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Published: January 8, 2023

Story of the Swordfish

By Michael Khus-zarate

Hu ho'wo'i (long ago), when the animals were people,

Hawk craved the fresh fish he saw Pelican and other sea birds eating. So, Pelican said to his friend Hawk: “Come, we’ll take out our tomol (plankboat) and get some fish !” Together with Mut another sea bird, the three paddled out into the deeper waters offshore, the ocean swells rolling and rocking their little boat.

Hawk had been told by Pelican to wait and be careful since he was not a sea bird and could not swim, but being young and impatient, the excited Hawk hurled his harpoon at the first big fish he saw.

“Ahhh !! a panicked Hawk screamed, as he lost his balance and plunged into the water.

Pelican and Mut quickly circled their boat around to rescue Hawk. But before they could grab their drowning friend, a large, swiftly moving shadow snatched Hawk and disappeared with him into the depths. A shocked Pelican said, “That was a Swordfish that has taken Hawk … now, he is lost !”

There was no more powerful creature in the sea than Swordfish and now one of them had taken Hawk deep into the dark, watery abyss, beyond the reach of anyone.

Pelican and Mut now had to take the sad news of Hawk’s drowning home to the village and tell Hawk’s family. The Hawk family became distraught when they heard, and began to weep and wail, casting the whole village into a state of grief.

Now Hawk’s uncle, Eagle heard the commotion and felt the loss of his little nephew. Yet, he knew that even his powers as Wot (chief) could not bring back his foolish kinsman, for it was true: Swordfish ruled the sea and held powers that no land creature could match, and if Swordfish had Hawk then he was gone.

As the wailing and crying of Hawk’s family continued, Eagle grasped a desperate and unlikely idea: “I will seek out Coyote, as he may be the only one who can rescue Hawk”.

Eagle went to Hawk’s family and told them of his idea for Hawk’s rescue. They were incredulous. “Coyote is shiftless … he scrounges scraps for food and cannot even build a home for himself. Even the children throw rocks at him. We respect your guidance Wot Eagle, but are you sure you want to send Coyote ?!”

“Yes, I know Coyote and what you say about him is true”, replied Eagle. “But he is also skilled in trickery and he is sly … how else do you think he survives, since he’s so lazy ? And somehow, he’s acquired a’tish’win (powers) that no other land creature has. He alone may challenge Swordfish.”

Hawk’s family remained reluctant to accept Coyote as Hawk’s rescuer.

“If that fool Coyote angers Swordfish in some lame attempt to rescue our kinsman, then we shall all suffer”, the father of Hawk said. “For it is Swordfish that helps our fishermen bring home food from the sea. Swordfish brings the fish near our boats and into our nets. We have all filled our bellies with rich whale meat when Swordfish chases a whale ashore … Coyote could turn Swordfish against us !”.

Eagle then spoke as Wot, and said: “Coyote may be worthless, but he knows how to use guile and deception to get what he wants. If anyone can rescue Hawk without further disrupting our lives, it is Coyote. Do not take counsel of your fears and lose our kinsman to the ocean depths. For you know well: a drowned person’s soul is forever lost.”

And so it was, that Eagle would send Coyote into the sea to bring Hawk back.

As it was, Eagle had little trouble persuading Coyote to go after Hawk. Eagle found Coyote snoozing in the shade of his favorite oak tree.

Showing his teeth in a snarly grin after hearing Eagle’s request, Coyote said: “Well, of course I am the only one who can save your precious nephew, my esteemed Wot ! But what is in it for me ?”

“Look at you, Coyote”, replied Eagle. “No one is held in lower esteem by the people than you.”

Coyote’s grin vanished. He looked away from Eagle, blowing out a loud “Hmpph !” as Coyote knew that his sorry reputation was well earned.

Raising his regal beak to the sky, Eagle said: “So, were you to return Hawk to our people think of how you would be hailed by a thankful village. Do you agree ?’, asked the Wot.

Without a further word and showing uncharacteristic energy for once, Coyote jumped to his feet and went to find Pelican and his tomol.

After directing Pelican to paddle his boat to the spot where Hawk had been lost, Coyote told him to wait for his return. Then, Coyote dived beneath the waves. “That is the last of him”, thought Pelican as he watched the ocean swallow Coyote’s scrawny butt and mangey old tail.

The Race

Coyote had eaten something from his medicine bag so that he could enter the underwater world, but he was a clumsy swimmer. As he dived deeper, his eyes bulged and there was an aching feeling in his big ears.

“My head hurts. I must make haste, find the House of Swordfish and Hawk and get out of here”, thought Coyote. On land Coyote could use his keen nose to follow tracks, but here on the ocean bottom there was nothing but ripples in the sand. There was no scent of Hawk.

Without warning, Coyote was caught in a powerful turbulence that threw his body into a fierce spin and sickening tumble.

 Unsure of which way was “up”, Coyote struggled to regain his composure.

Dizzy and disoriented, Coyote found himself before a huge Swordfish. The long sleek body and enormous fins of the Swordfish dwarfed Coyote. He was three times bigger than Pelican’s tomol and now, the Swordfish’s, sharp, spiked nose was pointed directly at Coyote.

“I did not see you as I swam by”, said the Swordfish with a shrug. “Hey, who are you stranger ? You’re an odd creature and not from these parts.”

Coyote dared not reveal too much about himself, so he said “Oh, I am from the land and came here seeking my lost cousin … Hawk."

“Oh, yes … is that what you call him, Hawk ?” With a smirk, the Swordfish said “Well, he’s on our menu now stranger, and he’s in the house of our Elders. Best you return to the land”, and then he turned to go.

