Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

Ortiz has accepted as one of his responsibilities as an artist the preservation of a cultural identity threatened by social and political forces. When asked in an interview why he writes, he replied, “Because Indians always tell a story” and explained that for an endangered community, “The only way to continue is to tell a story.” His concept of “continuance” is based on the wisdom of Native American elders who said, “We must always remember” and is informed by a need to keep the stories of the past alive “in the new language” so that they are never lost or forgotten. In this way, each generation is “present in the here and now.Continuance, in this sense, is life itself.”

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One of the wisdom-figures of Native American life is the mythic entity known as Coyote, whose presence in different forms occurs across tribal divisions and historical epochs. Ortiz acknowledges this mystical power by recognizing “that’s what Coyote says” when he refers to the storytelling trait as fundamental for American Indians, and in the poem, Coyote plays a prominent part as a source of almost instinctive emotional responses that are the product of a previous history of unsettling activity. While the poem does not explain these responses, they would be familiar to an audience used to the oral tradition, and Ortiz frequently brings Coyote into stories and poems in his collected writing to widen the scope for other readers and listeners. In this poem, it is Coyote Lady who is present among the Quail Women, the correspondence in gender suggesting both the protean, shape-changing properties of the trickster and the fact that perhaps Coyote can also exist within the mind as a projection of a psychological impulse.

Recognizing the needs of a kindred spirit, a “beloved comadre” (with the word “Comadre” implying both “comrade” and “mother”), the Quail Women share their powers of flight with Coyote so they can all reach life-sustaining water, but then in the spirit of Coyote’s legendary, perverse, prank-playing dark mischief, they strand her on the pinnacle. As if from a beneficient cosmos, one of the most powerful natural forces, Spider Grandmother, a revered goddess, appears and offers to help, with the qualification that the recipient acknowledge the higher power by accepting a limit to desire. Coyote, characteristically, agrees but, also characteristically, challenges the goddess in a Promethean gesture of individual will and defiance. Naturally, this leads to the wrath of the deity, and Coyote falls to her destruction.

However, within the theological realm that the poem presupposes, existence is not terminated by the end of the corporeal body. Thus, the arrival of another beneficient force, Skeleton Fixer—a character without or beyond gender—leads to the reconstruction or resurrection of Coyote. In another shift, this displeases Skeleton Fixer, whose good deed was predicated on the expectation of saving a valuable and honored spirit, not this notorious troublemaker. Skeleton Fixer’s concluding invocation, “may you get crushed/ by a falling rock somewhere!,” is an exasperated tribute to the survival of an aspect of human/animal nature that is probably necessary for the continuance of the species in a precarious and perplexing universe.

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