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The Snake Stick that
Upset the Navajo

Before leaving Michigan for Arizona in 1995, my wife acquired an intricately carved wooden stick carefully shaped and painted to look like a diamond-back rattlesnake. It was a beautiful piece of art and we paid a good deal of money to have it.

The man who sold it to her, who I now think of as a snake oil salesman of the worst kind, charmed Doris into thinking she needed the piece of art for a special ritual that was to occur on the Hopi reservation after our arrival. He told her that she needed to give it as a gift to a powerful tribal leader. Once doing this, he said she would be well received by the Indians.

That snake had an effect on the Arizona Indians all right, but it did not happen the way we expected.

You see it was Navajo, not Hopi Indians who first made our acquaintance. And when Raymond and Elfrieda Begay invited us to come on the reservation and live with them in their Navajo home, the snake was among the paraphernalia we brought with us when we moved in.

It turned out that the Navajo, like most Native Americans, share some deep-rooted superstitions and beliefs about carved replicas of animals. Snakes are most terrifying to them. We discovered this on the night Elfrieda's mother and father came to the house to meet us. Needless to say their visit did not go well. Shortly after their arrival, while in our room to examine the computer I was using to write stories about the Navajo people, this man and woman began to behave very strangely. They soon excused themselves and left the house.

Their behavior was so strange, I asked Elfrieda if we did or said something to offend her parents. She said, "they saw something" that caused them to leave so quickly. And what was it they saw, we asked. She answered that there was a snake in our bedroom.

It seems that the snake, like the bear and the firebird, are considered powerful entities that have no place in a Navajo home.

That night we talked to the Begays for hours, explaining how we were tricked into buying the snake stick. We knew Elfrieda's father was an influential man among the Navajo people and felt that it would be important to win back his trust. We recognized this as a serious although innocent blunder in our relationship with this family and wanted to make things right.

Raymond Begay, a practicing medicine man, said he worried that the people who prepared the snake stick and tricked us into buying it could also be magically using it to control us. Since we paid money for it, he warned that it might also be somehow draining our money supply. He said that this was how occult magic works.

Two things were decided that night. We must dispose of the snake stick and we must send the Lee family our apology. We didn't know how to properly do this, however. Elfrieda said she would explain what happened to her parents and she was confident they would understand.

It was Raymond's opinion that since the stick came from someone who tricked us, it should be returned to its source. He didn't think that just mailing it back to Michigan, or throwing it away in the desert, would be adequate. "It would just come back to you," he said.

The next day Doris and Elfrieda went to talk to Alfred Lee. He listened to their story and agreed that getting rid of the snake stick would be very hard. He suggested that we find a special Navajo medicine man, who knew about snakes, and get his advice. There was only one such medicine man known on the reservation. He was Albert Yazzie, who lived about 30 miles away. Elfrieda knew the way so we set off that very night to visit him.

It was a long and difficult trip along a maze of bumpy and washboard dirt trails. The trip rattled our teeth and took much of the remaining life out of our tired old 1988 Chevrolet. At last we reached the Yazzie home.

We found him in his hogan, conducting healing rituals for people who arrived at the home before we did. We were invited to enter the hogan, which was heated by a wood burning stove on the dirt floor in the center of the room. A gas lantern cast an eerie glow on everybody in the room. People were sitting around the outside wall, on the floor. Many of them were on pillows. Yazzie, an imposing appearing man, was seated in the dark at the back of the room.

We entered the hogan and moved to the left, following the ancient custom of always moving clockwise in accordance with the cycle of life. We did not sit until we were invited to do so. Once seated, Elfrieda began talking to Mr. Yazzie in Navajo. She explained our problem.

It was a long conversation. The people in the room looked at us with shock and disbelief as they heard about the snake stick. Although we did not speak or understand the Navajo language, it was easy to follow the line of the conversation.

Albert Yazzie was a kind and understanding man. He asked a few questions, then gave us his opinion. He said that since there had been no ritual or prayers offered by the sender of the snake at the time we received it, the art piece probably was no threat to us. He said it had no place in a Navajo home, however, and agreed that it should be disposed of.

To do this, Yazzie said we must scrape away all of the paint and carvings, and turn the stick back into the thing it originally was. We must save all of the scrapings and then throw the stick and the scrapings into a flowing river, sending it back where it came from.
Once our conference was over, I was instructed by Elfrieda to go to Mr. Yazzie and personally thank him. I circled the fire, moving clockwise around the room, until I reached him. By then he was preparing to eat his supper. He put down a piece of bread he was holding as I approached. I shook his hand, slipping a $20 bill to him, and said I was glad for his advice. The Navajo always like money for their services.

On the way out, Yazzie's wife, Stella, shook my hand and gave me a big smile. I felt good about this. Apparently I had not made any blunders during this visit.

It took us most of the next day to destroy the snake. It had been carved on a hard ivy vine. We used various shaped rasps to grind away all of the intricate carvings. It was a relief when it was scraped clean and looked like a simple twisty stick again.

There is only one constantly flowing stream passing through the Navajo Reservation. It is the Little Colorado River, a tributary to the Colorado River, which enters the Grand Canyon at the north edge of Navajo Land. Raymond went with me when we took the stick and a box of shavings on an 80-mile-long trip to the river. There we threw everything into the water. As we did this, I ordered the stick to return to where it came.