NAVAJO WITCHCRAFT AND THE SKINWALKERS -- AND A DUBIOUS FILM [HUNTER GRAY 4/29/02] Added discussional note
AND THEN MY MINI-REVIEW OF THE FILM ITSELF [HUNTER GRAY 11/25/02]
NOTE: SKINWALKERS II [NEW STUFF] -- FOLLOWING PAGE
NEW INTRODUCTORY MATERIAL [HUNTER BEAR 2/7/04]
Note by Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear] - Micmac/St
Francis Abenaki/St Regis
Mohawk Feb 7 2004
[Some of you have seen some of this, some have not. Some of this material
is added and/or is new. And the "dubious" PBS film will most likely be
coming around again, soon.]
I get up these days between 2 am and 3 -- Idaho time -- and do a good deal
of thinking and black coffee drinking.
I grew up in Northern Arizona -- Flag is my home town -- and also in Western
New Mexico. In both geographical instances, I very much grew up among the
Navajo. The extremely close ties of my family then, and my own family now,
with the Dine' could not be more complex and personal.
My Native father [who never had one day of high school] was an excellent
artist and professor [ASC at Flagstaff, later renamed NAU]. My father wound
up with a BA from the Chicago Art Institute and an MA from the University of
Iowa [and, later, an MFA from Iowa -- a year and a half of work beyond the
MA.] Two of my own kids never finished high school -- very minimal
experiences at that level, John only finished seventh grade -- and each did
extremely well at the university level. Two others did the full high school
thing and also did just fine at university. My oldest grandson/son, Thomas,
did high school and is well established at Idaho State where his focus is
Anyway, the other day, a very large -- maybe 4 1/2 feet by 3 feet -- oil
painting of my Dad arrived here. It was done by my youngest brother,
Richard, himself an excellent artist -- about the time my father died in
Arizona at almost 80, in 1978. Richard, who spends time in Mexico, has been
meaning to send this to us for more than 25 years. Coming back from San
Miguel de Allende [GTO] recently, he stopped to visit with my other brother,
Michael, also younger, who lives in southern New Mexico. That's where the
painting had wound up -- and Richard, as he'd promised, mailed it on to me.
We were delighted, of course, to get it. It's an implicit abstract of my
father, wearing his old red shirt and holding a pop can in one hand. A
bleached cow skull is painted onto the upper right hand side of the
painting and a literal wild turkey feather is added to the painting. He
never drank beer but he did put away, for many decades, one full quart of
Old Crow [100 proof] per day. The painting is now on a great big piece of
[If you go to my Personal Narrative page on our Hunterbear website, you can
see the Indian Scholarship Committee at Arizona State College, Flag, 1956.
Seated: Jimmy Kewanwytewa; John Salter, Chairman; Raymond Nakai; George Kirk
and Willie Coin. Standing are the Anglos: M.T. Lewellen; Ellery Gibson; Dr.
Garland Downum, Secretary-treasurer; Dr. William Tinsley; Melvin T.
Hutchinson, publicity chairman; and Dr. Lewis J. McDonald.
That Old Crow finally led to two quickly
consecutive massive strokes --
Mother had become virtually blind almost at the same time -- and I took
things over. I had to make very difficult decisions regarding my father
especially. When things had settled, I took my family and we moved to the
Navajo Reservation where I taught and was privileged to do many other things
as well at Navajo Community College -- now Dine' College -- which had been
founded at the end of the '60s by Dad's great art student and our very close
family friend, the late Ned A. Hatathli. We were there for several
extremely interesting years -- our old friend, Easy, who posts on our
current Lists, was there as well and that's where we initially met and
became firm friends. My youngest daughter, Josie, was born at Gallup
immediately after Christmas, 1979. That's 95 miles from NCC and we went
there a day or so early in my big yellow Chev pickup to make certain I
didn't have to do a roadside delivery.
