Indigenous Cultural Influence in Modern American Culture

Indigenous Mythology and folklore influenced Modern American Culture in ways that are often not apparent (in some cases – denied), and continues to influence popular culture to this day in ways that have caused the traditional stories to become inseparable from contemporaneous culture. In this essay, a popular cartoon from the last 100 years will be analyzed in order to suggest that there are numerous Indigenous Mythological influences present in the story, despite the author not indicating the influence. This essay will offer a very brief introduction to the concept that Indigenous Mythological folklore and stories are sources of content for profit-extracting, culture-producing film production companies that use them to show cultural and community values in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons as the original stories. These were traditionally told by a community of people (often – storytellers/elders) to a younger generation that would form a cultural framework that would then become part of the identity of each individual.

Warner Bros., which produced the cartoon depicting a coyote and a roadrunner called “Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner”, arose from four brothers (Albert, Sam, Jack, Harry) who were raised by their immigrant father (Benjamin) & mother who lost all the family capital from a bad investment in the Canadian Fur Trade in London, Ontario. This followed fifteen years of living in various US locations trying to find stability after immigrating. This ended with Benjamin building a family trade as cobblers, which provided the growing family a needed recovery from financial disaster. This trade would come to provide for the brothers while growing up. (Viera 145/5857). Benjamin would’ve had a moderate Indigenous American exposure due to the fact that the fur trade, around the turn of the 20th century, consisted of predominantly Indigenous traders who subsisted off game hunting. This exposure would’ve influenced the brothers in ways the history books don’t generally cover very well due to the personal nature of the details. Further investigation would be needed in order to determine the exact level of Indigenous cultural influence on the lives of the four brothers in their childhood, but the expectation is that they were no less than aware of Indigenous stories due to their father having worked with many Indigenous people during his time in the Fur Trade.

The brothers’ company became what’s known today as Time Warner. Further discussion on corporate structure is warranted here and for the scope of this essay, the understanding is that Warner Bros. media company acquired the rights to Merrie Melodies which then became Looney Tunes. A large innovation that was introduced by the Warner brothers through their company was the usage of synchronized audio tracks to go along with their moving pictures, which came to be known as movies (Viera 282/5857). This addition of sound came about in 1929, where it was described that the premiere of The Jazz Singer was lauded as Viera describes it, “There were gasps, then shouts, then a standing ovation. The sensation of synchronized dialogue startled viewers-then had them begging for more.” (Viera 315/5857). This display would’ve been the first time many Americans had stories told to them in such a way, with audio and visual input, outside of plays. This style of storytelling was central to, and practiced by, Indigenous folks for centuries beforehand. Screenplays had been around, but American culture wasn’t as good a facilitator of the form of entertainment whereas in European locations this was a more popularized form of entertainment. Many historic cultures would’ve had many different stories that differentiated their diverse past and it appeared that Warner Bros. had an initiative to reintroduce characters that’d previously been in folklore back into popular culture (covered later) through this new technological medium. In light of Indigenous affairs, their company took the place of the storytellers and would go on to do so under the guise of Merrie Melodies (Later – Looney Tunes).

Merrie Melodies released the first cartoon of “Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner” in 1949 with an episode titled, “Fast and Furry-ous”. The skit was the beginning of what became the popular duo still seen in contemporaneous American culture today, where, “Audiences loved the Coyote’s crazy schemes to catch the Road Runner, especially because every one ended in disaster for the frustrated Coyote,” (Korte 64). Korte is making the point here that the reception of these characters was good. This introduction to Americans at the time was given to a generation that was the first to grow up in a post world war era where the Indigenous peoples of the Americas were no longer in the scope of regular discussion as they were prior to the world wars – these were displaced by emerging trends for globalization after hundreds of years of domestic struggle. The introduction of this cartoon was the first mention of the animals to a new generation of Americans through popular American culture since the recording of oral stories from various Indigenous tribes back to at least 1901, when the brothers were growing up, as will be covered later.

