Coyote and the Hummingbird Brothers: A Nez Percé Tale

The third entry in my hummingbird folklore series. Previously, we’ve read how Hummingbird got the best of Coyote in a pair of Ohlone folktales from the California coast. For this story, we go to the Pacific Northwest for a story from the Nez Percé (Nimíipuu) people. This time, Coyote turns the tables.


Coyote and Hummingbird – Nez Percé

As Coyote traveled along the valley, upstream, he heard a raspy, angry sound, like the sawing of wood. A voice called down to him:

“You there, coming up the valley — we challenge you to a fight!”

Looking around, Coyote saw Hummingbird and his brother atop a mountain peak. He shouted back at them, “A fight is just what I’ve been looking for!”

He ran up towards them and they rushed down to meet him, coming at him from both sides. They fought, and the Hummingbird brothers beat Coyote easily, killing him. Looking down at him, they said, “Oh, it’s Coyote. No wonder he was so arrogant, thinking he could beat us.”

They dragged Coyote down the mountain and threw him in the river. Magpie spotted Coyote’s body when it drifted ashore.

“Oh, Coyote — dead! What a shame! Ah well, waste not, want not.”

And hungry Magpie started to peck at Coyote’s eyes, which woke Coyote up.

“What are you doing, waking me up, Magpie?” Coyote asked. “And I was just dreaming of carrying off a pretty girl across the river.”

“And how would you be doing that, Coyote, since you were dead?” said Magpie. “You were killed by the Hummingbirds. They are powerful killers, they slay everyone who comes along. They leave their hearts behind on the mountain when they come down to do battle, in two white feathers on a willow tree. That way, they can’t be killed. So when you go back up the valley, pretend to be lame. When they challenge you to a fight, tell them they must kill you where you are because you can’t come up to them. Then when they come down to kill you, dash up the other way and grab the feathers and destroy them. That is the only way to kill them.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m thinking, too,” said Coyote. And so he made himself a cane and limped slowly back up the valley.

“Look, here comes another,” said the younger Hummingbird as Coyote came into view. His older brother said, “He is old and lame, let’s just let him be.” But the younger brother taunted Coyote anyway.

“You there, coming up the valley — we challenge you to a fight!”

Coyote lay down on the road. “I’m tired, I can’t walk. You’ll just have to come down and kill me here.”

And so the Hummingbirds swooped down to meet him, but before they could reach him Coyote ran up the other way towards the mountain top. The hummingbirds saw that he was heading for their hearts, so they swooped back to stop him. But Coyote reached the willow tree and plucked off the feathers before they could reach him. As Coyote destroyed the feathers, the Hummingbirds fell down — dead.

“Where do you get this notion to become killers?” Coyote spoke. “Only a short time from now the human race is coming. Then the people will say, ‘Already it has come to that time of the year [May], for the Hummingbirds are going about.'”

As with the Ohlone tales, this is really more a Coyote story than a Hummingbird one. Coyote is a major figure in Nez Percé mythology, and according to one story, the creator of the human race. I based this retelling of the Coyote and Hummingbird story on two texts, one recorded by Nez Percé anthropologist Archie Phinney from his mother, Mary Lily Phinney (Wayi’latpu), and published with English translation (Wayi’latpu did not speak English) in 1934 in the collection Nez Percé Texts. The second version was collected by Livingston Farrand in 1902, and published in Folk-Tales of the Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes in 1917.

In both versions, Magpie finds and awakens Coyote, but in Phinney’s version, Coyote learns how to defeat the Hummingbirds from his “hip children,” who tumble out of Coyote’s anus when Coyote strikes his hip. I’ll let Dr. Phinney explain it:

wi’tsek’awk’aw. Coyote’s special helpers always kept in his belly. When Coyote needed advice or help he struck his hip with his fist and these ten children would tumble out through the anus. Then they would commence fighting among themselves. Coyote would scold them first and then give his instructions or if he wanted only advice he would order them to run back inside whereupon he would cut off the last and youngest one for consultation. The advice was always readily given and reliable but Coyote’s invariable rejoinder was, “That’s what I was thinking already.”

It’s an interesting variation, but I opted for the simpler version where Magpie advises Coyote.

The quote I end my retelling with is the ending from Phinney’s version. Farrand’s version comes from a series of stories in which Coyote creates different animals (from beings that, like the Hummingbirds, all tried to kill him) in preparation for the coming of people:

Then Coyote said to the Humming-Birds, “There are other people coming. Hereafter you shall just be pretty little birds, and not kill people.”

And pretty, aggressive little birds they are, too.


Boaz, Franz (Editor), Folk-tales of Salishan and Sahaptin tribes, 1917. The story is the first skirmish in “Coyote’s Wars,” from Section VIII, Sahaptin Tales, page 151 in the text.

Phinney, Archie, Nez Percé texts. 1934. The story is “Coyote and Hummingbird.” English translation begins on page 60.


Anna’s hummingbird: Photo by Medium69. Source: Wikimedia

Coyote: Photo by Matt Knoth, Source: Wikimedia

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