“Wait, sir. Please, take me to my cousin so that I might see him one more time ?” pleaded Coyote.

Coyote had a hard time keeping up with the Swordfish, but soon found himself before the House of the Swordfish Elders where Hawk was hanging from the inside roof, and seemed to be asleep.

The eldest of the Swordfish now stood before Coyote and demanded that he go, so that they could eat their lunch. “You have seen your drowned cousin, stranger. Now take your leave !”

“No ! I came here to retrieve Hawk and return him to his family. I will meet any challenge that you place before me ! If I win, then I take home my cousin”, said Coyote.

The Elder Swordfish was taken aback by the bold dare of this scraggly stranger. Would the Elder let loose the awesome power of the Swordfish people upon this impertinent land creature ? A mere gesture from the Elder Swordfish could obliterate Coyote.

One of the other Swordfish chuckled. Then another. Then they all burst out laughing,

Smiling, the eldest Swordfish said, “A race. We’re hungry but that would not take long. Very well, so where do you wish to race, stranger ?”

“Over there and through there, and back again”, answered Coyote pointing to a score of distant spots. “But since I am not so familiar with this place, I need to mark the course of the race so I don’t lose my way.”

So the Elders of the Swordfish watched Coyote run out, and stop in the far distance at the first spot. Then their faces turned sour as they watched Coyote squat and defecate.

“This land creature is truly strange”, said the eldest Swordfish, shaking his head. Befuddled and disgusted, all of the elders turned away from the squatting stranger. They did not want to ruin their appetite for lunch.

They did not see nor hear what Coyote did next, as he drew something from his medicine bag and sprinkled it on his droppings, thus creating a duplicate of himself. “Lay here and wait”, instructed Coyote to his look alike.

“When I run past you, take up the race and tag the next Coyote further on … then, on the way back run to where I will be waiting so that I can cross the finish line” directed the real Coyote.

And then, Coyote went on to each spot on the race course and created more duplicate Coyote’s in the same way, each given the same instructions as the first one. Finally, he returned to the crowd of Swordfish and the starting line.

Not wasting a moment further, the eldest Swordfish announced, “Here is our champion!”

Out pranced the giant Swordfish that Coyote had first met. The swiftest and strongest of all Swordfish once again smirked down on Coyote.

Impatient to get it over with, the eldest Swordfish clapped three times. On the third clap the race was started.

Coyote’s opponent exploded from the start line, quickly gaining a lead. When Coyote got to the first of his duplicates, he was lagging far behind. However, jumping up, scrambling and gaining speed the first duplicate Coyote began to close the gap with the racing Swordfish.

The next duplicate Coyote surpassed and surprised his Swordfish rival. “This old man can really run !”, gasped the Swordfish. Now the Swordfish’s energy began to flag further along the course, and soon they were nearing the final spot before the finish.

The real Coyote had been resting easy and was pleased that his first duplicate Coyote was now comfortably ahead of the Swordfish. Coyote jumped up and ran across the finish … puffing and huffing, to make it look good and convincing.

“You win, stranger”, said a shocked and deflated, Elder Swordfish. “Now, take your cousin and leave our house !”

The Return

“My head hurts”, muttered Coyote to himself as he waited for one of the younger Swordfish to bring Hawk from the House of the Swordfish Elders where he had been hanging from the roof and appearing to be asleep. “I need to get out of this place”.

Finally, Hawk was roughly dropped at Coyote’s feet.

“Hawk is …. still … he is not awake !”, said Coyote to the Swordfish.

The Swordfish replied, “You have what you came for, stranger. We return him to you drowned, just as we found him. Leave now as our Elder told you.”

Now, the impatient Coyote was beside himself and grew agitated. His head pounded painfully and his ears had not stopped aching.

Had he come all of this way, and used all of his a’tish’win and wits just to return home with a drowned Hawk ? What Eagle had said about the people’s gratitude and respect for Coyote would not happen. Coyote would receive none of the accolades that he deserved.

Before the Swordfish could turn away, Coyote reached into his medicine bag and scooped a powder that he threw into the Swordfish’s face. The powder caused the Swordfish to begin sneezing. Coyote threw more of the powder at the Swordfish, and his sneezing grew violent, convulsing his whole body. Coyote did not stop throwing even more powder at the helpless Swordfish.

“Stop !”, sputtered the Swordfish. “Umpph … please … stop … no more !”

The ability to revive Hawk was beyond Coyote’s powers. Only the Swordfish people possessed the a’tish’win to revive a drowned person.

“Awaken my cousin now Swordfish, and you will breath freely again !”, yelled Coyote.

The Swordfish now grabbed Hawk and swam in a spiral towards the surface, gathering greater and greater speed, circling four times until finally, he breached the surface. The great Swordfish sailed above the waves, sunlight flashing across his silvery flanks.

The spark in Hawk’s soul had been nearly extinguished underwater, but the Swordfish’s power with the air and wind now fueled it to reignite … and Hawk caught a breath from the brisk, salty air.

Pelican was nearby and seeing the Swordfish release Hawk before diving back into the sea, he paddled as fast as he could to bring his tomol next to a sputtering Hawk, dragging his friend back into the boat.

“Hey !”, yelled Coyote from a distance, barely keeping his long snout above the surface, splashing and furiously treading water. “What about me, Pelican ?!”

And so it came to pass, that Coyote rescued Hawk from the mighty Swordfish. And just as Eagle had said, the people lauded Coyote, showering him in praise and offerings of thanks.

All my relations.

Northern Chumash Tribal Council: 
Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary: 
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