When we finally left NCC, there was a large surprise farewell party
organized by all groups at the College. I was honored in several ways:
given an excellent painting -- "Navajo Woman " -- by the gifted Dine'
artist, Harry Walters. I was also given a fine silver/turquoise bolo tie
carrying the NCC logo. Three of these had been made by the noted Navajo
silversmith, Albert Yazzie of Flagstaff. The first was given to Senator
Barry Goldwater, the second to the President of Exxon. And the third was
given to me. You can see it on the very first page -- the cover page -- of
our Lair of Hunterbear website
As I looked at my Dad-on-our-Wall very early indeed this morn, I remembered
many things . . .
Hunter [Hunter Bear]
My father, John R Salter Sr. [by
Note by Hunterbear:
This news story on a PBS / Tony Hillerman Navajo witch-craft film,
"Skinwalkers," strikes several hard, discordant notes within me -- and some
brief and very critical comment is appropriate.
First, the place-line is Superior, Arizona. This -- an old Magma Copper
town which I knew well -- is southeast of Phoenix, in the Big Cactus and
Hot Desert country and not far from the Superstition Mountains. It's a far,
far cry distance-wise and geographically and certainly culture-wise from the
Navajo Nation: far north/northeast of Superior in the high-altitude Colorado
River plateau country of frequent cedars, pinons, yellow pines. Superior
is old Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers country and my memories of its copper
workers [mostly Chicano, some Anglo, a few Apaches] in those struggles --
consistently won by Mine-Mill -- are fond indeed. In early December, 1963,
I came up from the Deep South and spoke at Superior on the civil rights
struggle under the auspices of the Arizona Mine-Mill Council. Delegations
came from all of the Arizona Mine-Mill locals, some of which traveled great
distances [e.g., from the Mexican border.] I spoke virtually all night as
people came and went. A page about this great Mine-Mill gathering -- on
behalf of our Southern Movement -- in on our large website:
This Hillerman / Navajo film is being made in the country around Superior.
That, frankly, is bizarre. And that is only one very significant mistake.
But the other very significant mistake indeed -- in my opinion, someone who
grew up among the Navajo [the Dine'] -- is the very film itself. Tony
Hillerman is an Anglo writer whose many murder mysteries -- detective
stories set in the very vast Navajo nation, and certainly friendly to the
Dine' people -- have a wide following. But, even though they're about 80%
accurate, the 20% of inaccuracy is a vast Grand Canyon that certainly
precludes their use as reliable material in any even remotely scholarly
setting. [And, yes, I've read the Hillerman book, Skinwalkers, on which this
film is based. I find it wanting.]
For many non-Navajo people all over the country [and world], Hillerman's
stuff is their only introduction to the vast and often remote and isolated
Navajo reservation [bigger than the state of West Virginia] and the now
relatively huge Navajo Nation [about a quarter of a million people.]
This film, which will undoubtedly distort even Hillerman's distortions,
is -- like a great many other basically fast-buck enterprises -- wearing the
"public service" cloak: a spurious disservice.
In addition to the assurance of significant inaccuracy, I also have some
other profound concerns. The film deals with Navajo witch-craft, a very
real situation which is not the sort of thing the greatest majority of
Navajo and many other Indian people as well, believe should ever be
Navajo medicine men are religious leaders and healers [these dimensions as
inextricably bound together in the Navajo view -- and that of other
Natives -- as a myriad of copper wires fused forever by super-intense fire.
Medicine men train rigorously for many, many years -- often as many as
seventeen -- before they're considered full-fledged practitioners in the
context of the very rich traditional Dine' culture and its myriad of
extraordinarily complex rituals that reach across the Four Directions to the
very corners of the Creation.
Navajo medicine men are extremely effective. Anyone who has lived for any
period of time at all in and around the Navajo country is very well aware
United States Indian Health Service [PHS] now works closely, frequently
side-by-side with the medicine men. The results are very good.
And then there is the other side: Witchery Way. Not a great deal is known,
intricately, by most people about the very shadowy and dangerous world of
Navajo witchcraft -- "bad medicine", so to speak.
