Trickster Figure in Native American Literature
 
Historical Context
In Native American Literature, the “trickster” figure is best known as a shape-shifter—it is all things to all people.  Trickster is but a creator and destroyer, a truth-teller and a liar. 

One of the primary characteristics of the trickster figure is its ambiguity.  In Native American Indian mythology, where tricksters are a common feature, they are said to appear as supernatural creatures, usually playing an important mythological role in human creation—often unintentionally.  It is important to note that although these creatures are supernatural in origin, they never appear god-like.  The trickster, however, can take many forms and usually transform himself into others if he wishes.  Tricksters often laugh, play jokes, and delight in wicked and scandalous behavior which, however, has a tendency to get trickster in trouble.  Often, in fact, the trickster is also a fool, and his scheming plans come back to bite him. 

Many times, a trickster might seem to perform a heroic action (the reason this character is often thought of as a cultural hero) such as fighting with a monster; however, this heroic behavior is usually unintentional and often followed by trickster’s foolishness where he may be seen doing something disrespectful or disreputable.  Tricksters are also said to be wanderers with characteristically enormous appetites for food and for sex.  These characteristics often contribute to a trickster’s predicaments, as well as run-ins with death, of which trickster is usually able to survive and rebound.

In addition to acting as the creator in myths (like the very popular coyote), the trickster also plays significant roles in other tales where humans already exist but may lack the necessary skills or social behavior pertinent to human beings. The trickster is said to bestow certain gifts on humanity such as food, plants animals, fire, flint, and tobacco, as well as the regulation of weather or the seasons.  A trickster can also bring mortality, portrayed as a necessity to humanity.  For example, in a Winnebago trickster tale, Hare originally makes humans immortal but soon realizes that immortality will cause humanity to cover the earth, which would create great suffering from insufficient food supplies. He thus undoes his gift to create a natural balance between humanity and the ability of the earth to support life. 

Relaying the Trickster

In many Native American communities, trickster tales were often orally presented, usually in a creative or dramatic telling. Trickster tales often served as source of entertainment as well as morality tales for children; therefore, the tales were usually narrated by a highly respected member of the community.  Trickster tales were among the most entertaining these specialists presented.  It is said that although many of the members of the community might have known the tales, it was the specialists who memorized the tales.  The maintaining of the trickster stories was thus able to be continued and successful.  As the teller of the tale, s/he was permitted to expand or embellish the tale as s/he saw fit as long as the plot and primary characters were retained. The drama in the tales such as the absurd and scandalous behavior, as well as comical mockery, made them material for easy listening. 

Trickster tales were presented as morality tales for children because, as the trickster found himself in trouble because of excessive pride, lust, or greed, children could be reminded of proper behavior.  Some authorities believe that the trickster tales served as safety valves for adults as well by making fun of serious rituals or difficult social situations. 
All in all, the trickster figure challenges notions of good and evil, along with every other aspect of cultural sophistication.  Ultimately, however, the trickster shows us what may be the hardest to admit: the truth about ourselves. 
 
 
 
 
  Works Cited
 
Cox, James H. Rev. of Living Sideways: Tricksters in American Indian Oral
 
Tradition, by Franchot Ballinger.  MELUS Summer 2005, 30 (2) 252-55.
 
David J. Minderhout. "Tricksters." American Indians Ready Reference. Salem Press, 1995.
 
Dragonfhain, Thunderspud of. “The Riddle of the Trickster.”  The Internet Book of Shadows at
 
Sacred-Texts.com. 10 Oct. 2007 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos071.htm>.