When one thinks of a witch, the image of an archetypal elderly woman may come to mind, with a pointed hat and flying broomstick. To most, this image is hardly frightening, but the idea of witches in Navajo culture may paint a more bone-chilling (literally) picture – these witches are said to be involved in grave-robbing. In fact, it is said that in order to become a witch, a person has to kill a close family member or relative. Of course, nearly every culture has hair-raising myths and legends, and it is easy to brush off these tales as fanciful. Even I was a skeptic at one time, until I had my own encounters with a witch, in the form of a skinwalker.
The first time I heard of skinwalkers, I was a new student at a Navajo reservation high school, sitting awkwardly amongst a group of juniors and seniors at lunch. The incessant giggling of a few girls stopped at the mention of skinwalkers.
“I heard something on my roof last night,” one of the girls whispered. “I went out to check, and in the distance I saw it. Its eyes were glowing, and before I even had a chance to realize what it was, it was gone.”
I almost rolled my eyes at this point. That could have been any animal, I thought, but I guess it is more fun to make up scary explanations to natural phenomenon. I decided to stay quiet and keep my skepticism to myself.
I admit it was difficult getting used to my new home, with or without skinwalkers involved. New Mexico is a darkly beautiful place; it has an emptiness and fullness that somehow coexist. The red mesas, endless skies, and breathtaking sunsets did not always take away from the loneliness I felt. Since I moved to New Mexico during my junior year of high school, making friends was not the easiest task. People already had their cliques, and there did not seem much room for me. On top of that, I felt like an afterthought to my friends and family back home. I felt isolated physically and emotionally.
Maybe that’s why it felt so right when I met Daniel, a boy from a pretty traditional Navajo family. He lived on the Navajo reservation, and for those of you who are not familiar with it, it is a giant, but at most times, empty space. You can drive for miles and often see nothing, or what appears to be nothing, at least to newcomers. On the long drives through the reservation to the surrounding cities, I liked to tally up the occasional homes and abandoned buildings that scattered the area. I could see everything around me, and the sky felt so close.
I’ll never forget when my mom told me a handsome man was at my door step.
“I don’t want to talk to anybody. Tell him I’m not here,” I yelled as I walked out of the bathroom, only to see him sitting on the living room recliner.
The next few moments defined my life. We all have these moments, and they often occur from relatively simple situations, not necessarily anything that seems profound at the time. When we look back, these moments seem to hold more value. I do not know if this is because what happens after these golden moments affects how important it is, or we just simply do not recognize how important they are at the time. In either case, this is now a snapshot in my mind. I sometimes want to lose it, but there is something about it that still feels beautiful, perhaps innocent.
On top of that, I couldn’t deny he was handsome. He was tall and thin but muscular, with strong cheekbones. Dark hair, dark eyes, and the most endearing smile and slight dimples were enough to win my naïve heart over.
It didn’t take us long to start dating and falling in love. It was the perfect beginning to my first college semester. As I think of that fall, all I feel is nostalgia. If my fairy tale had ended somewhere during that time, there would be no doubt in my mind we would live happily ever after, and at that time, that is exactly what I thought.
I was constantly by his side and grew close to his family quickly. He lived about 10-15 miles outside of town. That may not sound like much to some, but even a mile into the <rezis a much different world, the roads themselves changing drastically in a matter of moments. I grew used to those roads. Even though I could usually see every star in the sky, a different type of darkness encompassed the area. The powerful shadows of the mesas often played tricks on my eyes. On certain nights, out of nowhere, I started to grow fearful. I convinced myself that I was just trying to scare myself, like children sometimes do, and blasted the radio as loud as possible to get my mind off the intruding thoughts.
I was at my boyfriend’s home as often as possible, and at first, I wasn’t used to the stillness of the area. However, I eventually loved the quietness and peacefulness that I never had experienced growing up in bigger towns.
On the reservation, it is very common for extended family to live within walking distance from one another. Daniel’s cousin, Erik, lived on a trailer just over the hill. I often asked Daniel about the abandoned hogan next to Erik’s trailer because it seemed so unsettling.
