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Fire Race, A Karuk Coyote Tale

by Jonathan London


Fire Race questions our assumptions about the morality of stealing, and promotes the value of sharing and cooperation.

It is very cold and the animals of the forest have no way to keep warm. The yellow jacket sisters guard the fire on their high mountain, unwilling to share their fire with the animals. How will the animals stay warm? Will they steal the fire or freeze?

Read aloud video in English and Karuk

Read aloud video by Mrs. Estes (read aloud begins at 0:25)

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

This story comes from Native American culture. There are many Native American tribes, and each tribe has many stories that have been told since long ago to teach important lessons. Fire Race is a story based on Karuk Indian folklore. It raises critical issues in ethics and political philosophy. In the story, three bees, the Yellow Jacket Sisters, have fire and will not share it. The animal community is in danger of freezing to death, so the animals steal fire from the bees to survive the winter. This story raises the ethical issue of whether the end justifies the means.

Ethics is the field of philosophy concerned with human behavior. Some ethicists hold that certain types of action are simply wrong because they violate moral rules. According to such theorists, stealing is wrong, so the animals acted immorally when they stole the fire.

Philosophers who contend nothing (including stealing) is inherently good or evil would argue that the rightness of an action depends on its consequences. On this view, the action that leads to the highest increase in welfare is the right one to do. Because this was a life or death situation for the animals, but the bees’ lives were not threatened as a result of the theft, it was not morally wrong for the animals to steal the fire.

The story thus presents an interesting case for thinking about which moral theory is valid. In addition, it raises the question of whether a person can be blamed for doing something that is morally wrong. If a mother, for example, has starving children and she has the opportunity to acquire food but only by stealing, is she still blameworthy when she steals? One possibility is that she is not culpable under the circumstances. Another possibility is that there are degrees of blameworthiness, and in this case the mother would not be held to a high degree of accountability. In this sense, one could say that the animals are wrong for stealing fire, but it was understandable under the circumstances, such that they are not held as accountable as they otherwise would be.

Another issue raised in Fire Race is cooperation. The animals cooperate in the story–but to what end? They work together for the survival of their community on one hand but steal to do it on the other hand. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” Indeed, in social philosophy working toward a common vision/goal is the essence of a productive community. Still, the question of whose vision is being worked toward calls inclusion and marginalization into question. In Fire Race, one may argue that the bees represent tyrannical authority, greedily controlling resources. From this view, the animals are an oppressed population that becomes empowered through cooperative resistance. One could also argue that the animals’ cooperation is akin to mutiny or organized crime. Was this instance of cooperation heroic or iniquitous?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion


When the bees choose not to sacrifice their comfort for the good of the animals, the book suggests, “They are wicked and will not share.”

  1. Who do you share with?
  2. What do you share with family? With friends?
  3. What about your favorite toy/article of clothing, do you have to share it? Why/why not?
  4. What does it mean when you’re selfish?
  5. Is it always selfish not to share something?

Cooperation and Stealing

When coyote says, “Cooperate and work together, we can steal the fire,” is this cooperation to do something good or bad?

  1. What does it mean to cooperate? Ask for examples of a time the students cooperated.
  2. What would have happened in the personal example if the students didn’t cooperate?
  3. What would have happened if the animals didn’t cooperate to steal the fire?
  4. Can cooperation be bad? What about a bunch of people who cooperate to rob a store?
  5. When the animals cooperate to steal the fire, is it different than if a group of kids plan to steal a toy from someone? If so, how?

Is Stealing Always Wrong?

Other stories, like Robin Hood, portray the thief as the hero. The animals stole fire from the bees so they wouldn’t freeze. Is it always wrong to steal?

  1. Is it ever okay to steal?
  2. What if your little brother or sister was starving and the only way you could get food was to steal it? Would it be okay then? Why? Why not?
  3. Robin Hood stole from the rich and mean King John to give to starving poor people. Does that make it okay for Robin Hood to steal? Why? Why not?
  4. Is the case of Robin Hood different than the animals stealing fire in this story? What makes it similar or different?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion archived here. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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