As televisions became a part of American households in the 1940s, the Warner Bros. studio turned to shorter tracks so as to not compete with itself, and its competition with Disney lead it to produce short bits, or cartoons where, “filmed images are shown quickly one after another, [so] it appears that they are moving. Short animated movies are also known as cartoons, and they have been around since the late 1800s” (Korte 4). These cartoons became important methods of telling stories in ways very similar to Oral and Visual storytelling that’re heavily practiced in Indigenous communities.

Korte goes on to make the point that the industry for cartoons was heavily competitive and Movie producers such as Warner Bros. saw this market as an avenue to produce profits for their company and wrote on cartoons that, “Warner Bros. was so happy with the success … Warner Bros. was determined to become Disney’s biggest competitor.” (Korte 21). This means that the high level of competition would’ve placed the company in a position where it would benefit from relatable characters that had just recently fallen out of the public eye, as will be discussed later. With this type of storytelling being in use since the late 1800s, and the newly shown ability to build a corporate profit from it, there was a large motivation to pull from a previously successful medium that was seen in use in American Indigenous Culture for centuries. This included Oral and Visual storytelling, and essentially set the stage for adaptations to this new visual medium that had recently been combined with an auditory aspect that the Warner Brothers were famous for introducing at the time.

With Warner Bros.’ constant competition with Disney, and the overwhelming influence of movie production outfits like Paramount and other competition, pre-existing Indigenous Mythology was used to influence and bolster a company that might not’ve been able to compete. Lacking trademarks and copyrights opened Indigenous folklore stories to unrestricted usage and subsequent incorporation in popular American culture at the time. Much of the precedent was already set in that the idea having been had of a coyote and a roadrunner doing surreal things (Shown in later section). What would need to be taken care of on the creative side were artists to draft the cartoon sketches. In short, the contemporary cartoon has taken the place of traditional Oral and Visual storytelling by ones community through storytellers in order to impart cultural values into a younger generation. Each story forms an interconnected network of stories. In much the same way Indigenous mythology revered animals like the spider whose creation myths often reflect the interconnectedness of all things, so too did they incorporate coyotes and roadrunners into their folklore. After a specific analysis of cartoon episodes reflecting indigenous influence and callouts, various Indigenous stories will be discussed that will be shown to indicate a high likelihood of Native American influence in these cartoons.

The “Wile E. Coyote & Road Runner” cartoon features a few various callouts that show an Indigenous influence that gave rise to the idea of a coyote chasing a roadrunner around a surrealistic desert for time immemorial. It was originally directed by Chuck Jones, who’s credited with the origin of the cartoon characters that share many personality traits with the Indigenous Mythological depictions of the animals themselves. The first director after Jones was Rudy Larriva. Aside from both Coyote and Roadrunner being incorporated in various Indigenous stories prior to the cartoons conception, two episodes in particular that indicate influence from Indigenous folklore are, “Out and Out Rout”, and,“The Solid Tin Coyote”. In, “Out and Out Rout”, there’s a depiction of Hermes (Ancient Greek deity) and the ensuing antic indicates that there’s a tendency to incorporate external mythological influences which then was written into the skits. Rudy Larriva was actively referring mythology to create content for this episode (Larriva “Out and Out Rout” 2:12-3:13). In next scene of this same episode we see Coyote assembling a vehicle from junkyard parts, where front and center opening scene is depicted an Native-syled canoe (Larriva “Out and Out Rout” 3:13-4:44). Why a canoe? Why a junkyard? Why build a skit from this?

Was Larriva insinuating that there’s a “junkyard” of folklore and mythology that the studio picked and chose from in order to make skits for American cartoon companies to profit off of? Further, was there an implication that some Indigenous deities abandoned their own people on order to take part in European and American affairs, appearing in their cartoons, where they’d be performing their small part in becoming part of a worldwide cultural body? Whatever the motive or context, Warner Bros. profited immensely. Larriva himself was a Texan of Mexican heritage and further research would be needed to determine the rationale for the types of depictions in his show, which is outside the scope of this writing. In the next episode, “The Solid Tin Coyote”, the show recycles the opening junkyard scene where it again opens up with Coyote coming out of the canoe, from the same dump and canoe of an Indian style and front and center of the scene same as last time (Larriva “The Solid Tin Coyote” 0:16). There are likely many more references that can be gleaned from the series and its spinoffs, but a perusal of all extant cartoons that incorporate Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner would be too broad of a topic for this essay.

