Last night I was asked what is the scariest thing that ever happened to me on the Navajo Reservation?

I paused for a long time and thought back through some pretty horrific things that happened to me during my 13 years on the Rez. The prelude to the Ceremony happened the first night I slept in Greasewood, Arizona. I was sleeping in the newly refurbished ranch house in an old bedroom. I had a dream of ancient people who were trapped as if buried alive. It was a woman and her two children and they were terrified trying to escape their dwelling. The fear was palpable and it was as if I were there with them. I woke in a cold sweat and never forgot those native people trapped eons ago below the house – dying.001-12-copy

Fast forward four years and our horses had suffered from witchcraft and were sick. Our good friend and medicine man made the trip to the house with his extended family and I helped dig two pits for two fires, one close to the house and one about 1/4 mile away. The ceremony consisted of some of the family members gathering to rid themselves of the evil of witchcraft and we all sat on the hardwood floor in a circle in our front room.  A large metal tray was filled with hot coals from the fire so the medicine man could see into the netherworld and find the evil. We all gave our clans (origins) and talked briefly about the evil that was infecting us. I was quiet because I am non-native and sat respectfully listening.

Hours of prayers, chanting and cedar burned and the smell of fresh cedar washed over all and renewed us. I was pleased the ceremony was going well and love the songs and chants in Navajo. It makes one feel as if they have been transported back to the early days of ceremony and song. My good friend the medicine man asked me to go and tend the second fire with him. He had extracted the evil from the home, horses and relatives and would now burn it in the second fire. I stoked the fire to great height and and the pit roared with fire in the crisp starlit night. The medicine man’s father accompanied us and stood watch with me. I will confess, I was a bit proud to be chosen as the “watcher”. The medicine man told me to watch to the south of us and I diligently complied. He began to chant behind me and the fire roared. In a moment, I saw not 50 feet away as the souls of the dead trapped in the earth – rushed forth. Like wraiths writhing in the starlight I was rooted to the ground, frozen, horrified! The medicine man yelled and told me to turn around – he said lift your feet so I can put ash on them. I was so scared I jumped in the air both feet forward. The medicine man laughed and said one at a time – and he and his father chuckled. They knew what I had seen and knew that they could not bother me.

Skinwalkers came next and watched as he burned the evil and sent it back into the ground. He cast them away with Navajo words and

souls of the dead released
souls of the dead released

protected me from their harm. When I re-entered the house everyone looked at me in a strange manner and asked what I saw. I just sat down and waited till the ceremony was over. I had never seen souls released and I still only call them that for lack of a better description. Thousands of souls pouring from the ground – ground I have run cattle over many many times. It still in the cold light of this Montana fall day – scares me to the core of my being.

Oft Times Perceived – Skinwalkers

Navajo medicine man
Navajo medicine man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Out in the garage one evening on the Navajo Reservation,  a large rabid dog came up the drive in the blowing snow and growled. It came into the garage and I told our Lab and Mojo our German Shepard to chase it out; they turned and went to the door crying – odd. I put them in the house and grabbed a 2 x 4 and hit the dog on the head hard. I killed the dog dead – dead dead! I scooped it up and wrapped it in a towel and dragged it outside into the snow. I walked in the house and told Mary what happened and that I was going to dispose of the dog. I walked back outside and No dog, No towel, No tracks, Nothing! I looked around the house and nothing! Gone!

The next day, I became deathly ill. I could not keep anything inside and was curled in a fetal ball in bed when Mary came home from work. She said I had to go see Mr. Begay  because he is a blind medicine man and would know how to heal me. I said “no, I do not believe in that voodoo hocus pocus” and declined. She talked to the neighbor, Chris, and decided to go have a prayer done. They drove about half hour to the medicine man’s hogan and upon entering were asked “where is Hoss ? if he does not come tonight he will be dead in the morning”.

