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The Swordfish Race



This book features a humorous race between Coyote and the Swordfish who were the Rulers of the Sea. Coyote was a very clever magician, and he managed to defeat the Swordfish with a surprising ruse.

This story begins with Eagle telling Coyote how his nephew fell overboard while fishing and was taken to the bottom of the ocean by one of the Swordfish. Eagle pleaded with Coyote to rescue him. Coyote accepted the challenge and underwent a series of tests with the Swordfish as his judges. He managed to make such a nuisance of himself that the Swordfish began to plot how to get rid of Coyote. Though we laugh at Trickster Coyote's antics, we also recognize a more serious side of this narrative. It is not as simple as it first appears." (From the back cover)

A Chumash Racing Tale

"One day long ago, Hawk went fishing. He fell overboard while trying to spear a fish and drowned. One of the rulers of the sea, a Swordfish, found Hawk and took him along with other scavenged items to his underwater home. Coyote, the clever magician, was sent by the mayor of Shyuxtun to save Hawk. To win Hawk's freedom, Coyote underwent a series of tests designed by the Swordfish, passing each in succession. Here is a passage in the narrative, as told by K. X. Suluemeait..."

"Before you return to your own people we must have a race to see who is superior," one of the Swordfish said to Coyote. "What will the course be?" Coyote asked. "Will it be from here straight out to there?" he said, gesturing. "Yes," said the Swordfish (whom the Chumash called Eleywun) for he was eager to race Coyote.

So Coyote quietly left the house and traveled along the proposed race course for a while.... [and created magical replicas of himself, which he left along the racetrack with instructions about how to run the race]. "You are a Coyote like me and you are going to race tomarrow with the Swordfish. We are going to run a race." Then Coyote went further on and did the same thing again. "You will get up and run, and run to that point there where the next coyote is, and then it will also run, always just ahead of the swordfish. You will run one way, and then you will run back the same way. And we will win the race, but the Swordfish will not have such magical helpers.

The next morning dawned and the eldest of theEleyewun said, "Good, we won't have leave at all, we'll stay here and watch." Well, I'm not going to run for nothing," said Coyote. "What are you going to wager, what is the prize?"

The eldest replied, "Well, if you win, you may carry Xelex (Hawk) off with you, and if you lose, you take nothing away." "All right," said Coyote. As soon as he uttered these fateful words, the swiftest of the Eleyewun pranced up to the starting line and boldly announced that it was time to begin the contest.

"Are you ready?" the champion Swordfish racer asked Coyote. "I think so," said Coyote. The starting official clapped his hands three times, and at the third clap the race began. Coyote soon fell behind the Swordfish. "Wow, I'm surely going to lose," he moaned as he lay down and urged his first ally to continue the race. To Coyote's surprise, his replacement really exerted himself and quickly ran ahead of the Swordfish. Arriving at the next check point, the imitation 'coyote' sat down to rest while the second one continued the race.

The gulliabe Swordfish runner was shocked to find his rival ahead of him. "That old man is faster then me!" he lamented. At all this time the real Coyote was resting near the starting place. Coyote congratulated himself when the racers reached the end of the course and started back, with his substitute racer still in the lead. Finally, they reached the spot where he was hiding. Lazy Coyote sprang up from the weeds and renewed the race just as the last coyote ally collapsed in exhaustion.

Coyote crossed the finish line, where the overconfident Swordfish spectators were gathered. Huffing and puffing as if from running, he exultantly demanded a concession from the leader of the hostile crowd. "You win," said the eldest Swordfish. "You win, there is no doubt about it."(from chapter two, page 9).

K.X. Suluemeait

"Kwan X. Suluemeait is the Chumash Indian who narrated the folk tale featured in this text. He lived on the California coast near Santa Barbara. The hero of Suluemeait's narrative is Old Man Coyote, who distinguished himself in a race against the mighty Swordfish. This is not just an ordinary race but a contest in which the winning side cheats by substituting many runners to compete against an awesome opponent.

The action begins with the silliness of Coyote's racing tactics, and then we find ourselves laughing at his outrageous behavior in an eating contest involving an inelegant use of a magic flute. Pomo folk lore is introduced in chapter six to demonstrate that these passages also have a more serious intent." (From the introduction, page 6)

Concluding Comments

"... we can see that Suluemeait's Swordfish story is beguilingly complex. It contains a number of subplots, some of which are only partially developed. Yet these fragmentary passages are quite interesting because they suggest important links to more fully preserved mythological traditions found elsewhere in California.

Perhaps most significant among these secondary sources are drowning stories which are widely dispersed not only in California but among native peoples living all along the Pacific coast. In story after story, the cultural hero is asked to save a drowned person, by swimming down to the home of the Rulers of the Sea. Here he undergoes a series of tests, overcomes adversity, and returns to the mainland as a hero...

The humor which characterizes the opening scenes of Suluemeait's narrative thus blends almost imperceptibly into a more somber conclusion. When queried by his Santa Barbara relatives, the recovered drowning victim described his captivity at the bottom of the ocean as like sleeping. Hawk's soul had left his body as in other forms of death, but his tragedy was that his soul was condemned to remain in the ocean. The waters of the sea dampened the fire of Hawk's soul, rendering him incapable of rising up into the heavens to journey on the Path of the Dead." (Chapter 7)

This small book presents the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent

the views of the Chumash Indians, either individually or as a group

Kwan Xustu Suluemeait This Chumash folklorist, used the colonial name Juan Justo and lived in Santa Barbara.

Shyuxtun: After Coyote completed his adventures with the mighty Swordfish, he returned to the Tsmuwich Chumash seaport of Shyuxtun. This port was a provincial capital, and was located where the Santa Barbara harbor is now found.

Commentary on the Race

This book is no longer in print. It can be read and downloaded for free at:

Kuta Teachings
The Author (Anderson)