The originator of the cartoon, Chuck Jones, has described the origin of the characters and their character traits. Specifically he writes that Wile E. Coyote came from Mark Twain’s Description of a coyote. Jones writes, “I first became interested in the Coyote while devouring Mark Twain’s Roughing It at the age of seven. … The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.” (Jones 39). A question that would’ve been great to ask of Jones was what it was that inspired him to pair a coyote up with a roadrunner? Jones did indicate that the desert was the natural habitat for them to be seen together later in his book. Was Jones possibly susceptible to the same mindset that prevailed in the appropriation of Indigenous culture in sports teams in taking on Indigenous Mascots and dances and performing them inappropriately? In other words, was he in a mindset of partial denial which was rooted in a lack of education of American Indigenous cultures, while being slightly exposed to their beliefs without attribution throughout his life?

Jones later reminisces on the character of Wile E. Coyote in writing, “There is absolute logic to the devices that the fanatically single-minded Coyote uses. They should work, but there’s always one tiny thing wrong, and, as with most of us, that tiny thing leads to disaster. Human beings, of course, in even their most grandiloquent plans, often resemble coyotes.” (Jones 238). This quote reveals the commonality of the Coyote in Indigenous Stories and the Coyote that Jones wrote of. While the Indigenous people would hear stories of Coyote and might liken themselves to the animal who always seemed to have one lesson to offer, the coyote Jones writes of also always has one thing that foils his own plans and in this Jones allows a consumer to see themselves in a Coyote in the same way Indigenous stories empowered their listeners to see themselves in their stories. Jones saw Coyote everywhere, in the same way Indigenous people see Coyote everywhere – and with the same mythical regard for the animal that was often seen in futile attempts and comical antics as will be seen shortly. Both are shown having an air of futility and persistence as their general themes.

The coyote and greater roadrunner animals have a rich history in Indigenous mythology and folklore that’re quite reminiscent of the cartoon and the influence seems undeniable, that Indigenous Mythology influenced and even possibly lead to the creation of his cartoon characters, despite Jones’ claims. The hunger was just one aspect of Wile E. Coyote’s larger personality, which was to employ futile tricks in order to satisfy this Want. Want alone is a lot of things. There’s people that want food where they beg, or starve, or make it themselves, generally quite successfully. They don’t usually employ tricks as a character trait, or prepare meals of tin cans despite being surrounded by more edible cactuses. It’s not common to look at hungry people and think immediately that they’re trying to trick someone, this is a trait of Wile E. Coyote that Jones depicted.

Indigenous cultures have the concept of a mythological deity that they refer to as Coyote. The depiction is often of the animal itself but may also take other forms, generally the notion is that an animal is playing a trick to convey cultural value and is referred to often as a trickster-god in describing the role in the stories. In the mythological stories, the animal is often seen to provide life lessons through the form of antics and tricks that otherwise show the values inherent to the originating culture. Indigenous stories have previously spread through the use of Oral History up until quite recently. This means that there would be no copyrighted or trademarked material or characters that someone could build a lawsuit around. The stories were often exchanged in moments, as oral stories could only be so long. The length of a typical cartoon is roughly the length of a typical Indigenous oral story. The likeness of this style of storytelling was a perfect fit for the way in which animated cartoons came to essentially act as a surrogate medium by which these types of stories were passed along. There are many differences that are outside the scope of this essay.

Three Indigenous mythological stories featuring folklore that involved Coyote are, “Coyote Kills the Giant” (Flathead), “Coyote Gets Rich Off the White Man” (White Mountain Apache), and, “Coyote Steals the Sun and the Moon” (Zuni). There’s a story about a blue bird and Coyote, “The Bluebird and Coyote” (Pima). One story about roadrunner birds is, “Road Runner Girls Grind” (Cochiti). The mythology isn’t limited to these stories alone – these are just a few selections of the vast array of stories that form the framework of Indigenous folklore.

