The Wiley Coyote is not Welcome Among Western Indians
My wife was riding with Elfrieda, a Navajo friend, along one of the many dirt trails snaking their way across the reservation
in Northeastern Arizona when a coyote ran across the road in front of the pickup.
Elfrieda unexpectedly hit the brakes
and brought her vehicle to a dead stop in the middle of the road. "Did you see that?" she asked in a frightened voice.
learned that day about a strange native superstition. The Navajo believe that the coyote is a very bad omen, even worse than
the ancient European belief about black cats.
The coyote, whose natural habitat is the high desert regions of the southwest,
plays an important role in most tribe beliefs. Tribal rituals include a dancer who plays the part of the coyote. When he appears
he is always a cunning trickster. When he closes the rear of a procession of dancers or marchers, his job is to close up ranks
and keep evil spirits away.
But in this case, when the animal appeared on the road in front of Elfrieda's truck, she
believed the coyote was signaling the arrival of a bad spirit. The woman explained that unless something was done, one of
the two riders in the truck would experience very bad fortune. Usually the spirit brought death or sickness to either the
rider or to a close member of the family.
Navajos often carry loaded firearms in their vehicles for these kinds of
emergencies. When a coyote is seen on the road, it must be killed. In this case, there was no rifle in the truck so Elfrieda
produced her second alternative, a small bag of dried cedar. She used it in a ritual of prayer and then sprinkled the cedar
on the road at the point where the coyote crossed. This erased the evil spell so the two could continue safely on their journey.
alternative, at least in the mind of the Navajo, was to turn around and go another way. A third choice was to stop and wait
until another vehicle passed, thus cutting the deadly cord. In Navajo country, these alternatives could mean either a very
long wait or driving many miles out of your way.
That evening, the same Navajo woman was riding with my wife and me
in our car on yet another road near Greasewood, a reservation community. We were amazed when yet another coyote crossed our
path. Elfrieda spotted it in the headlights of my car long before we did. "Stop the car!" she demanded.
Now we were
in a serious pickle. I carried no firearm in my car and there was no bag of dried cedar. We were on an isolated road in unknown
territory, late at night, and the thought of turning around would get us seriously lost. The roads on the reservation are
dirt trails that wind and twist, they split off in a variety of directions, they go on for many miles and there are no signposts
to help a traveler find his way. Waiting for another vehicle to pass might have kept us parked there all that night and part
of the next day.
So what were we to do? While I was not worried about the appearance of Mr. Coyote, we respected the
native beliefs and we wanted to do all we could to make sure no harm came to our friend and her family. If she believed the
coyote would bring trouble, we knew it probably would happen.
We talked it over and Elfrieda thought of a solution
to our dilemma. She told us to drive on, and to go directly to the home of a Navajo medicine man. There we had a special prayer
service. The medicine man took hot coals from his wood burning stove, placed them on a metal dish on the floor. We all sat
around the coals while he spoke prayers in the Navajo tongue. As he chanted, he sprinkled dried cedar on the coals. The cedar
crackled as it burned and gave off a wonderful aroma. The medicine man used an eagle feather to wave the smoke over all three
We went home that night, confident that the evil spirit that haunted us was, at last done away with and we were
The following day, however, Elfrieda appeared, her face ashen. "It happened again," she cried. "Another coyote
ran across the road in front of me. Now I know that it is me that is causing this thing."
Elfrieda and her husband
traveled that very day to the Hopi Reservation where they consulted a medicine man whom they considered capable of dealing
with this kind of problem. This man performed a ritual, touched Elfrienda's hand, and by sensing her energy, revealed the
cause of the trouble.
This ritual was very secret and we were not allowed to attend the ceremony. Obviously, we were anxious to learn the
conclusion to this strange story.
We were told that someone had placed a curse on this woman and her husband. The Hopi
medicine man told them to look inside their truck. There, he said they would find a ball of something with hair and paper
in it, a black magician's hex, stuffed somewhere near the seat on the driver's side. This thing contained an evil spirit,
which, if not removed, could cause the driver of the vehicle to have a serious accident.
He told them a second hex
was placed somewhere in the dirt near a hogan, directly beside their home.
Although it was winter, we were enjoying
a warm and sunny day, so we went to work. We looked everywhere in the truck and found nothing. Next we removed the seats.
Everything was carefully examined, but no furry ball of anything was found.
Next, we removed the plastic walls inside
the truck cab. There it was. A large mass of wadded paper and hair was removed and burned. It was located just where the medicine
man said it would be, directly behind the fold-down back seat, on the driver's side. We found it strange that the truck did
not appear to have been tampered with. To remove that upholstery, we had to spend a lot of time removing a lot of very small
screws. It seemed that the seats and the plastic interior were the way they were when the truck came from the factory. Yet
somehow, that evil ball of hair and paper had been magically placed between the interior and metal exterior walls of that
we explored the earth near the front door of the hogan. After some amount of digging, a second ball of hair and paper was
found. This also was destroyed.
Was the hex real? To the Navajo, these kinds of things are all taken very seriously.
They live in an esoteric world of magic and spells that might baffle the mind of most outside observers. All this writer can
say is that the woman stopped seeing coyotes on the road and to this day, no serious trouble has fallen on her or her family.