Tales of the Timbisha: The Race to Koso Hot Springs

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View of Death Valley and the Panamints from Zabriskie Point Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who have long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  What does it mean to you?

*          *          *

A long time ago, the animals were people.  Even Sun was a person.

At one time many people lived at Koso Hot Springs in the Saline Valley, on the eastern side of the Inyo Mountains, not too far from Owen Lake and what is today the town of Lone Pine, California.

The people were going to have a race.  In this race they bet their lives.  Mudhen dug a pit and built a fire to cook those who lost the race.

The people headed to the starting place in the southern part of Saline Valley.  There was a marsh with willows and other plants, and many of the people went there to gather leaves to eat and branches for arrows.  Coyote went with them.

The race started, but Coyote was busy sucking the sugary sap from the willow stems.

Frog went over to Coyote and struck him.   “What are you doing?  The race has started.”

Coyote ignored him and kept eating.  Frog got angry.  So he urinated on Coyote.

Coyote emerged from the willows, and found that all the people had gone.  He started to run; but he was way behind.  As he ran he saw Frog ahead of him, sitting under a creosote bush.

“Why aren’t you running?” Coyote asked.  Frog didn’t answer.  So Coyote stopped and urinated on Frog. Then he went on.

Now the people were getting close to Koso Hot Springs.  Coyote could see the dust far ahead, at least twenty miles away, so he picked up the pace and ran as fast as he could.

While they were running, Frog caught up with Coyote and then took a flying leap and bounded over him.  While in midair, he made sure to urinate on Coyote.

“Stop it!” Coyote shouted.

The people were nearly to Koso Hot Springs.  Frog took a final jump and landed right at the edge of the fire hole.  He won the race.  Coyote came in second, close on his heels.

After the race, the firetenders threw the losers into the fire. Only Bear and Sun remained. When they started to drag Bear to the fire, he roared, but they pushed him in.  Now only Sun was left. The people started to talk.

“We’d better leave him or they’re won’t be any light,” they said.

“No way,” Coyote shouted.  “If he had beaten me, he would have thrown me in.  We must throw him into the fire.”

Coyote took hold of Sun.  When he did this, Duck, Woodpecker, Nighthawk, Chipmunk, and all the other people ran for the house.

Coyote dragged Sun to the fire. Then he paused, and before pitching him in, he looked to see which way was the house and made sure to fix that image in his memory.  Then he pushed Sun into the fire.  All went dark.

Coyote ran in the direction of the house but despite his precaution, he couldn’t find it. He ran around in the dark, shouting for help. The people in the house heard him, but didn’t answer, because they were angry with him for extinguishing the light.

All this happened in the fall.  Coyote traveled around all winter looking for the house.  He stumbled around in the snow, fell off mountains, and got lost.  He went way back in the High Sierra.  He crawled around, feeling with his hands, until he recognized Mt. Whitney.

“This is where I used to go and this is the trail I used to follow,” he said.

He crawled around on his hands and knees until he got close to the house again.   While he was looking for the house, the people inside reconsidered.

“Maybe we should let him in,” Frog said.  “He’s smart. He might tell us how to get the sun back.”

After this, they answered Coyote when he shouted and invited him inside.  They fed him the plants they had been gathering all winter, until he regained some strength.

Coyote started to talk. “There are a lot of different kinds of people here. Some of us ought to know how to make the sun.”

The people said, “You’re right.”

Some of them started to shout, and a little light appeared.

Coyote noticed this and said, “When I shout, the sun will come out.”

Coyote shouted loudly, and it became completely dark again.

Duck said, “Quack,” and every animal made his noise, trying to bring Sun back. When Duck quacked, a little light, like dawn, began to show.  Duck quacked again, and the light got brighter. The third time Duck quacked, Sun came out.

The people saw that it was springtime.  They emerged from the house.  Everything was green.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The Race to Koso Hot Springs

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