In, “Coyote Kills the Giant”, a story about a Coyote reported in 1901, we see Coyote saying of a club-like object, “”I’ll hit the giant over the head with this. It’s big enough and heavy enough to kill him.”” (Erdoes 223). Later we find out that this is done in futility, reminiscent of the cartoon skits written about above, as Coyote is later told that he is actually in the belly of the giant that he intended to hit with the club he found. This type of comical futility of a Coyote who grabbed a useless club when what he needed was a knife, when paired with the second half of the story that includes a lesson on feeding people, is a reported Indigenous mythological story. The surreal environment of being inside of a giant, a Coyote coming up with a half-cocked plan to club a giant he was already inside the stomach of, is highly reminiscent of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote racing around surreal landscapes.

The next story from Indigenous folklore is, “Coyote Gets Rich Off the White Men”, where Coyote plays a trick on white campers to get their money. The story was reported in 1939, which was before Jones’ cartoon was released by a decade. Here again, we see Coyote in a comedic light as he deftly separates the campers from their money. He does this by convincing them that a donkey was full of money and would defecate money, and that the campers buying the donkey would profit because of this, but the whole thing was a ruse. Coyote was stuffing the animals with money and then taking the money back, leaving the rest in there for the campers. Coyote was left with both his original sum as well as what was paid for the animal by the white campers, hence the title. This was also done with a tree. In the story it’s written, “Coyote was always thinking about eating, and he hoped the packs held food.” (Erdoes 370). This quote bears an exact likeness to Wile E. Coyote as described above, where Jones describes Coyote as starved. Additionally, the theme of futility in coming up with plans and investing time that would otherwise be well spent was one that was heavily implied in the cartoon also, where the Coyote is always seen having gotten a faulty Acme product (Jones does say that money was not a part of the cartoon – the Coyote always was sent the device to be used).

One final story incorporating discussion of Coyote in Indigenous mythology is, “Coyote Steals the Sun and the Moon”, and the story opens up with, “Coyote is a bad hunter who never kills anything … Coyote is always up to something,” in yet another exact likeness of Wile E. Coyote from this story reported in 1935, just 14 years from the airing of the cartoon (Erdoes 140). Wile E. Coyote is often seen in episodes with an Indian-themed bow, using himself as an arrow, and never kills anything. He is also depicted as always being up to something in the cartoon. Later in this story, Eagle denies Coyote in saying, “”No, no, you always mess everything up.”” (Erdoes 142). This line is incredibly similar to the character traits Jones described Wile E. Coyote to have in his book, when he relates Coyote to humans in that something small always goes wrong as written above.

As can be seen from three different stories from tribes centered in New Mexico (Zuni), Arizona (White Mountain Apache) and Montana (Flathead), Coyote is a central figure in Indigenous Mythology. These are just three tribes that span a vast area of the United States – many other tribes have Coyote as a central character in their mythological and communal beliefs that have been told as Oral Stories for centuries prior to the notion of a cartoon as it’s known today. In each of these stories, Coyote is seeing as playing tricks, or utilizing comical, futile antics in order to teach a lesson. This mythological creature shares an uncanny number of personality traits with Wile E. Coyote, for one to not be based on or influenced by the other, and instead solely based on Twain’s work as was written. It’s revealing to consider Coyotes’ counterpart, the Road Runner, as well as Indigenous stories relating to the bird.

The Road Runner as an Indigenous Mythological deity reigns largely in the southwestern and central United States of America, which is its typical habitat. The Pueblo tribes along with many others including Apache depicted this animal in various ways that often described the bird as being able to lead one to a road, possibly leading English speakers to determine that its common name should just be roadrunner. The bird has a rich history in being incorporated in Indigenous cultures and is often viewed as a heroic icon, Martha Anne Maxon writes in her “The Real Roadrunner”, “It is not surprising that Native cultures existing side by side with the roadrunner for many centuries have incorporated the bird into many of their folkways and rituals. The roadrunner also was a favorite animal of the early Euro-American pioneers who settled in the Southwest.” (Maxon 91). This quote highlights the importance of this bird in cultures that branded it as brave, swift, bringer of rain, protector, remedy in other sections of the chapter in “The Real Roadrunner”.