But no one who has lived extensively in the Navajo country would ever make
light of this sinister situation. It's taken very seriously. Witches
practice their evil for purely mercenary purposes. Few Navajo would ever
have anything to do with them, even remotely -- but there are always a few
Witches train extensively -- in their own very isolated and secure settings.
By Navajo traditional law, a known witch, one who has thus forfeited its
status as human, can be killed and this certainly applies to a kind of
witch much involved in these endeavours: the Skinwalkers. These are
obviously profoundly deviant Navajo who travel at night for nefarious
purposes and who are believed to have the ability to turn themselves into
various animals. They certainly are garbed in the skins of respective
These -- Witches and the closely related Skinwalkers -- are not the sorts of
things about which one should talk much at all.
The Harvard anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn, did a book, Navaho Witchcraft
[Boston: Beacon Press, 1944.] An excellent person, he wisely recognized
his own limitations and those of his book.
I know a few things, at least. And here is a short, personal anecdote:
When we lived and worked at very remote Navajo Community College [now Dine' College], seven thousand feet above sea level and almost right under the
much, much higher Lukachukai Mountains and just to the north of historic
Canyon de Chelly, our little house was on the far outer edge of the small
community of Tsaile [Say-Lee.] We were 95 miles from Gallup, New Mexico
[where my youngest daughter was born in late '79] and 125 miles by road from Farmington. Our area was split by the Arizona / New Mexico border which means virtually nothing on the Navajo reservation. My Chev pickup had New Mexico plates and I had an Arizona driver's license from Chinle [Chin-Lee], the small Navajo town with a few BIA offices and a tribal police station 35 miles to the south. [Our good friend, Easy, now of Spokane, who posts regularly on our RedBadBear list, knows all about this setting. He was
there at the college, then, a top-flight computer expert for NCC, and
that's where we first met and became firm friends.]
Skinwalkers and witches in general are a concern in this setting -- as they
are everywhere in the Navajo country.
It was a July night, 1980, with the brightest high-altitude day-light Moon
one could ever imagine. I awoke suddenly at 2 a.m. in our rather isolated
house -- roughly the dimensional parameters of a traditional Navajo hogan,
but much larger -- and, through our bedroom window, I saw figures circling.
And I knew immediately.
Turning on the lights, I yelled and our house and its people and animals
came alive wildly. Our three dogs jumped from the couch, barking. One,
Ruggie, was a wonderful little terrier and the other her mother, Wendy. The
third was the very formidable looking -- but eminently gentle -- Good:
half-coyote and half German shepherd. Clad only in my underclothes and with
my always loaded Marlin .444 lever action, I went out the front door into
the moonlight. There was movement -- revealing movement -- just inside the
ring of cedar trees around one side of our little house. I held the rifle
high, the dogs now barking very wildly.
Then the shadowy but revealing motion just inside the cedars was gone.
They were gone.
PBS brings Hillerman mystery to television
By ALISA BLACKWOOD/
The Associated Press April 28, 2002
SUPERIOR, Ariz. - The PBS series Mystery! takes a hard turn to the West from
its British heritage this fall with its first American story, Skinwalkers,
by the master of Southwestern mystery, Tony Hillerman.
And in trademark Hillerman style, it's steeped in Navajo culture, weaving in
folklore about American Indian witches known as skinwalkers as it unfolds on
the Navajo reservation spread across parts of northern Arizona and New
Otto Penzler, who owns the Mysterious Book Shop in New York City and one of
the world's largest private mystery collections, said the Public Broadcasting
Service couldn't have selected a better author's work to represent the
series' first venture into American mysteries.
"There is nothing more American than what Tony Hillerman writes about," he
said. "It's not only set in America but involves Native Americans. There's
no author who could compete with that as far as being quintessentially
The story centers on three seemingly unrelated murders and an attempt to
kill Navajo tribal police officer Jim Chee. It follows Chee and his partner,
tribal police Lt. Joe Leaphorn, the American Indian protagonists of 14 Hillerman mystery novels.
The film stars actor Wes Studi of Dances With Wolves as Leaphorn and Adam
Beach of the upcoming Windtalkers as Chee. It is directed by Chris Eyre of Smoke Signals, an award winner at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. The crew spent most of March filming in this rural town about 60 miles east of Phoenix.
