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Coyote and Eagle Visit the Land of the Dead

In the days of the animal people. Coyote was sad because people died and went away to the land of the spirits. All around him was the sound of mourning. He wondered and wondered how he could bring the dead back to the land of the living.

Coyote's sister had died. Some of his friends had died. Eagle's wife had died and Eagle was mourning for her. To comfort him Coyote said, "The dead shall not remain forever in the land of the dead. They are like the leaves that fall, brown and dead, in the autumn. They shall come back again. When the grass grows and the birds sing, when the leaf buds open and the flowers bloom, the dead shall come back again."

But Eagle did not want to wait until spring. He thought that the dead should be brought back without any delay. So Coyote and Eagle started out together to the land of the dead, Eagle flying along over Coyote's head. After several days they came to a big body of water, on the other side of which were a great many houses.

"Bring a boat and take us across the water!" shouted Coyote.

But there was no answer -- no sound and no movement. "There is no one there," said Eagle. "We have come all the way for nothing."

"They are asleep," explained Coyote. "The dead sleep during the day and come out at night. We will wait here until dark."

After sunset. Coyote began to sing. In a short time, four spirit men came out of the houses, got into a boat, and started toward Coyote and Eagle. Coyote kept on singing, and soon the spirits joined him, keeping time with their paddles. But the boat moved without them. It skimmed over the water by itself.

When the spirits reached the shore, Eagle and Coyote stepped into the boat and started back with them. As they drew near the island of the dead, the sound of drums and of dancing met them across the water.

"Do not go into the house," warned the spirits as they were landing. "Do not look at the things around you. Keep your eyes closed, for this is a sacred place."

"But we are hungry and cold. Do let us go in," begged Eagle and Coyote.

So they were allowed to go into a large lodge made of tule mats, where the spirits were dancing and singing to the beating of the drums. An old woman brought to them some seal oil in a basket bottle. Dipping a feather into it, she fed them from the oil until their hunger was gone.

Then Eagle and Coyote looked around. Inside the lodge everything was beautiful, and there were many spirits. They were dressed in ceremonial robes, beautifully decorated with shells and with elks' teeth. Their faces were painted, and they wore feathers in their hair. The moon, hanging from above, filled the big lodge with light. Near the moon stood Frog, who has watched over it ever since he jumped into it long ago. He saw to it that the moon shone brightly on the crowd of dancers and singers.

Eagle and Coyote knew some of the spirits as their former friends, but no one paid any attention to the two strangers. No one saw the basket which Coyote had brought with him. In this basket he planned to carry the spirits back to the land of the living.

Early in the morning, the spirits left the lodge for their day of sleep. Then Coyote killed Frog. took his clothes, and put them on himself. At twilight the spirits returned and began again a night of singing and dancing. They did not know that Coyote, in Frog's clothing, stood beside the moon.

When the dancing and singing were at their gayest, Coyote swallowed the moon. In the darkness. Eagle caught the spirit people, put them into Coyote's basket, and closed the lid tight. Then the two started back to the land of the living. Coyote carrying the basket.

After traveling a great distance, they heard noises in the basket and stopped to listen.

"The people are coming to life," said Coyote.

After they had gone a little farther, they heard voices talking in the basket. The spirits were complaining.

"We are being bumped and banged around," groaned some.

"My leg is being hurt," groaned one spirit.

"My legs and arms are cramped," groaned another.

"Open the lid and let us out!" called several spirits together.

Coyote was tired, for the basket was getting heavier and heavier. The spirits were turning back into people.

"Let's let them out," said Coyote.

"No, no," answered Eagle quickly.

A little later, Coyote set the basket down. It was too heavy for him.

"Let's let them out," repeated Coyote. "We are so far from the spirit land now that they won't return."

So he opened the basket. The people took their spirit forms and, moving like the wind, went back to the island of the dead.

Eagle scolded at first, but soon he remembered Coyote's earlier thought. "It is now autumn. The leaves are falling, just as people die. Let us wait until spring. When the buds open and the flowers bloom, let us return to the land of the dead and try again."

"No " replied Coyote. "I am tired. Let the dead stay in the land of the dead forever and forever."

So Coyote made the law that, after people have died, they shall never come to life again. If he had not opened the basket and let the spirits out, the dead would have come to life every spring as the grass and flowers and trees do.

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More stories to read:

 American Indian coyote legends
 Stories about death
 Stories about eagles

Learn more about:

 Wishram spirits
 The Wishram language
 The Wishram Indians

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