Maxon writes that National Geographic was able to sponsor an interview with the creator of the iconic cartoon character Road Runner, Chuck Jones, who stated, “… he based his caricature on his memories of roadrunners from when he was a lad in Southern California.” (Maxon 103). Chuck Jones’ keen road runner observation skills would’ve also enabled him to be just as sensitive to the cultures he was also surrounded by that would’ve endowed him with an internal identity sufficient to recognize the birds specific characteristics that he came to share in parallel with them. He lived in the same geographical area as the same cultures that originated the ideas he incorporated into his cartoons, and would’ve been just as exposed to them as he was the bird itself. It was the case that he likely had daily interactions with these people with these specific cultural identities, and that he may not have been educated on Indigenous folklore may be a reason for a lack of attribution to them in his work.

One mythological story about roadrunners comes from the Cochiti tribe and is called, “Road Runner Girls Grind”, where we see a traditional story of Road Runner girls grinding blue cornmeal only to have their actions thrown into a tumultuous chaos due to the antics of Coyote who wants to grind acorns. In the story it’s written on the death of Coyote that Crow says, “”All the kinds of birds that eat meat, come and eat Coyote, for he has done mischief.” (Benedict 149-150). This idea of a mischievous coyote is very reminiscent of Jones’ cartoon, and the depiction of an innocent “heroic” protagonist characters as Road Runner Girls in this story only further supports this, for they’ve provided sustenance for the other animals for having killed the coyote. In Jones’ cartoon, the Road Runner was also a blue protagonist. Even more, the book in which this story was found was published in 1931, almost two decades before the cartoon. It could be argued that this may be the another episode of “Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner”, due to how similarly the interactions are between the Road Runner Girls and Coyote.

In tying the cartoon depictions to the mythological folklore, the recurring theme that all of Wile E. Coyotes’ antics always result in failure is a copy of the likeness of the Indigenous representation of Coyote. Coyote was often seen as playing tricks on white men, to their disadvantage, and Coyote’s success. This was not without a substantially larger body of stories that indicate a series of misfortunes for the deity. The command of strong humor in the Indigenous population seems to have not outright rejected or otherwise claimed the depiction as an appropriation of their culture at this time. The comical representation of the animals in the cartoon in the very least appears to rhyme with the intent of Indigenous oral tradition that incorporates humor at many levels. It could be concluded that the depiction isn’t outright offensive but the lack of a general association with Indigenous folks could be taken as an offensive gesture despite this.

In a different light, an alternative interpretation of the cartoon series is that it possibly was the case that Wile E. Coyote was sickened with some ailment and that he was just looking for a cure, as is the theme in other Indigenous cultures? Yet another is that there are an abundant number of cactuses around but Wile E. is seen preparing tin cans to eat instead, as if he had pica or some other mental disease that prevented him from rationally assessing that his continued dynamite usage and and his antics as well as the repeated use of acme products was possibly a form of dementia. These behaviors are expected of an American Cartoon, due largely to their attention-grabbing, surreal nature. On the other hand these same cartoons are in a precarious situation as they are designed in such a way as to get Americans to laugh at these Indigenous deities. Fortunately for Coyote, he’d already been caught in these types of antics for many centuries. Coyote being plagued and charactured with an inability to succeed was highly reminiscent of the underlying futility of Indigenous peoples in their initial embracing American culture that worked so hard to keep them silent, unnecessarily.

One last reference to Indigenous mythology that should be covered to close out this essay is called, “The Bluebird and the Coyote”, which originated from the Pima Tribe. It doesn’t specifically call out a roadrunner, but is yet another example of precedent set that would otherwise lead one to come to the conclusion that Indigenous Mythology influenced the American film production company Warner Bros. in ways being covered in this essay. In the story, Coyote says, “”How is it that all your ugly color has come out and now you are blue and gay and beautiful? You’re more beautiful than anything that flies in the air. I want to be blue too.” (Erdoes 347). This sets the narrative that the Bluebird has got something Coyote wants.