“They say Erik’s grandma is a witch,” Daniel mentioned one time after I asked, “That’s where she does all her dark ceremonies.”
He smiled after he told me that, and I always wondered whether he was joking or not. The skeptic in me easily silenced my curiosity. Everything was going great, I thought, and there was no need to let negativity, even these so-called witches, interfere.
Of course, the fairy tale could not last forever. A few weeks after my boyfriend received his first major job offer, he started to get into some trouble, especially when Erik came around. Daniel started drinking a lot, too, and was making some awful decisions. His partying and drinking started to become the center of his life, and I was beginning to feel hopeless. I wanted to help him.
I went to his grandparents’ hogan often, but this time, I addressed my concern about Daniel. His grandma spoke mostly Navajo, so it was hard to make out what she was saying. His grandpa translated for me, explaining that it was time to go to a medicine man.
The next day we traveled about fifteen miles on dirt road to reach the medicine man. The sun was setting, and it was quiet.
I was told to enter the hogan counterclockwise around the wood-burning stove. All eyes were on me; I stood out as a <belegana, or white person, and it was quite unusual for me to be in vicinity to a Navajo medicine man. I brushed off the sand on my pants and shoes and stared across the room at Daniel. He looked handsome in his rugged jeans and band t-shirt.
The medicine man only spoke Navajo and I did my best to translate what I knew, but it was a failed effort. Daniel’s mom, Kathy, translated perfectly, but seemed to leave out certain sentences. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional.
I stared at the walls of the octagon-shaped room. The smell of sagebrush and heavy smoke filled the air. The medicine man took out the crystal and dragged it across the sand. He made patterns I did not recognize, but his stern face revealed concern. He spoke fast and Kathy translated quickly.
“Daniel is in trouble. He has to make decisions for himself. He is choosing his path now.”
After the crystal reading, they passed around a pipe and smoke filled the room. I fumbled with it, but finally inhaled and exhaled carefully. I held in my coughs, but anybody watching could tell I did not enjoy the taste or smell. Then, one by one we each walked to an area by the stove to drink some sort of cleansing liquid that reeked of pine. It was my turn, and I nervously walked to the bowl of liquid. I dropped to my knees and tried to look confident. I took a sip and swallowed it roughly. It tasted as though I was drinking straight from a pine tree.
As the ceremony winded down, traditional Navajo singing began. Its rhythms were soothing, a reflection of the peacefulness and hopefulness of the evening. Daniel and I held hands and let the deep vibrations take over.
I stared into his eyes and sensed a strong connection.
After the ceremony things seemed a little better. One night my boyfriend fell asleep on his bed. It wasn’t quite dark yet. In fact, the sun was setting and I could feel a cool breeze come from the open window. Nobody was home at the time, except Kathy, who was outside cleaning the dogs. The blinds were partially open, and I was reading quietly.
Suddenly, I heard a man speaking in harsh Navajo right outside the window. I woke up and started shaking Daniel. As I shook him, I heard the loudest animal-like scream. It sounded as though somebody had kicked a dog, and the screeching continued for about a minute. We ran downstairs to the trailer, and at the same time, his mom came running inside. Without us having a chance to say anything she started telling us her story.
“I was just outside, grooming the dogs. All of a sudden, the dogs started acting strange and submissive. They started kneeling down when I tried to brush them.”
She continued, trying to catch her breath, “I looked over to where your bedroom window was and I saw a strange, about 7 foot tall, dark, shadowy man standing right outside our window. As soon as he noticed me, he grew angry and started speaking harshly in Navajo. He took off. It was so fast it was almost as if he disappeared before my eyes.”
There are not many places he could have gone. Again, this area is wide and easy to see everything. There was nobody home except us. We kept trying to explain away what happened, but it was just too strange. Even if it was just a man, how was he so fast? Who was he? Where could he have possibly gone? What did he want? Then, I really started to wonder, could it be a skinwalker?
