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The Wiley Coyote is not Welcome Among Western Indians

My wife, Doris, 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.

We 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.

The 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 Doris 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, Doris and I 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 of us.

We went home that night, confident that the evil spirit that haunted us was, at last done away with and we were all safe.

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 truck cab.

Next 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.