Around here, before the Lost People pushed their way in and started building cities, this used to be Bear country. Bear’s still here, but she keeps to the hills and doesn’t come down around the valleys so often now. Before we came, though—always remember, we are Lost People, too, and it’s a hard job finding yourself, you have to keep looking every day—anyway, before we came along, Bear was pretty much the biggest and toughest person around. If the First People were fishing or gathering tules for baskets, and Bear wanted that place for fishing, well, then, the human people moved. Quickly, too.
Those were days when four times every year, so many Salmon swam from the great Mother Ocean up the broad River that it was filled with red and silver scales jumping and leaping. The First People call this River Ashokawna, but most of us Lost People call it the Russian.
Salmon, she’s a sacred person, and I’ll tell you her story another time, but she and Bear don’t get along and Bear would spend all day slapping Salmon out of the water and eating her. She’d just stand on a rock by the green River and—pok!—her big brown paw would slap Salmon right out of the River. And Bear would eat her up and another Salmon would come along and get the same treatment.
So Salmon was pretty sore with Bear, and she wanted revenge. “All my babies, my little babies, they work so hard, they swim all the way to the deep Ocean to grow up, and just as they are going home, Bear kills them!”
Well, as you can imagine, Coyote got wind of this situation.
Coyote didn’t mind what Bear did, so much—everybody’s got to eat, after all, and weren’t there plenty of Salmon’s children that got home just fine?—but she would skulk around and steal pieces of fish that Bear had dropped, and wished that she would just go away after she slapped Salmon up onto land. Then Coyote could eat a whole fish.
So Coyote went down to the water and said, “O, poor Salmon! Poor, tragic Salmon! Terrible Bear is oppressing you!” And Salmon came up, mad and sad and glistening wet, and had a good long fishy cry on Coyote’s shoulder.
“What shall I do?” cried Salmon.
PLOK! Downstream a little, Bear knocked a king Salmon as long as a grown man’s arm onto the gravel bar and started to eat it.
“Well,” said Coyote, “I think you deserve revenge.”
“YES,” sighed Salmon.
“You swim out into the deep water, and leave the rest to me,” said Coyote.
So Salmon swam, and Coyote ambled over to where Bear was licking pink flakes of salmon from between her claws.
“Go away,” growled Bear. “Go eat that pile of skin and tails over there.”
“Oh, I will, thank you, Bear. My, you’re quite a fish-hunter, aren’t you? Too bad you can only get the little ones in the shallow water.” Coyote can be awfully charming when she’s scheming.
“Hmm? Nonsense! Did you see that one I just ate? It was huge…tasty, too!”
“It looked kind of small to me… see there, in the deep water? That’s a fish!” And, indeed, glimmering in the cold depths of the River, Salmon was weaving back and forth. She looked as big as a log down there.
“Huh? WELL. I can get that fish. You just watch,” said Bear, and she swam out into the River to catch Salmon.
But Salmon just swam deeper. And when Bear swam to follow her, she just swam deeper still, down the River.
Coyote was enjoying watching this, especially because she was eating the beautiful fish that Bear had left on the shore in her haste to hunt the big Salmon.
Salmon swam deeper, and Bear followed. Coyote ate.
Finally they came to where the River meets the great Mother Ocean, which is a magical place where many of the Animal People change their shapes. Salmon began to change into her Ocean form, which she takes during the part of the year when she lives in the Ocean. She laughed at Bear: “Ha ha! Now you will drown and never eat my precious Salmon babies again!”
But Bear had begun to change, too. Her fur fell off and her feet flattened, and she took a deep breath and dove after Salmon, caught her, and ate her.
She could never change back, though. And while Bear’s brothers and sisters kept fishing for Salmon their old way, so that only the fastest and luckiest of Salmon’s children came home to the upper reaches of the River each year, Bear became Seal, and she kept right on catching Salmon. So now Salmon has to get past both of them.
When Coyote saw what had happened, she laughed and laughed. “Imagine, having ten thousand babies and expecting to keep them all! Some people just can’t see beyond their own fishy faces.”
And she licked the salmon fat from her paws and trotted off to see if Turkey Vulture had found anything she could steal.