Wile E. Coyote has a family tree with many roots and branches, argues University of Montana A.B. Hammond Professor Emeritus Dan Flores in his recent book, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (Basic Books, 2016). Coyotes as a species predate humans in North America, and people have been, by turns, fascinated and horrified by coyotes for as long as the two creatures have coexisted. The coyote’s relationship with humans has been, as Flores describes it, a rollercoaster. Considered a semi-deity figure and trickster god among many Indigenous cultures across the American West, the first Europeans to encounter the coyote were puzzled by the animal. Lewis and Clark struggled to fit coyotes into existing categories; was it a jackal, or closer to a wolf? By the end of the nineteenth century however, Americans had largely decided the coyote was, above all, a nuisance and took up arms to eradicate the animal. The effects were both gruesome and surprising. While government-laid traps and poisons killed millions of coyotes, many thousands also migrated to cities as a means of escaping the attempted extermination. Today, coyotes can be found in every American state save Hawaii and have even crossed their final frontier into New York City. Coyote America traces the history of this nigh-mystical animal (an “American Avatar” in Flores’s estimation) and their long, tortured, relationship with humans.
Stephen Hausmann is a doctoral candidate at Temple University and Visiting Instructor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of race and the environment in the Black Hills and surrounding northern plains region of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.
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