The story is significant to Hillerman die-hards because it's the book that
brings Chee and Leaphorn together for the first time.
"What Hillerman has is a classic buddy-cop story between Leaphorn and Chee,"
said Skinwalkers screenwriter James Redford, the son of the film's
co-executive producer, actor Robert Redford.
"He had the Jim Chee mystery series and the Joe Leaphorn mystery series for
quite a long time before he brought them together," the younger Redford
said. "It just leaped off the page with the two of them."
It was James Redford's job to adapt Hillerman's work into a script that
would jump off the screen, too. It wasn't without challenges, and James Redford warns that while he remained true to the heart of the story, the film version does make a few changes.
For example, the murders in the novel happen before the book begins, but for
a more natural sequence on film, James Redford felt events should unfold as
the movie progresses.
"So, structurally, it was difficult," he said. "Also you lose no matter what
you do in this movie. ... You can't translate Hillerman's magical prose. It
just doesn't translate to film. This movie will have its own beauty and its
own magic, but Hillerman's is his own."
Hillerman fan or not, the film's executives hope the story, along with the
threads of Navajo culture, will captivate the audience.
"It's a vehicle into a culture most of us don't know, (set) in the
spectacular desert and mountains of the Southwest," said Rebecca Eaton, the movie's co-executive producer. "So I think it will have an allure in television."
Adds James Redford: "Anybody that has spent time around native cultures is
bound to recognize the ... elements of the mysterious and mystical. The
mystical and the magical seem to pervade their way of life, which can lead
to both great mystery and suspense and the eerie aspect of the unknown." ©Santa Fe New Mexican 2002
BRIEF DISCUSSIONAL NOTE [MARXISM DISCUSSION 4/29/02]
Hunterbear responds to Stuart Lawrence:
The Navajo Nation is -- to couch something of great
complexity in trenchant
terms -- another country and another world with very distinctive roots
whose continual and vital life are far, far more ancient than anything in
Europe! [And this is, of course, true of any tribal nation.] Unless
you're willing to spend a good deal of objective time in the vast Navajo
country, I don't think you would ever be able to even slightly understand
this matter of witchcraft -- and, in any case, I don't think you have the
slightest moral or other justification to attempt to make any kind of value
judgment in this or any kind of Native American socio-cultural setting.
That's the prerogative of the Native people involved -- and no one else.
A note just received from my oldest son recalls that summer night in July,
1980 that we were visited -- and were quite prepared to exercise our very
much Navajo-approved self-defense rights. He writes: "I remember that night
. . .I have a hard time explaining skinwalkers etc to anyone who hasn't been
in that setting, period. " [John Salter III]
Navajo witchery is the essence of predatory criminality. No law enforcement
agency of any kind intrudes into the matter of traditional Navajo
self-defense when this extremely ancient and malignant evil threatens one's
very health and life.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Stuart Lawrence writes:
"Profound deviance in a society, resulting in the dehumanizing of the
deviant and the acceptance of their being murdered, is something we should never discuss publicly? I have at least one ancestor of my own who was put to death for witchcraft, but one doesn't have to reach back into history to see the
pattern repeated. The last thing I want is for this
sort of social construct to be put beyond inquiry or challenge."
Hunter Gray [ Hunterbear ]
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
A BIT OF FURTHER COMMENT [4 / 30 / 02]
Your own comments, Stuart Lawrence, really prove
my point very well: that
it's flatly impossible for non-Natives, or any non-tribal people, unless
they're willing to spend a great deal of objective time in a setting like
the Navajo nation [or that of any tribal nation], to even begin to
comprehend the complexity of something like, say, Navajo witchcraft [a very
real matter indeed -- as is the far more prevalent " very good medicine" of
the medicine men] -- and the context, deep and high and wide, of an ancient
and vigorous and vital and very healthy culture with a very primary emphasis
on Harmony as necessary to individual and social health and life.
