Petrification Myths: Coyote and the Legend People of Bryce Canyon

In the desert of southwest Utah in the United States of America is a remarkable place known as Bryce Canyon which many, many bizarre and colorful rock formations. The canyon is named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who settled in the area in 1874.  However, the Native American Paiute people of the region who were there long before the arrival of pioneers called it Angka-ku-wass-a-wits or red painted faces.

Bryce Canyon must surely be one of the most extraordinary natural places on earth.  It is a place where strange rock formations of yellow, orange and reddish brown that change hue as the light changes and fill the mind with many fantastical shapes and forms that appear grotesquely humanoid.

In geological terms, these columns are called hoodoos a term also used in witchcraft and the supernatural.  The Paiute people tell a very different story to the geologists but both explanations are really very extraordinary.   Presented first is a brief and simplified version of the geological explanation.  This is followed by a version of the traditional explanation given by the Paiute people who believed the columns were created when a mythical race called the Legend people were punished by their divine entity Coyote.

The Creation of the Landscape

First of all Bryce Canyon is not a canyon in geological terms.  It was created in a very different way to canyons which are created by weathering and the erosive action of rivers.   Instead, the Bryce landscape was created by a natural process called frost wedging which works over a great period of time to alter and recreate the entire landscape.  This process happens in Bryce Canyon because for most days of the year the temperature fluctuates to above freezing and drops to below zero in the course of a single day.

During daytime, seasonal snow melts and the water seeps into cracks and fractures in the rock and when it freezes at night it turns to ice and expands causing it to crack and fracture further and forcing sections of it apart making wedges into the rock forcing it apart.  This happens about 200 times a year in Bryce Canyon and an another process called frost heaving also comes into play forcing rocks upward from the bottom.   These two natural actions are supplemented by wind and rainwater which is naturally slightly acidic and this gently rounds off the rocks slowly dissolving the edges. And it is these natural processes that have combined to create the fantastical landscape of Bryce Canyon and it’s weird and wonderful hoodoos that are its main feature.  So that is a very quick and simplified precis of the scientific explanation but the Paiute people have another explanation

The Legend People of Bryce Canyon

According to Paiute legend and tradition millions of years before they appeared on earth there was another people who lived in the area called To-when-an-ung-wa or the Legend people.  In those days the land was said to be different being very green and verdant with streams and rivers of fresh clean running water.  Animals and birds were plentiful and the hoodoos were not yet created.

The Legend people took the form of giant animals, reptiles, and birds and in their land of plenty gave no thought to others who shared it with them.  They would drink up all the water and despoil what was left so others could not use.  They would eat and take all the nuts, fruits and berries leaving nothing for other creatures to survive the winter on.  They never gave a thought for the other animals and birds that shared the land which became less fertile and abundant.

Coyote

At last the animals and birds began to complain loudly about the inconsiderate and selfish behavior of the legend people and how carelessly and recklessly they despoiled all the fruits and good resources of the Earth.  One day the spirit they called Coyote heard them while he was out walking and went to see what was going on.  Coyote was angry at what he saw and decided to punish the Legend people.  He had a reputation for being a trickster which was well earned and he decided there and then he would trick the Legend people.

Coyote invited them to a great feast promising them they would be served the best food and drink they had ever been given.  The Legend people were always greedy for more food and drink and readily accepted the invitation.  They put on their best clothing and painted their faces red as was their custom at such occasions and went to the great feast of Coyote to eat their fill.

When they arrived they found the best food they had ever seen all laid out and ready for them to tuck into.  Coyote was watching and just as they were about to take the first bite of food he cast a spell.   Suddenly, one, by one they all began turning to stone.  Naturally, those not yet affected began to panic and tried to escape trying to climb over the ridge of the valley. They all pushed and pulled and scrambled over one another but there was no escape and gradually they all succumbed to the spell of Coyote.   It was a scene of madness, mayhem and sheer hell.  Soon their struggling ceased and all were turned into columns of stone, their bodies and faces rigid and paralyzed in their final act of standing, sitting, crawling,  climbing, running or whatever and there they have remained through the ages as a testament to their greed and selfishness.

ancestors2c_bryce_canyon_np2c_ut_9-09_282445989887429

By Don Graham from Redlands, CA, USA – God bless it! (Ancestors, Bryce Canyon NP, UT 9-09) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Pauite People

When the Paiute people arrived they found the hoodoos and could see their red faces in the rock columns just as they were before they were petrified.  This is why they called the place Angka-ku-wass-a-wits, which means red painted faces and these are the hoodoos we see today in Bryce Canyon.  Some people today say their faces have been eroded so much over the centuries that they cannot be recognized and people will forget the story of the Legend people.  Those who can see know Coyote still wanders the wilderness and know he has not lost his power and they will not forget why he turned red painted faces to stone.

© 23/05/17 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright May 23rd, 2017 zteve t evans

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10 thoughts on “Petrification Myths: Coyote and the Legend People of Bryce Canyon

  1. I enjoyed this tale. Years ago in the California desert. I was given the name coyote. Later I used as my writer’s name. The Coyote. A dangerous character in the Native American myth.

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