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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter VII:

IMPORTANCE OF HUNTING In aboriginal times the Navaho diet was based on wild plants and game; later, farms supplied them with some of their vegetable food, but hunting remained, the only source of meat. Their only domesticated animal was the dog, but unlike the Zuni and Hopi, the Navaho did not eat dog meat. When they obtained the domesticated animals of the New World, they began to eat the flesh of sheep, goats, horses, mules, and burros. Hunting decreased in importance as a source of meat because of this change in diet and because of the growing scarcity of large game.

FAUNA Black bear are still plentiful in the mountains. Of the prairie dog, Bourke wrote in 1884 (p.54 ff.) that it was scarce in Arizona except along the eastern boundary. Now the prairie dogs are so numerous that the Government is urging the Navaho to kill off as many as possible because these rodents eat good grass and destroy the land. The Biological Survey found "that less than a dozen prairie dogs can eat and destroy enough range to keep a sheep during the entire year" (Zeh, 1932:9127). Prairie dogs are a favorite meat of the Navaho; during the rainy seasons they can catch them easily by waiting for the drowning dogs to float up to the mouths of their burrows. Coyotes, too, are a nuisance, but for superstitious reasons the Navaho avoid them, preferring not to kill them or to touch a dead one. Once while trapping coyotes, Mr. Wetherill managed to get the aid of a Navaho in gathering up the dead animals by smearing trout oil on the Indian's shoe soles and assuring him that this "magic" treatment would render him immune to any danger arising from contact with a dead coyote. Jackrabbits were a pest, according to Mr. Wetherill, until the Navaho made a popular game, played on horseback, of rounding up the rabbits.

Letherman (1856:286) lists some of the animals and birds he observed, which are similar to those given in the Ethnologic Dictionary (1910:138 ff.): deer, elk, antelope, mountain lion, puma, coyote, squirrel, badger, skunk, porcupine, beaver, muskrat, otter; a great variety of birds, such as eagle, raven, hawk, wild turkey, duck, crane, woodpecker, wren, and bluebird. The Dictionary gives a comprehensive account of Navaho hunting, weapons, and knowledge of native flora and fauna. Hill has in preparation a long and important manuscript which deals with hunting and agriculture, particularly in relation to the Navaho daily and seasonal life, and the religious beliefs and practices associated with gardens and the chase.

TECHNIQUES Matthews (1897:5) called the Navaho "poor hunters," and Doniphan reported that they were "not addicted to the chase except where the game may be taken on horseback" (Connelly, 1907:315). The hunting methods are those common to many American Indian tribes, especially of the Great Plains. As the gun is a post-Columbian introduction into the New World and primitive weapons are not suitable for killing animals at a distance, it was the practice to run or stalk an animal until it fell of exhaustion and could easily be killed with a bow and arrow. The Indians used many cunning traps, pit falls, and stalking techniques; later when they combined these methods with the use of guns and horses, or shot arrows from horseback with deadly aim, the country was soon devoid of game.

A man might go out singly or with a group of men to hunt, and all would share in the spoil, though the man who first sighted the game would get the hide (Ethnologic Dictionary, 1910:475). A southern Californian Indian, who visited a remote, western section of Navaho country in the 1880's, stated, in recounting his impressions to the writer, that it was no place for lazy people. The custom of polygamy kept a Navaho hunter "on the jump," he said, furnishing meat for his wives and children, and dodging his many mothers-in-law. When my informant hunted with his Navaho host, the deer were allowed to remain where they fell because the women were following to pick them up. On the return of the hunters at night, they found that the energetic women had staked out the hides, had some of the meat cooking, and were preparing the rest for jerky.

When a group of hunters went out, they camped at the water holes to keep the game from drinking; then they would move from the springs to let the animals slake their thirst. After that it was easier to exhaust them and shoot them with arrows. Birds were run down, too, Ben Wetherill states. Once, when the feathers of a roadrunner were needed for a chant, several Navaho set out on foot to catch a bird. In three minutes they had captured a roadrunner, extracted the feathers required, and set the bird free.

Usually the hunters scattered out in a rough circle and drove the game into an open place where they gathered to slay the animals; or the brush was burned in a semicircle against a cliff, forcing the game until it literally had "its back to the wall." Another method was to build a brush corral of two converging lines. The hunters drove the deer or antelope to the narrow parts where they were killed by waiting men. Antelope corralling was done in February, and deer hunting began in November after the Indians had moved to the foothills for the winter.

Sometimes a series of pits filled with sharp stakes and covered with branches were prepared and the game driven into them. To trap an eagle, which is very sacred and must not be harmed, the hunters hid in brush-covered pits and caught the eagle as it tried to take the rabbit decoy staked before the pit (Ethnologic Dictionary, 1910:476). This was usually done in December (Hill MS). Disguises of many kinds were used. Matthews (1887) gives a graphic account of hunting with the aid of disguises and fall traps in the origin story of "The Mountain Chant." He describes the ritual preparation of the deerhead disguises, and the prayers and rituals the hunter had to know to use the disguises effectively.

