Coyote and the 'doctrine of discovery'
One day Coyote decided he could have some fun pretending to be White Man.
In preparation, Coyote tied two large pieces of wood together in the form
of a cross. Then he made a boat of tule reeds and carved a paddle out of a
large piece of wood. When he finished, Coyote loaded his cross onto the
boat. He then carried his tule boat down to the ocean shore, pushed it out
through the white water, and began paddling out across the vast ocean.
For several days Coyote paddled away from shore. When he felt that he had
gone far enough, he turned his tule boat around and began paddling back
toward shore, all the time pretending to be White Man. The closer he got to
shore the more important he felt, and the more puffed up with pride he
Well, it just so happened that Coyote was paddling his boat toward a place
on shore where some Indian people had gathered for a big celebration.
Suddenly, one of the Indian men spotted Coyote in his tule reed boat. "Look
at that," said an Indian man, pursing his lips and nodding his head in
Coyote's direction. The people became curious. Why would Coyote be paddling
a tule reed boat toward shore? They wondered what in the world he could be
When Coyote's boat landed, he jumped out with his make-shift cross, walked
ashore, and dug a hole. He then placed the end of his crude cross in the
hole, stood the cross upright, and pushed the dirt back in the hole. Then,
after mumbling some strange noises, Coyote claimed to "take possession" of
After finishing this task, Coyote was filled with an overwhelming sense of
self-importance. Coyote turned and addressed the Indians in a haughty and
pompous manner: "As a result of me coming to shore and planting my cross,"
said Coyote, "certain magical things inevitably happened."
"What are you talking about, Coyote?" asked the Indians' spokesperson.
"What kind of things inevitably happened just because you came here in your
boat, walked ashore and planted a cross? You must be crazy, coming here
with that silly-looking cross and claiming the land for yourself, when
everyone knows that Creator made the land for everyone and everything. What
makes you think you can claim Mother Earth for yourself and your people?"
Now the Indians were certain that Coyote must be crazy, but they thought
perhaps they might be able to reason him out of his strange behavior and
odd way of thinking.
The Indians' spokesperson said to Coyote: "What do you mean, Coyote, when
you say that because you sailed here, because you came to shore here and
because you planted a cross in the sand, all the land and animals now
belong to you, and that you have ultimate control over our lives? Don't be
"I mean just what I said," replied Coyote. "Because I sailed here from the
East and discovered this place, I've decided that I have the right to lay
down the law by deciding how you Indians will live your lives. I deserve to
be rewarded for being a brave and intrepid explorer, and for all the
trouble and hardship that I went through paddling across the ocean to get
"I made tremendous sacrifices getting here, and I certainly deserve to be
rewarded for my efforts. Since nobody else can recognize my noble efforts
as well as I can, I've decided that the least I can do is reward myself for
having discovered this place by giving myself ultimate control over your
lands and your lives."
"But Coyote!" said the Indian leader in protest, "you didn't discover
anything. In order to 'discover' something, no one else can know of its
existence. Since we Indians have been living here ever since Creator placed
us here, we know our own lands very well. Therefore, Coyote, the most you
can say is that you traveled in your boat to this place, which is already
well-known to us and well-inhabited and well-cared for by our people.
Certainly these lands and our lives do not belong to you simply because you
paddled your tule reed boat to the place where our people were already
living and planted a cross in the ground."
"But I have a superior genius!" Coyote retorted in an arrogant and
imperious manner. "I've decided that my superior genius necessarily gives
me the right to assert ultimate control to be in myself. Because I'm
Coyote, because I've declared myself to have a superior genius, because I
rowed here in my tule boat, because I planted my cross in the ground;
therefore, as a result of all these things, it is inevitable that I am now
in control of everyone and everything here. I, Coyote, now have the right
to give myself total control over your lives, over all the plants and
animals and over the land. I have decided that I am an authority unto
myself," said Coyote.
"Well, even if it were true, Coyote," said the Indians' spokesperson, "that
you have a superior form of intelligence -- which we do not admit for a
moment -- and although you rowed your tule boat to our shore, and although
you planted a cross in the ground here, what is it specifically about your
intelligence or any of these actions that could possibly result in the
land, the animals and our lives suddenly belonging to you?"
"Well, that's easy," said Coyote, still pretending to be White Man, "the
reason why this land, all the animals and your lives now belong to me is
because I have decided and assert that this is true. In other words, I,
Coyote, using my superior intelligence, deem or judge it to be true; so
therefore, it is true."
"But Coyote," replied the Indians' spokesperson, "what you're saying
assumes that you have the right to come here to our home, think up a
particular 'reality' and then assume that the 'reality' you've thought up
really does exist, simply because you think and say it does."
"That's exactly right," said Coyote, with the smug look of White Man on his
face. "That's what is so beautiful about my superior genius; I merely have
to think of something as existing -- such as me possessing authority over
the land, the animals and your lives -- and my thoughts immediately conjure
that thing into existence, simply because I have thought of it as existing.
My ability to think and assume a 'reality' into existence is powerful
indeed. That's the simple yet profound basis of my 'doctrine of
Realizing that it was impossible to reason with Coyote, the Indians decided
that they, too, could think of "a reality" and make it happen. They decided
to think of Coyote as an anchor. Accordingly, they wrapped Coyote up in a
fish net along with some very heavy stones, took him far from shore in his
tule boat and threw him overboard.
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at
Kumeyaay Community College, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous
Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.