The importance of this story is that it appears to be a motivation for Coyote to go on and chase Road Runner for time immemorial, the reason they are paired up is because Bluebird has something that Coyote wants, other than to fill his belly – which is to be blue again, to be beautiful once again. In this story a road is mentioned as well – providing a persistent setting seen in the surreal desert landscapes found in the cartoon. This story was reported in 1908, which was before the cartoon came to be and was in circulation when the cartoon’s creator was growing up. Maybe the Warner Bros. and Chuck Jones had heard the same stories? These kinds of questions can no longer be answered by the creators of the cartoon, for they’ve passed on and have left their legacy that clearly shows a large Indigenous influence that’s interwoven into the storyline of the cartoon. Jones describes the rationale for Wile E. to chase the Roadrunner as, “simply trying to get something to eat … the Road Runner is caviar to the Coyote.” (Jones 171). This doesn’t appear to be the case from digging up the Indigenous folklore.

In this essay, it’s been shown that Warner Bros. family life was influenced by the Indigenous Fur Trade in Canada. It was shown that the resulting production company used mythology in their cartoon skits. It was shown that some of the episodes feature some highlights Indian themed artifacts. It was shown that the animals in the cartoon shared personality traits with the Indigenous Mythological Deities. It was shown that Oral and Visual Storytelling had a rich usage in Indigenous Culture which was used as a model for the American Cartoon shortly after the Oral Stories came to be written down in the early 1900s. It was shown that numerous Indigenous folklore stories bear a likeness to the characters in Looney Tunes. While this is generally circumstantial evidence, it’s apparent that Indigenous mythology was a source of origination for this story, and with that being said many questions can be asked – and should be. This action opened the door for entire belief systems to be utilized as cheap content for contemporaneous profit-seeking American film production companies. Further research into this line of reasoning might show further motivations that cannot be within the scope of this essay which aimed to only suggest the notion that the cultural influence of Native American Mythological folklore made Film Production Companies a lot of profits and influenced American popular culture. Certainly it’s likely the case that far more in-depth analyses on the specific subject of Indigenous Coyote & Roadrunner myths being retold in American Culture for profit have already been written and just haven’t been come across yet – this essay is the result of what can be gleaned from the sources cited below.

In conclusion, Indigenous Mythology and folklore heavily influenced Modern American Culture in ways that are often not apparent (in some cases – denied), and continues to influence popular culture to this day in ways that have caused the original stories to become inseparable from contemporaneous culture. In this essay, popular cartoon characters that are iconic in American culture, including Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, from Looney Tunes and Warner Bros. Studios, were be shown to have Indigenous Influences that are not readily apparent. This was be done by analyzing the industry, discussing the concept of an American Cartoon, discussing the cartoon characters personalities themselves, and then an analysis of Indigenous myths that discuss the same animals were covered. There are many times in this essay that further investigation was indicated as needed and should at least serve as a basic point of reference for one to continue looking for what it is that they want.

Works cited

Beck, Jerry. Friedwald, Bill. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons. New York. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1989.

Beck, Jerry. Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide. New York. DK Publishing, Inc., 2003.

Benedict, Ruth. Tales of the Cochiti Indians. Washington. United States Government Printing Office, 1931.

Erdoes, Richard. American Indian Myths and Legends : Coyote Kills the Giant (Flathead), pp. 223-225, Coyote Gets Rich Off the White Man (White Mountain Apache), pp. 369-371, Coyote Steals the Sun and the Moon (Zuni), pp. 140-143, The Bluebird and Coyote (Pima), pp. 346-347. New York, Pantheon Books, 1984.

Jones, Chuck. Chuck Amuck: the life and times of an animated cartoonist. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1989.

Korte, Steve. What Is the Story of Looney Tunes? New York. Penguin Workshop, 2020.

Maxon, Martha Anne. The Real Roadrunner. Norman. The University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

“Out and Out Rout.” Merrie Melodies, created by Rudy Larriva, Warner Bros., 29 January 1966.

“The Solid Tin Coyote.” Merrie Melodies, created by Rudy Larriva, Warner Bros., 19 February 1966.

Viera, Mark A.. Warner Bros. 100 Years of Storytelling. China. Running Press, 2023.

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