Coyote Stars in Origin Myths of the Northwest


Despite the relentless infusion of scientific, clinical, and religious explanations about human origins in our region, a version of these native myths is worth repeating and embellishing The following legends emerged from my readings and travels to Indian reservations, where I was occasionally welcomed to ceremonies featuring Coyote, Wishpoosh, and their kin..  

According to one version, the Changer — or Coyote — is responsible for preparing the Pacific Northwest for the arrival of human beings.  This version grew out of the ceremonies and storytelling of several Native nations: notably Nez Perce, Palouse, Spokane, and Coeur’ d’Alene tribes.

According to the Coyote legend, and prior to the presence of human beings, giant animal people occupied the land.  A notable example was Wishpoosh, a fearful red-eyed beaver who lived in Lake Cle Elum.  Because he jealously guarded the abundant fish in his lake, other animal people were starving.  Coyote was approached by the animal people and asked to help defeat Wishpoosh. 

First, Coyote consulted his three sisters.  They advised him to make a great spear, attach this fearful instrument to his wrist with a strong cord, and attack the great beaver.  Following these instructions, Coyote plunged his spear into Wishpoosh’s side, causing both antagonists to sink.  The resulting lake-bottom battle was fierce and noisy. Mountains shook, and nearby rivers bubbled out of their stream beds.

Coyote’s and Wishpoosh’s exertions created a large hole in the mountains.  The new great lake drained through the hole, creating another lake in the Kittitas Valley.  As the contestants wrestled out of the second lake they plunged down the Yakima Valley creating a new, turbulent channel, thereby creating a third lake as they rolled through Union Gap.  New waters then poured into the Walla Walla Valley. These seismic efforts caused the battling giants to grab at trees and boulders, thereby creating the largest channel of all, the Columbia Gorge.  Along this wild path, waterfalls spilled into the Gorge and the earth shook, eventually spilling everything into the Pacific Ocean.

Between blows, Coyote observed that matters were going from bad to worse, so he devised a new tactic.  Turning himself into a great fir tree, he allowed himself to be swallowed by Wishpoosh.  Changing himself back into a Coyote — hence his other name, “Changer “ — he plunged a knife into the heart of Wishpoosh.

After hacking the body of Wishpoosh into parts, he distributed them as follows: the lower body became the Chinook Natives at the Columbia River mouth; Wishpoosh’s  legs became the Klickitat people; the monster’s arms were fashioned into the Cayuse; ribs emerged as the Yakima people; and Wishpoosh’s head appeared in Nez Perce country.  Gathering up the hair, blood and remaining gore, Coyote hurled them eastward, creating the Snake River tribes.

Thus humanity was born out of a catclysmic struggle.

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. What a wonderful story!
    Thank you, Junius, for sharing.
    I’m thinking this is a memory story of an ancient earthquake, or a remembrance of geological events that have been linked. Fascinating.

    More, please.


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