Thomas Doty – Storyteller
Coyote's Paw - Native Village
The myths are the village and the winds and the rains. The river is the village ... the salmon who comes up the river to spawn, the seal who follows the salmon and bites off his head, the bluejay whose name is like the sound he makes -- Kwiss-kwiss. The village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is about to die, and the silver-tipped grizzly who ambles into the village ... the eagle, the wolf and the raven! This is the village.
Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name
Want to visit Coyote's Paw? Master storyteller Thomas Doty is your guide on a half-day trek into the Klamath River Canyon, and a walking tour of his ancestral village. Here's info: Native Story Tours.
The Rock People of Coyote's Paw
Each time I visit this village, I honor the long time presence of the Rock People. They are everywhere. They gather over graves and make cairns, sit in circles around winter fires, circle-dance the dance ring. All through the village they grind nuts and seeds. They cook acorn soup. They make a path for the creek. They heat the sweat lodge. Rock People line the trail to the Vision Peak, lingering in the shade of their old friends, the Tree People. They share their wisdom in stories carved in stone. They are the first to greet me as I walk into the village and the last to say goodbye. The Rock People are the oldest elders. They are always here.
About the Photos
Photos of Coyote's Paw were taken over a span of several years, and in various seasons. Sometimes meadows in the village are green and lush, at other times summer-brown. Sometimes the creek is flowing, at other times sluggish or dry or frozen. Sometimes oak trees are in full-leaf, at other times leafless or brilliant with fall colors. The village displays a variety of appearances and moods as it journeys through the seasons.
Cairns & Boulders
In addition to the piled stones in the Graveyard, there are dozens of Cairns & Boulders scattered through the village, and beyond into the woods. Some are small, others are quite large. Their significance remains a mystery.
The Community House was large enough to hold everyone in the village, for dancing, storytelling, gambling ... all night through the long winter nights. There is a large circular depression in the ground where the Community House once stood.
The photo shows stones that were part of the Old Time fire ring in the center of the house. Squint and use your imagination!
A seasonal creek flows through the village. It normally dries up in late spring, returns in the fall and freezes in the winter. A year-round spring a short distance upriver served as a dependable water source for the village.
On the upriver edge of the village, the dance ring is a circle of stones near the Graveyard. Dancing mourns the loss and celebrates the lives of those journeying to the Land of the Dead. There are also dances that observe the seasonal arrival of the Salmon People and the annual appearance of the first acorns. Community dances welcome home those who have spent five days and nights on the Vision Quest Peak.
Ghost Dance Trees
The Ghost Dance Trees were the centerpiece of the Ghost Dance religion as it was practiced at Coyote's Paw in the 1800s. The first phase of the religion originated among the Northern Paiutes east of the mountains and spread from village to village throughout the West. A tree was girdled and burned, and became the center pole for a dance intended to draw thousands of dead ancestors back to the village. This would create a warrior force large enough to drive Europeans out of Indian Country.
At Coyote's Paw, the last Ghost Dance was performed in the 1870s. In 1889, a second and more prominent wave of Ghost Dances swept through the West, but by then Coyote's Paw was abandoned. All five Ghost Dance Trees are still standing in the village. One is near the Graveyard, and the other four are on the western edge of the village, forming a spiritual path that leads downriver toward the Land of the Dead.
In a meadow between the Winter Houses and the Graveyard, Grandmother Pine is at the center of the village ... a place for friends to gather in the shade and share stories, for Grandma to weave a basket, for children to play, or at other times, a peaceful place to find a quiet moment ... day to day stuff that makes Coyote's Paw a community. Near the base of the tree are two stones marking the "heart of the village."
The Graveyard contains burials of ancestors. Each family grave is marked by a cairn or a circular collection of rocks. The Graveyard is located on the eastern edge of the village near the Dance Ring. As villagers dance to honor their ancestors, the recently departed travel the Old Time Trail through the village, visiting family and friends and familiar haunts one last time, before journeying downriver to the Land of the Dead. On the western edge of the Graveyard is a rock mortar for pounding seeds and nuts, providing food to sustain the dead on their long walk west.
Klamath River Canyon
Coyote's Paw is located on a stretch of the river called the Klamath River Canyon. This section of the Klamath is divided into three cultural areas -- Bear's Land, Coyote's Land and Eagle's Land, traditional homeland of the Shastas and a few Takelmas. The village of Coyote's Paw is at the heart of Coyote's Land. The Klamath River is the lifeblood of the native world, connecting all of the native lands, providing salmon for the people to eat and a route of travel through the Cascade Mountains.