This is, frankly, something beyond your ken. This is not a "Salem" thing at
all: i.e., flaring, collective hysteria. Navajo witch-craft is a matter so
fundamentally deeply rooted and sensitive that many Navajo will not even
discuss it with other Navajo. I taught many sociology and related courses
at Navajo Community College. We did not discuss this particular topic --
even remotely or implicitly.
When you emerge with something accusing me of a " wholly anti-Marxist,
spiritualist view of Navajo witchcraft," I can only say that that sort of
ethnocentric twaddle does no constructive service to the advancement of
anything. And, if you're not prepared to defend yourself and your family
and friends, I feel very sorry for you -- and for them.
In a word, Stuart Lawrence: I don't know where you're sitting -- but it
obviously isn't in the cedars and pinons and yellow pines and sage in the
middle of the night.
On the matter of my considerable concern about the film, Skinwalkers: It's
already being touted in some Hollywood circles as a "Navajo werewolf"
production. My point proved, once again.
Hunter Gray [ Hunterbear ]
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
At this point, this basically concludes my public responses on the matter of Navajo witchcraft. It is possible -- even probable -- that the film, "Skinwalkers," will generate much controversy. I may well have much more indeed to say publicly on that matter. HG
AND THEN MY MINI-REVIEW OF THE FILM ITSELF [HUNTER GRAY 11/25/02]
From the outset, I've been quite critical of the
Skinwalkers [PBS] film
effort. Now that I've just finished seeing the Redford creation, I do know
for sure that I was indeed on target. [My earlier post on the matter is
contained on this page in our large Lair of Hunterbear website:
Some acting was quite good. I always like Adam Beach who played one Navajo
detective and did it well. Wes Studi did a solid job as his superior.
There were certainly other examples of good acting -- and then there were
some that were neither good -- nor believably Navajo.
The very large Navajo [Dine'] Nation, with now about a quarter of a million
members, occupies reservation land larger than the state of West Virginia.
Navajo culture is quite intact and the tribe is making every effort to
ensure that that continues in enduring fashion. Navajo traditional
medicine -- good medicine -- is very real indeed. A Navajo medicine man
often trains for as many as seventeen rigorous years.
Very real as well, unfortunately, is Navajo witch-craft -- bad medicine --
and with it the Skinwalkers. These, an integral component of Witchery Way,
are profoundly deviant Navajo who, depicted as animals, travel at night --
planting malignant spells and also robbing and plundering. Far less
prevalent than the forces of good medicine, witchery and its works -- bad
medicine -- is extremely dangerous.
I repeat, this is all -- good medicine and bad -- very real indeed. It's
not hocus pocus -- and it's not "psychological". It's all one of the many
dimensions in the Creation that simply cannot be defined materialistically.
Tony Hillerman's novels about the Navajo country and its people are usually
well written but there are always very substantial accuracy gaps. Here, his
novel Skinwalkers -- quite less than culturally accurate in its own right --
has been greatly changed by the film makers. And for the worse. The plot
themes that emerge -- in many respects Anglo mystery in nature despite
efforts to give them Navajo clothing -- come off as hokey and hybrid.
The Skinwalker situation with its witchcraft nature and context -- even as
attempted in this film where it's set forth simply as a cover/pretense
used by a conventionally deranged killer in an effort to throw authorities
off his lethal trail -- is an extremely complex and sensitive matter which
is not openly discussed much in the Navajo setting and even more rarely with
outsiders. Here, the whole Skinwalker situation comes off ambiguously,
Finally, in many good films and, certainly, in any with a genuine Native
theme, the central force is the Land itself -- the Earth. Skinwalkers, was
made 'way down in the general Phoenix region -- Sahuaro cactus desert -- and
very, very far south of the highly elevated and ruggedly beautiful Colorado
Plateau region of Northeastern Arizona and Northwestern New Mexico which
contains and always undergirds the vast Navajo Nation. This alone
constitutes a signal travesty of the worst sort -- and obviously dooms the
project from its very outset.
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
NOTE: SKINWALKERS II
[NEW STUFF] -- NEXT PAGE