They drove back to our home and Chris wrapped me in a Pendleton blanket and carried me to his SUV. He and his wife and son took me back out to the medicine man’s hogan. I remember entering and being very very cold and just wanting to die. We sat  in a circle around a fire and he proceeded to ask me questions to which I incoherently replied. He began grinding different herbs and powders together and finally gave them to me to chew. He said chew these while I pray! I remember chewing and thinking and chewing and thinking is this guy ever going to get done with his prayer. I had foam coming out of my mouth and down my chin when he finally finished. I swallowed and blinked and could not figure out why I was sitting wrapped in blankets in his hogan. I was fine! I stood up and shook myself off and then remembered. Mr. Begay, our medicine man smiled and then I asked Chris where his son was? He said that his son was scared to come in because the “bad man” that was riding in the back of the SUV had followed “Uncle Hoss” into the hogan! Mr. Begay explained that the dog I “killed” was a skinwalker and when I hit the dogs head the dead bones of the person he had ground up to enter the dog released into my face and lungs.Howard-Terpning-Medicine-Man-Of-The-Cheyenne

I was fine afterward but I now understand that there is a place for medicine men in my life. I  spent many many hours and days studying Navajo medicine with Mr. Begay and understand what is “oft times barely perceived”.

Names changed to protect the innocent – 

Navajo Taboo

Walking along and trying to figure out what kind of animal makes these tracks, Mojo my black Lab goes quiet on alert and I am in my forest for the trees moment…mountain lion?, wolf?, coyote?…and that internal voice says “look up” and over head soars a bald eagle. The eagle circles the ranch, no, not the full nineteen square miles of ranch, just my portion that is all mine when I am walking. The Crow Indians say that if an Eagle circles it will bring good fortune and the Navajo caution “make sure it is clockwise” and the Hungarian thinks clockwise is good fortune and counterclockwise takes away bad fortune with nature yelling win/win in the background.img014

I don’t know why funny things always happen to me! Like the time I told an inappropriate story while teaching on the Navajo Reservation! I arrived on the Navajo Rez in 1998 fresh from being run over by a semi truck in Korea! I was battered and broken but happy to be alive. I went through the obligatory Navajo Cultural Sensitivity Training where some wonderful Navajo told us what we could and could not speak of in class. I thought the training was cool and the frybread was good and the mutton greasy. Okay, I did not pay attention. I was checking out the hot Navajo teachers I would be working with that year! My bad!

I mentioned earlier that “inner voice” that I always hear! Well, I am driving in my drive at my home in Pinon, Arizona and I shut off the truck and hop out but just before my feet hit the ground the voice says jump back in the truck and move the truck forward a foot. I know, stupid, crazy, whatever I do it! I move the truck and hear a pop pop pop. I jump out and look under the front tire and trapped under the tire in the throes of death is a huge rattlesnake!

I go to school the next day thinking “hey” I teach English and this is the coolest story for show and tell!  I was teaching 10th grade Creative Writing and so I shared with my class! You know that word “taboo” ? Well, I wondered why my students all kinda gave me an odd look when I told my story! I wondered why at 9pm I heard a knock on my door and one of my favorite students was standing on my doorstep! She asked me to come down to her parents home because they wanted to talk to me! I am thinking oh, no did I give her an “F” ? ( I knew I wanted to give her brother, Shane an “F”) I get to their home and her father explains that I violated a “Navajo Taboo” (snake stories) and would it be okay if they had a prayer for me to bring everything back into harmony with my students? I was mortified but thankful that they loved me enough to help me regain my class (my whole class was at their home). The medicine man began to sing and we went around the circle with a coffee cup of “water” everyone taking a sip. The water was passed to me and I took two good swallows because my throat was dry and I was nervous! No one told me it was peyote tea! The same student that picked me up at my door grabbed me along with her mother and carried me outside. I remember the visions as if they were yesterday as they held my head as I vomited. They took me back inside and prayed over me and told me about my clans and blessed me. I was moved by the love and culture of the Navajo. I took part in many ceremonies during my time in Pinon, Arizona but none are as special as that first ceremony held to bring me into harmony with my class.

The next day at school, my wonderful students left the coffee cup on my desk with a note – feel free to drink as much “water” as you want! I still write with many of those students to this day! They have my heart and know so much about me because of that night together when we were brought into beauty! Ganado