In the traditional stories, there are two directions: upriver and downriver. Upriver is to the east, toward the rising sun and the beginning of the day, toward the river's source and creation. Downriver is to the west, toward the setting sun and the end of the day, toward the death of the river as it flows into the Pacific, and beyond to the Land of the Dead. Bear's Land is upriver, Eagle's Land is downriver.
The Klamath River is a long river, and home to other tribal peoples. Klamaths and Modocs live upriver of Bear's Land, and Karuks and Yuroks live downriver of Eagle's Land.
Old Time Trail
The Old Time Trail is intact through Coyote's Paw. It is an ancient trail, and once ran the entire length of the Klamath River, from its source at Upper Klamath Lake to the river's mouth at Requa. This stretch of the river was heavily populated. Villages were only a mile or two apart.
The Old Time Trail is sometimes difficult to see. It blends with the landscape. Look closely to see it in these photos.
Because Great Bear in the Sky (Ursa Major or the Big Dipper) controls the weather and the seasons, the local Bear Clan was in charge of the Rain Rock. The rock was covered to prevent rain, and uncovered to bring wetter weather.
Ceremonies honoring the shifting of the seasons on the solstices and equinoxes were done at the Rain Rock. Depressions dimple the top of the rock. In native rock writing symbols, these mean "small things," in this case raindrops. The depressions also mimic the cupped hand gesture in the Indian sign language which means to drink. There is a story that says the depressions were made by Bear Clan medicine people trying out their power by twisting their thumbs on the rock surface.
Rain Rocks and related Bear Rocks are numerous throughout the region, most covered with depressions and some including carved bear prints. One rock in the Rogue Valley is in the shape of a giant bear's head.
Several rock walls are found at Coyote's Paw. These separate the Graveyard from the Winter Houses as well as define the boundaries of the village.
The main Sweat Lodge was a men's-only club, a wooden structure about a dozen feet square. Women had smaller sweat houses scattered around the village, just large enough for one person at a time. The sweat ceremony is mainly for purification and healing, but also for socialization, especially for the men who lived in Coyote's Paw. Heat and steam in the Sweat Lodge was generated by heating stones in an outside fire, bringing them into the lodge and dripping water on them. The Sweat Lodge was nearly air-tight, trapping heat and steam inside. When you got unbearably hot, you ran from the lodge to the nearby creek and jumped in!
While it might seem unfair that men had this special social place and women didn't, keep this in mind: Coyote's Paw was a matriarchal village. Women were in charge! They owned the houses, most medicine people and storytellers were women, and women had the final say in decisions affecting village life. No man who called himself a chief ever did anything of importance without first asking the elder women for permission. In this powerful matriarchal society, perhaps there was a need for a men's retreat, and the Sweat Lodge was it!
Nothing is left of the Sweat Lodge but a few rocks outlining the shape of the building. These are extremely difficult to photograph and partly covered by leaves and pine needles.
The photo shows the entrance to a Yurok Sweat Lodge on the lower Klamath River. This was photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1923, and is similar to the lodge at Coyote's Paw. The inset is a close-up of an ancient carving on the cornerstone of the sweat lodge at Coyote's Paw.
Vision Quest Peak
Residents of Coyote's Paw were mostly Shasta and Takelma, and both cultures have a vision quest tradition. One by one, as boys and girls show signs of becoming men and women, they walk the crooked trail up the slope to the Vision Quest Peak. Here they spend five days and nights alone, away from the village. No fire, no blankets, no food. In solitude, deprived of sustenance and warmth, their dreams are intense visions. In these visions, boys and girls receive their names -- they've had nicknames growing up -- and personal protector spirits reveal themselves.
Back in the village, medicine people help interpret their visions, and the village welcomes those who left as children back into the village as adults. Throughout their lives, native people revisit the Vision Dance Peak, renewing dreams and visions, and reconnecting with their protectors.
Five is the sacred number at Coyote's Paw. Vision quests, dances, storytellings, feasts and ceremonies last five days and nights.
Coyote's Paw is a winter village. In the old days, most native folks spent the late spring, summer and early fall traveling up and down the river, and into the mountains, visiting family and friends, hunting, fishing, and gathering roots, nuts, berries.... Laden with food for the coming winter, they returned to Coyote's Paw where they spent the long winter nights and short days.
Because this stretch of the Klamath River was heavily populated, none of the villages were large. Coyote's Paw had twenty or so wood houses, mostly located on a small knoll. Houses were built partly into the ground for good insulation. Building on high ground meant good drainage.
The Winter Houses are gone. But if you look closely you can see the depressions in the ground where the houses once stood.
Images include photos of house sites and a drawing of a traditional Winter House.