Kathy explained that some Navajo witches were also skinwalkers. They somehow developed the ability to steal the skins of animals to utilize their powers, such as speed. This ability was to be used for evil.
Of course, I figured there had to be a logical explanation for the events that occurred. Besides, whatever Kathy saw seemed like a man, not an animal, not that that was very comforting. I was still scared, but decided I had to go home to my parent’s that night. The road home didn’t seem very appealing, and I didn’t want to go alone. This time I asked Daniel to come along with me and have his mom follow me out.
As we were driving, I saw a creature in the distance. We slowed down. It looked like a coyote, yet it was so bony, and there was something different about its face. We didn’t want to hit whatever it was as it crossed the street in front of our car. We had to stop. As it was crossing it was just staring at us, directly at us, with a hateful, human-like expression. It felt vile, almost demonic. Coyotes normally run, but this one was walking slowly — almost crawling. What stood out to me most was the glowing, yellow eyes. Deep down I knew, this was no coyote.
As soon as it passed, his mom drove in front of us “to break its path.” Some Navajo people believe that if a coyote (or whatever this creature was) crosses your path, it is a bad sign. We drove out and I was terrified. I didn’t look back. I don’t believe any of us did.
Strangely, none of us really spoke about the event immediately after it happened. There was really nothing left to say about it anyway, and things seemed to be getting worse in my relationship with Daniel. We did not have time to think about it.
Daniel was arrested for a DUI soon after, and turmoil was my new reality. Daniel, the one who had charmed me into his life, had now become a dark cloud that somehow held power of me. I think I started to fall out of love with him at this point, but something held me in. This is when I should have left him. I tried desperately to make things like they used to be, but I realized later that fairy tale was an illusion.
Daniel became angrier and more depressed. He lost his job and he was by himself a lot and drinking heavily. I tried to give him the help and support he needed, but he did not want to change. To make matters even stranger, we soon found out that the medicine man we went to was not there to help us. In fact, we were told that he was a medicine man by day, but a skinwalker by night. If someone had told me that before the “coyote” incident, I would have thought they were crazy, but my perception had definitely changed. If it were true, he had more than he needed to curse Daniel and his family. Not only did he have information, but he may have gathered hair or other personal items that are often used during witching ceremonies. These are like blessing ceremonies, except they are intended to hurt or curse others, like black masses.
Another ceremony had to be performed if what we were told was true. This time, his grandpa performed it, and we knew he was trustworthy. I clung on to the thread of hope I had for Daniel, but he seemed checked out of the ceremony emotionally. I listened carefully, perhaps desperately, to his grandpa’s words.
“This weekend,” his grandpa stated, “the source of the negativity in Daniel’s life will come to the surface.”
I almost forgot his words until I saw his cousin Erik at the door that Saturday. To be honest, I never really liked Erik to begin with, especially because he was the one that always invited Daniel to party. There was something always off about him, and I felt that eeriness even more that evening. Daniel was elated to see Erik, on the other hand, and they made plans to see each other later that evening.
I was reluctant to go, but I wanted to watch out for Daniel, and at least try to help him stay out of trouble. The party went better than expected, and Erik was unusually nice to me. Maybe I was wrong about everything.
As we were leaving, I even gave Erik a hug goodbye. As we drove away, I took one last glance at the abandoned hogan and wondered how Erik felt living right next to it. As my thoughts bounced around, they were interrupted by a glowing light I saw near the hogan. Those were eyes, yellow, glowing eyes.
As soon as I saw them, they disappeared. Daniel squeezed my hand.
I knew I didn’t have to say anything to Daniel, especially when I smelled the familiar scent of sagebrush on him and saw an emptiness in his eyes.
The months that followed were rough and rocky, with strange occurrences happening often. I lost faith in Daniel and somehow broke the power he held over me. He did not change, and he seemed to get worse as his drinking problem escalated. I finally left him.
This was years ago and every so often I drive through that patch of the reservation I once called my home, sometimes with nostalgia, but often with fear. I don’t speak to Daniel anymore, but I do accidentally cross paths with him once in a while. The emptiness in his eyes is still there.