In New Mexico, folklore is an important tool used by many Puebloan cultures to educate their communities. In my community, the Pueblo of Isleta, we use storytelling as an extension of our conversations. Our stories speak about the beginnings of everything. The why’s and the how’s of life. There is one story that I hold very dear to my heart, as it relates directly to my life, just as all of our stories relate to our personal lives.
Once, a coyote and his family lived near the edge of the woods. There was a big hollow tree there and in it lived an old woodpecker with his wife and children. One day as the coyote father was strolling along the edge of the forest, he met the woodpecker father.
“Good evening!” said the coyote. “How are you today?”
“Very well, thank you. How about yourself?” said the woodpecker.
They talked for a while and when they were about to part, Coyote asked Woodpecker and his family over for dinner.
So that evening the Woodpecker family went over to the Coyote family’s home for dinner. When they arrived, all five members of the woodpecker family stretched themselves out as they do after flying. By doing so, they showed the beautiful colors of their feathers—all the reds and yellows. While they were eating supper, they would also sometimes spread out their wings and stretch.
They praised the meal highly and told Coyote Mother how beautiful their home was. Upon leaving, the Woodpecker family invited the Coyotes over for dinner and the Coyotes agreed.
But after they left the home, Coyote Father was furious and could not hold his tongue any longer.
“Did you see how those Woodpeckers acted? Always showing off those feathers? I want them to know that the Coyotes are equal,” he explained to his family. He was determined to prove to the Woodpecker family that they were just as good, if not better than they were. “We’ll show them.”
With that, Coyote Father devised a plan.
Just before it was time to go to the Woodpecker home for dinner, he made a big fire, and before they left, he made each one of his family members place a burning stick under their arms. He told his family to flap their arms about while they ate, just as the Woodpeckers did, showing the brilliant red from the coals.
“We’ll show them that we too have bright, beautiful colors.”
Once they arrived at the Woodpecker home, each member of the Coyote family stretched and thrust their arms out, revealing the hot coals underneath.
“Ouch! The fire is burning me!” cried out one of the Coyote children.
“Mine burned out!” cried another.
The plan failed miserably. Each one of the family members complained of being burned and they were in pain from the hot coals. This upset Father Coyote. Furious, he took his family home where he berated them for embarrassing him. His children felt confused and hurt.
The same hurt I felt as a child from being berated for something I was unaware of—something that society deemed unfit.
My story begins in the spring of 1992. The Amtrak 507 was headed to Chicago from Los Angeles, traveling straight through my reservation. I had just learned how to walk and followed my brother on his way to help set up a rodeo. He was unaware I was following him until it was too late. My mother, in our home changing out of her work clothes, was also unaware of my departure. The bells and whistles of the train barreling toward me had no effect. Those were familiar sounds in a safe environment. At first, the engineer didn’t realize there was a baby on the tracks. To him, my little body looked like typical debris. It wasn’t until the assistant engineer yelled out that there was a baby that panic rushed through their bones. The engineer pulled the emergency brakes as the assistant engineer rushed out to the front of the engine. He screamed over the train’s horns to get my attention, but I wouldn’t move. I had my back to them, still trailing my brother. With the train screeching to a stop from sixty miles per hour to zero, I finally turned around to see a massive locomotive heading straight toward me. According to the assistant engineer, I froze in my spot. He tried his best to direct me off the tracks with arm gestures. I understood and started to crawl over the 10-inch rail. The assistant engineer knew I would never make it over in time. He positioned his body in between the stairs that led down the front of the engine. A plow separated him from me. With my body halfway on the rail, the plow struck me and I let out a blood-curdling scream that would live with the assistant engineer for the rest of his life. Still determined, he hung from those stairs in an attempt to grab my body from underneath the train. In the split second that my body was hit and pushed under, he felt my shoulder, grabbed me, and threw me from under the train onto a dirt service road that separated my home from the tracks. The train came to a stop, and he stood there, frozen. The engineer radioed for help within the train. A doctor and a nurse were aboard and rushed to help. I lost a leg in it all.
The aftermath of my incident would scar me just as much as the aftermath of the incident involving the Coyote children. I too was confused. I was made to believe that I was unfit to live. That was made evident when an adult member of my community told me that I would never be as good as anyone else because of my prosthetic. I was ten years old.
It took me 20 years of hiding who I was, silently suffering from trauma, and a failed Thelma and Louise moment to actually realize that I am important. That we all are important. The story of the Coyote and the Woodpecker ends with Woodpecker Father gathering his children around and telling them, “You see what the Coyotes did? NEVER in your life try to appear as something you are not. Be exactly who you are.”
That is just as true for us people as it was for the animals.
Ha’Wuu (Thank You).
By: Edward Le Grey
Cactus Eddie is a member of the Pueblo of Isleta. His art reflects the lives of not only his people but of the Pueblo culture. HIs medium ranges from photography to the different styles of painting. He is currently working on writing a novel.
you can view his work on Instagram: