Story of Tk’emlúps: Coyote and the Kukpi7 tree

Kenthen Thomas of the Secwépemc Nation shares the story of Tk’emlúps, how Coyote made a tree fall in love with him.
Branches of trees are shown with mountains of forest in the background.
A long time ago, humans could talk to the animals and the trees, writes Kenthen Thomas. File photo/The Wren

This learning was originally published in newsletter format and has been reformatted for our website. A first story, “On calling Kamloops by its true name,” can be found here.

There are a lot of stories that are told in and around Tk’emlúps. The one that I think of the most when I think of Tk’emlúps is the story about how Coyote made a tree fall in love with him.

Coyote was wandering around doing what a Coyote does, running, jumping, having the time of his life. He loved being a Coyote, he loved being Sk’elep [sk-LAP]. He’s the one who we believe brought the salmon up the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. He’s the one who taught man how to catch fish and how to prepare it. And he’s one of the Animal People who we believe helped create the mountains, valleys, the rivers, the streams, the Tmicw [tim-YOUTH] the land — everything. And this is one of those stories.

So he is out wandering around just enjoying his life when all of a sudden he found himself in Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc. Suddenly he felt his chest tightening up on him. He could feel his breath escaping from his body. He howls away and he doesn’t know what’s going on with him. So he does the only thing he could think of. He takes off to his home. At that time he lived way up in the mountains towards Sexqeltqín [sess-KAL-kayin] which is also known as Adams Lake.

When he got there he leaned against a tree. And something beautiful happened. All of a sudden he felt the breath going back into his body. He felt his chest loosen up. He took a deep breath and he looked around and went, ‘Whoa, what was that all about?’

He thought about all the things that were happening at the time back in Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc. He remembered seeing a bird that swooped down and just about hit him in the head. Then he thought about the gust of wind that flew in from one direction and hit him in the face and just about knocked him down. And he thought, ‘Maybe those are what took my breath away?’

But like Coyote does, he stopped considering it, and he walked away.

It wasn’t much longer after this event that he found himself again in Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, wandering almost on the other side of Kamloops Lake. He was walking along the shores and all of a sudden it started happening again. His chest tightened up and he could feel his breath escaping from him. He started panicking and took off for home. He swam across the river and he ran up the mountains and through the valleys and made it back to his home near Sexqeltqín. When he arrived there he leaned against the tree again and he got his breath back. Now he thought to himself, ‘Well, this is going to need some more consideration.’

So he thought about the things that were happening the first time he was there, like the crazy bird that just narrowly missed his head, that gust of wind that nearly knocked him down. And he thought to himself, ‘Well, they weren’t there the second time. It was just me, the lake and the land. Maybe it’s something that’s always there?’

Well, he thought, Tk’emlúps is like a little semi-arid desert. There’s not very much there. And here in Sexqeltqín, Adams Lake, it’s the top of the watershed, so there’s lots of plants and medicines that grow from Mother Earth around. There’s berry bushes, moss, fungi. Tk’emlúps doesn’t have many trees.

So he thought, I’m going to go investigate. I’m going to wander around and try to figure out why my breath is escaping from me when I’m there. So he goes back through the valleys and over the mountains and back into Tk’emlúps.

There is a lot of sewllkwe [SEW-el-kwa], water, moving through this valley every day. It doesn’t just stay there like the lake. Here, it’s the meeting of two rivers. That’s what Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc means. So maybe it’s not the water, the sewllkwe, that’s taking my breath away.

So he thought a little bit more and he looked at the small medicines and plants that grow out of Mother Earth. Tk’emlúps has a lot of small plants and medicines too, like the sagebrush and the bunch grass all over the place.

Then he looked at the trees and he said, ‘Yeah, Tk’emlúps does have trees. But there’s not very many, not like back home.’ So he looked at all the trees and he said, ‘It must be the trees.’

Then all of a sudden he felt his breath escaping from him again. His chest was tightening up. So he swam across the lake, and he went up the mountains, down the mountains, and he went through the valleys. He arrived back at home. He looked around and leaned against a tree. And for a third time he got his breath back. He said, ‘It has to be the trees!’

But he wanted to make sure that his truth was his truth. So he says, ‘I’m going to go into Tk’emlúps one more time. And I hope I can make it back again, because this is getting a little dangerous

He went back to Tk’emlúps and he just stood there. And he waited. And he waited. And he waited. And all of a sudden he felt it happening. His breath escaped and his chest tightened up. And he was almost happy that it happened because it made his truth the truth. So he went all the way back to his home and leaned against the tree for a fourth time. He took a deep breath. And he laughed out loud. ‘It happened again! Now I can figure out exactly what’s happening. I need to talk to the trees!’

Kenthen Thomas laughs at a summer gathering
Kenthen Thomas, a storyteller from the Secwépemc Nation, tells stories near Lower Adams River at Tsútswecw Provincial Park in October 2021. Photo by Kristal Burgess/Culture Days

You see, a long time ago we could all communicate with each other. Humans could talk to the animals and the animals could talk to us and the trees. We’ve since lost that ability. But that’s a story for another time.

He started watching the trees and really studying them. He saw one tree in particular and he walked up to it and goes, ‘Oh tree, hello, my name is Coyote, some call me Sk’elep others call me Sklep. And down south some even know me as Senxúxwlecw [ske-LAP].’

The tree didn’t think very much of Coyote just looked down at him and said, ‘Get away from me, you stupid little dog!’

And Coyote went, ‘Oh wow how rude!’ And walked away.

So he walked up to a second tree and he goes, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And gave him the same spiel. ‘My name is Coyote, Sk’elep, Sklep and sometimes Senxúxwlecw. I want to talk to you about your breath today.’

The tree just looked at him, shook all of its leaves and swung a branch that narrowly missed his head. Coyote ran away.

While he was walking to a third tree to try and talk to it, he started noticing something about the trees. He started noticing that when their branches would touch the branches of another tree or another bush nearby it, the trees would pull away and say, ‘Get away from me!’ And they would all almost start fighting. He realized that the trees didn’t like each other, much less anyone else. They barely liked themselves.

So he walked up to a third tree and he half heartedly introduced himself, because he already knew what the response would be. ‘My name is Coyote, Sk’elep, Sklep and sometimes Senxúxwlecw. And I want to talk to you today about your breath and how it could save lives and how it should be shared with all of Mother Earth, the Tmicw, the land.’

And the tree just looked at him and had the same reaction. It swung a branch, trying to knock his head off of his shoulders, shaking leaves.

Finally, Coyote went, ‘Oh, this isn’t gonna work.’ He had to come at it from a different perspective.

So he searched all of the Secwépemc’ulucw [suh-WHEP-muhc-em-cooluc], all of it, looking for one tree in particular. He went though the entire territory, beyond Jasper, all the way down the Rockies to our shared territory with the syilx [SEEL-ugh] and the Stony Plain people. And he went up to the Arrow Lakes area, to the Fraser River beyond Esk’etemc [ES-ked-um] Alkali Lake, Williams Lake and then back to Jasper again.

And that’s when he found the tree. A tree that was so big and beautiful, if there was Kukwpi7 [KUK-pikh], a chief, of all the trees and living things on Mother Earth, that would be the chief. So he knew he couldn’t do the same spiel because it wouldn’t work. The tree would just ignore him. And this one just very well might knock his head off his shoulders.

Instead, he sang it a love song. The same one you might hear him singing in the middle of night when he’s howling at the moon. And after he finished singing to that tree, he gave it a big hug. He went over and he just hugged it as tight as his little arms could hug it. He gave it a little kiss and said, ‘Tree, my name is Coyote, Sk’elep, and I love you even if you can’t love yourself.’

The tree panicked. ‘Get away from me!’ It tried knocking his head off and shook all of its leaves. But Coyote didn’t stop. He did this for four full seasons. Sometimes two, three times a day he would sing that same song. ‘I love you tree. Even if you can’t love yourself.’

A wood fire burns
Storytelling by the fire in 2021. Photo by Kristal Burgess/Culture Days

For the first two seasons the tree detested this and wanted no part of it. If you had a little dog hugging your leg and kissing you, you would panic, too. But after a while, the tree started liking it and looking forward to the visits from Coyote. It would look around and pretend to not like it. But it would giggle when Coyote would hug and kiss it. ‘Stop it! Get away from me you little dog!’

After a while the tree started learning respect and love. It felt something different in its heart. And it would say, ‘Oh, there’s Coyote, my good friend. Oh, I’m so happy to see you.’

But Coyote saw something else happen, too. He saw the trees reconnect with one another. He saw them touching their roots and their branches. At first the trees would react and respond in the same old ways. But then they would feel that love go through their veins and into their heart. It would be like a breath of fresh air for all these trees.

Anything that shared the Tmicw, the land, with them, they would share that out. Before he knew it, it went all over the Secwépemc’ulucw and then all over Turtle Island, what is known as North America. And it went all over the world through the waters. And every single plant that’s shared with the Tmicw, the land, all of a sudden knew what love was.

He went back to that original tree and said, ‘Hello, how are you today?’

That tree looked down at him and said, ‘Oh Coyote, my good friend. So good to see you.’

Coyote looked up at the tree and he said, ‘I need to talk to you about something. These qelmúcw [kel-MUHK], people, they’re going to come to this world. They’re going to create what we call Qelmucwulucw, [KEL-muh-ulu] little villages, all over the place.’

And the tree said, ‘They sound wonderful. Tell me more about them. Can they fly?’

Coyote said, ‘No, no, they can’t fly on their own. They have no wings and their arms are kind of skinny.’

And then the tree says, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. At least are they fast? Can they run real fast so they can catch food and get away from predators?’

Coyote laughs. ‘No, they think they’re real fast, but they’re pretty slow compared to a cougar or a bear.’

And the tree said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. They sound so pitiful. Are they really strong?’ 

Coyote laughed again. ‘No! They’re pretty weak.’

And the tree said, ‘That’s too bad. Can they swim in the water?’

Coyote said, ‘They can swim, but they look pretty funny when they do.’

And the tree said, ‘How are they going to survive here on Mother Earth?’

Coyote said, ‘They’re going to get lots of help and support from all living things. The four legged are going to give themselves for food and for clothing. Some of the plants and shrubs that grow out of Earth are going to give themselves for nourishment and for medicines. And then some of the trees are giving themselves for medicines and for lodging and for tools and implements.’ 

And Coyote went on and on and explained all of the gifts that Mother Earth was giving to all of us humans so we could survive here.

Coyote looked at the tree and that’s when he knew he could tell the story. How Tk’emlúps is a semi arid-desert, with rolling hills and lots of little shrubs like sagebrush and bunchgrass, and lots of water. And he told him about when he lost his breath and how being next to a tree he could breathe again.

And that’s when the tree knew what it needed to do. The tree looked down at Coyote and said, ‘From now on, from this day forth, myself and all the other plants on Mother Earth, we will give our breath not just in our immediate area and for ourselves, but we’ll give our breath to the entire world. And that way, even when you’re in places like Tk’emlúps or anywhere else where there are no trees or plants nearby, you’ll still be able to use our breath. And in return, they can give us their breath and we will clean it for them and return it back to them. And it will go on like this for as long as we can.’

I always thought this Coyote story about Tk’emlúps was just about the breath and the sharing of love. It is about those things. But the big one, as I was taught, especially from one of the Elders just outside of Skeetchestn, Ronald Ignace, is that this story is about the kinship that we have with all living things.

At the end of our prayers, we say, “All my relations.” And when we say that, people think you’re only considering our humanity. That’s kind of a selfish way to think. Because there’s so much more to the tmicw [tim-YOUTH], the land, than our human counterparts, our friends, our family, our k̓wséltkten [KWES-el-tken].  

We share this land. And that’s part of reconciliation, as well. The understanding that we share this land with all living things. They’re all our relations. 

That to me is the proper way to think about this lived experience that we call life. That we need to understand that each community, each qelmucwulucw, [KEL-muh-ulu] and society, has its own set of principles, laws and rules, ways of seeing things, ways of knowing and doing. We need to respect that. And part of that respect is saying the names the proper way. 

It starts with the understanding and knowing that we all have our own history. We have a shared history. But we also have our own diverse and unique ways of doing and seeing and knowing things.

I’m honoured and humbled to share stories and knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way. 

Editor’s Note: The pronunciations provided are meant to serve as a guide to help you recognize the words and try to say them properly. Secwepemctsín (the language of the Secwépemc) has different dialects and pronunciations. Many of these sounds are not found in the English language and can be a challenge to learn. Where possible we have referenced spelling and pronunciation using First Peoples’ Cultural Council First Voices resource. Just try to say them, even if you stumble.

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