One of the first spring wildflowers to bloom on the Columbia Plateau are these gold stars, annuals that grow only an inch or two high, but in such numbers as to turn whole stretches of the shrub-steppe a cheerful yellow. I have always known them as coyote tears and I never see them without remembering a story I was told long ago.
You must understand that the Yakama people have always lived around here, and many of the lakes and rivers and creeks bear names from their Sahaptin language. The landscape is animated by their history and stories. Many tribes have stories of Coyote. I imagine a sharp-nosed person with big ears, and a scruff of tawny hair. Wearing patched jeans with frayed hems and a raggedy flannel shirt, Coyote is a Northwest native. He drinks cheap beer and throws the cans out of the window of his rusty old pickup. You might think “Oh, just another redneck,” but then you see the tail and the knowing eyes and you wonder. The Yakamas call him Speelyi.
One time, Coyote was walking through the timber and heard a voice saying, “I throw you up and you come back to me.” It was Chickadee, and Coyote was curious. He watched as the small bird plucked out his eyes and tossed them up. The eyes landed on a tree branch to look around, and plopped back into Chickadee’s eye sockets when called.
“That’s a pretty good trick,” thought Coyote. So he had to try it himself. He plucked out his eyes and said “I throw you up and you come back to me.” The eyeballs went up to a branch to look around, then came back to Coyote’s eye sockets. Coyote went around like this, juggling his eyes and chuckling and thinking about ways to make some money from this trick.
At this point, different things happen. In some versions, two ravens hear Coyote talking and steal the eyeballs. Or the eyes get lost. Coyote ends up blind and stumbles around without his eyeballs. He steals eyes from other people and they don’t work right. He tries huckleberries but they are too small. He bumps into a pine tree and feels around, finding two blobs of pitch. He puts those in his eye sockets, and can sort of see. Everything is all blurry and gummy, and he walks around crying. Where his tears fall on the ground, little golden flowers bloom. Coyote must have wandered and cried a lot, because there are many of those flowers coloring the rocky ground yellow in the spring.
They say it might have happened that way. From what I know of Coyote, I guess it could be true. He’s still around.