ANIMALS AND RELIGION There is scarcely a wild creature in Navaho land which does not have some religious or mythological association. Personified animals are prominent in the Emergence Legend, the story of Navaho genesis. When the world was being made, Coyote, the trickster, spoiled many of the best laid plans of the gods and men for beautifying the world. For instance, when the gods were arranging the stars in pretty patterns or figures of animals over the sky, Coyote stole the buckskin bag containing the stars, and scattered them helter-skelter in the heavens. The gambling songs of the Navaho are also based on an animal story, a legend of a memorable game between several animal and element deities and Noqoilpi, the gambling god (Matthews, 1809). Animals are said to have taught a youth those sandpaintings, prayers, masks, costumes, and rituals of the Mountain Chant which particularly honor them. Many of the sandpaintings have representations of birds, beasts, and reptiles.

RITUAL USE OF ANIMALS Pollen is of great importance in Navaho religion. Large animals when hunted for the ritual use of their various parts, are run down, sprinkled with pollen and smothered to death. The hunter sprinkles corn pollen in a line from head to tail along the stomach, then across the legs from right to left. He must use an old fashioned stone knife in perfect condition for the slaying, which follows the pollen lines. Such an animal is worth $50. The Navaho believe that if they follow the proper procedure, the element of life is not completely destroyed: one soul may depart but not all. If the hunter makes mistakes, the life element is destroyed; the "medicine" is "dead," and the hunter will fall ill. Birds from which feathers have been plucked, or on which pollen has been shaken, must not be killed for this reason--the pollen will "die" when the animal perishes. Many special adaptations are made by placing corn pollen on birds or animals, and that which is shaken off is gathered up and named after the creature.

Costumes, masks, curtains, and so forth are made of the hides. Bird feathers have multiple uses for decorating prayer sticks and costumes of spirit impersonators. Eagle feathers add magic power to the warrior's spear or helmet, and crow feathers are also prized. From the claws of cunning or ferocious animals, he makes amulets to wear around his wrist.

HUNTING RITES Because of the religious significance of wild animals, the hunter had many taboos to observe when he went hunting, either for food or for some religious requirement. Hill (MS) states that the Indians distinguished between the mere "killing" of animals which involves no esoteric rites, and "hunting," which is highly ritualized. The mountain lion is "killed," but deer, antelope, eagle, and bear are "hunted." When hunting, the men concentrate on gloomy thoughts and dreams of killing and death. No jokes are permitted. Just as in war, there are many ritual "ways" of hunting, so a young man who wants to become a hunter studies under a shaman who knows some of these "ways."

HUNTING SICKNESS Disrespect toward the animals or violation of a hunting taboo were believed to cause serious illness. It was taboo to use the wood from a hunting corral for fire or any other purpose, for even smoke from a fire of such wood, which is sacred to the hunting gods, would cause serious illness (Stephen, 1893:358). To be cured of an illness resulting from a broken taboo, the hunter must get a medicine man to determine which rule was broken and which ceremony would placate the animal and remove the evil. If an eagle had been offended, the Chanter performed the Eagle or Bead Chant.

The Navaho do not kill bears except in self defense or for ritual reason; indeed Stephen says they will not even touch a bearskin robe. Their reverence for bears is a feeling shared with many tribes of America, Asia, and northern Europe, where the killer of a bear must soothe the dead animal's spirit by offering it a sacrifice. The Navaho hunter usually has a special prayer stick made, and to this he adds gifts of tobacco, turquoise and other Navaho jewels, and pollen. These he offers to the animal, calling it by its sacred name, as he sings and chants the appropriate prayers,

FISH One of the strongest taboos is against eating fish. In a desert country there would not be much chance of violating such a taboo, were it not for the canned fish introduced by white men. Travellers tell many humorous stories of situations arising from the fish taboo. Matthews (1897:239) said the Navaho would not even touch candy shaped like fish. Fish for dinner meant there would be no Indian guests, invited or uninvited, at the table. Reverend Weber (1914:4) exclaimed that the Navaho could be driven back more quickly by a brigade armed with fishes tied to switches than with several regiments of soldiers with modern firearms. But even the fish taboo is being undermined. Ben Wetherill relates how the taboo was broken down on the northwestern part of the reservation. One of the Indians there had done some travelling beyond the reservation and had married a Paiute woman. While on his travels, he had acquired a taste for sardines. His family let him indulge alone in what they regarded as an irreligious and perverted taste, but when he repeatedly ate fish without incurring the anger of the gods, they and their neighbors began to follow suit.

RATTLESNAKES Some Indian tribes regard roasted rattlesnake as a delicacy. The Navaho, however, do not like to kill a rattler, and they avoid a dead one. A prank played by Ben Wetherill and his sister as children was to bring a dead rattler among a group of their Navaho friends who were getting ready for a horse race. The Indians, in great confusion, scattered to the four winds, racing their horses madly and breaking speed records to get away from the dead snake and its bad magic.

TOTEMISM It is a disputed point among anthropologists whether the Navaho clans are totemic or not; that is, whether the members of a clan believe that they are descended from some animal after whom their clan is named. There seems to be very little proof that the Navaho have such belief. Most of their clans are named for places at which some memorable event took place in the early history of the band. Some of the clans consider the mountain lion, or some other animal, as the special "pet" of their clan because the goddess, Changing Woman, sent it to accompany the people to their present homes. She made this gift after she had created the original clans, so the people do not regard the pet as an ancestor (Ethnologic Dictionary, 1910:356, 424). The Navaho occasionally cage a wild animal or a bird for a pet, and an eagle is sometimes caged until its feathers have been plucked for a chant. The custom of not killing certain animals is not related to any belief that the animals must be spared because of their connection with clan origins. (See Reichard, 1928:34; Matthews, 1890:106.)

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