

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"Old Man Coyote and the Rock" is a story credited to the Pawnee Nation of the Great Plains and to the White River Sioux. As with all stories told by First Nation shamans and teachers of children, the story uses animism and familiar objects from the listeners' lives to make a point from which they can learn and thus become better people.

The Gift

Old Man Coyote is going about his business, trotting along. He hadn't eaten in a while, and hunger pangs are about cutting him in half. He keeps going until he reaches the top of a hill, where he sees a big rock standing alone. He has a flint knife with him. He offers it to the rock as a gift and asks for help, then continues on his way. He goes no further than the foot of the hill when he finds a freshly killed buffalo. The meat would be tasty and tender, but he cannot butcher the buffalo, for he does not have a knife.

The Theft

Old Man Coyote goes back up the hill and finds the rock. "Grandfather," he says, "you don't need this knife." He takes it back and goes down the hill again, but instead of finding the tasty, tender freshly killed buffalo, he finds only a pile of old, gray bones. While he puzzles over this, he hears a terrible noise from behind him; looking back, he sees the rock rolling down the hill straight at him.

The Chase

Old Man Coyote begins to run. He runs and runs, but he cannot outrun the rock. Eventually he comes to the den where the bears live and asks the bears if he can come in. The bears look past him, see the rock and say, "We cannot help you against Grandfather Rock." The rock comes along, and Old Man Coyote begins running again. Eventually, he comes to the cave where the mountain lions live, and he asks the mountain lions if he can come in. The mountain lions look out, see the rock and say, "We cannot help you against Grandfather Rock." The rock comes along, and Old Man Coyote begins running again. He comes in the end to a broad field where a lone bull buffalo is grazing. Old Man Coyote decides to try a different tact: "Help me," he cries. "Do you see that big rock? It told me it planned to kill all the buffalo. I tried to stop it, and now it is chasing me to kill me." The buffalo braces his powerful forelegs, lowers his mighty head and prepares to stop the rock. But the rock simply brushes him aside. He is left with his horns buckled and his neck pushed down between his shoulders. This is why, to this day, all buffalo look that way.

The Nighthawks

Old Man Coyote starts to run again, but he is tired now and the rock is gaining on him. He looks up to see a nighthawk flying overhead. He tries to fool the nighthawk as he had fooled the buffalo: "My friend," he cries out, "That rock said you are ugly. It said your eyes are too big and your beak is too small. I tried to defend you, but it started to chase after me." The nighthawk grows angry and calls all the other nighthawks. They swoop upon the rock, and each time one of them strikes it, a small piece falls away; the small pieces do not chase Old Man Coyote. Old Man Coyote keeps running, the rock keeps chasing him, the nighthawks keep swooping and little pieces keep being chiseled off. Eventually, the rock is nothing but a small pebble.

The Pay-Off

Old Man Coyote walks back and looks down at the rock. Then he says to the nighthawks, "Why did you ugly, big-eyed, small-beaked birds do that to my old friend?" He laughs and laughs, for he thinks that he has won. But the nighthawks use their wings to fan all the little pieces of rock together, and very soon Old Man Coyote hears a familiar sound: He looks over his shoulder and sees the rock coming again. This time he is too tired to run. The rock rolls right over Old Man Coyote and crushes him flat.

The Moral

The moral of the story of Old Man Coyote and the Rock is that what is given, is given forever. Be generous in heart, but understand that when you give something, it is no longer yours. If your circumstances change, you cannot go back on your word. What is given, is given forever.

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