Sunday, March 1, 2015

Feral Dogs, Hexes, and Living With The Navajo

By Kristy McCaffrey

When I was nine years old, my parents, my sister and I moved to the Navajo Indian Reservation. I very much did not want to go. My dad, who has long had a deep and abiding respect for Native Americans, saw this as a chance to give back with his life. He took a job as an accountant with an arts and crafts store in Window Rock, Arizona—capital of the Navajo Nation. We obtained a house just across the border in New Mexico, in a small town aptly called “Navajo,” supported by a local sawmill.

It was 1975 and we lived in a neighborhood that consisted of generic government housing. We weren’t rich by any means, but when we moved in, it became quickly known that we had a working telephone and my mother was generous in sharing kitchen items. After a time, she had to start saying no. The charity was simply getting out-of-hand. Unfortunately, many of the Navajo were complacent and drank too much. Even as a child, it struck me as a rather depressing place to live.

View from our front door ~ Navajo, New Mexico ~ 1975.
My sister, nearly four years younger and in kindergarten, embraced the journey with much more enthusiasm. She quickly came home speaking Navajo. I, however, was in fourth-grade and only one of two white girls in the classroom. I was teased constantly, for having braces, for being different, for being pale. I became friends with Nancy, the only other white girl in a class of well over forty children, because our Indian classmates assumed we should be friends and naturally herded us together. At first, I was glad for a comrade, but it didn’t take long to realize Nancy was mean, overbearing and manipulative. She repeatedly betrayed my confidences. These usually entailed discussions about boys in class, and hardly seem of importance now, but at nine years old it devastated me. From it grew anger and bitterness, which I naturally directed at my environment. How easy it is to let this be a template into another culture.

We weren’t the only outsiders in the community. My large class had four teachers, two of which were a white husband and wife team. My mother soon began babysitting their toddler daughter, so it was natural that they would look out for me. This was a double-edged sword, since being viewed as the teachers’ favorite didn’t further endear me to my classmates. However, they did teach me separately in math, since my skills were more advanced than the other students, and one day, when one of the Navajo instructors was absent, I was assigned to administer spelling quizzes all day. These experiences certainly bolstered my confidence.

Every so often a high point would occur. School field trips were not of the normal variety, with one a hike into the nearby wilderness to view a natural stone arch. My mother, who accompanied us, was amazed the Navajo children knew the names of all the local vegetation. Other incidents were somewhere between odd and almost comical. When my sister’s little Navajo playmates would return home after an afternoon at our house, my mother would have to drive one little girl despite that she lived two doors down because the child feared a shape-shifter named Billy Blue Eyes. When I contracted strep throat, a visit to the local clinic had my mother holding my screaming self down as an elderly Navajo woman repeatedly stabbed my backside with a dull needle filled with penicillin. And some experiences chilled to the bone. The teenage girl next door getting beat up by her boyfriend, who at one point pulled a gun. The dying puppy my mother rescued from our front porch, the one I’d callously walked by for days, because dogs died so frequently on our street that I couldn’t bear to open my heart for fear the pain would swallow me whole.

Navajo, New Mexico in 1993 when I returned with my husband.
It's considered the most Navajo town in the U.S., with 95%
of its residents having full or partial Navajo ancestry.
One night, a Navajo man came to our front door with a shotgun. He said he was going to shoot our dog, believing that he’d killed his daughter’s poodle, the animal reportedly torn apart. There was a pack of rather mean canines that roamed the neighborhood—they’d already attacked me one day while walking home from school—so there was no doubt they had done the slaying. My dad had erected a barbed-wire fence for our two dogs, Labrador-mixes and not feral by any means, so we were certain that neither was guilty. (The fence was to protect them.) My dad spent several hours, and several beers along with my mom’s enchiladas, trying to convince the man not to shoot, and thankfully it worked.

I developed a panic-filled fear of AIM walkers, fueled by stories heard from classmates. I now know that this acronym stands for the American Indian Movement, a group dedicated to addressing the issues of present-day Native Americans, but in my scared mind they were ghost-like shape-shifters that prowled the wash behind our house. There were many nights I literally shook in terror while trying to sleep, fearing they would snatch me from my bed.

Our house sat at the base of a sheer red rock cliff. At times, the monolith stifled me with its presence, but it also beckoned to be climbed. So, one afternoon, my mom, dad, and sister clambered up its face to the top. At the midway point, a precipitous rock face had to be traversed and our overweight black Labrador, Raquel, couldn’t navigate the steep path. She paced at the bottom, barking and whining, while our other dog, Rommell, scrambled onward with us. The expansive view at the top, coupled with the solitude and palpable energy in the land, left me with bittersweet memories. The region drenched the soul with possibilities, but I know now that I was too young to appreciate it, to channel it in a useful way. In some regards, the Navajo themselves, at that place and that time, had lost their center as well.

The sheer cliff across the street from our house. I climbed
to the top with my family and one of my dogs.
And then there was the hex. At the arts and crafts store that employed my father, a worker found a Styrofoam cup tucked away on a shelf. Inside were various items that included a torn corner of a $5, $10 and $20 bill. It was immediately clear to those who discovered it that a curse had been placed. Soon thereafter, a medicine man was called. Since it involved all of the employees, my dad was allowed, despite being a white man, to participate in the ceremonies conducted.

At the first ritual, the medicine man found a buried pot outside the building, at the base of the famous local landmark, the window rock. This was accomplished when his hand trembled over the exact location. On the outside of the pot, stick figures represented the employees, and lightning bolts painted above indicated death by lightning strike. At the time, we were having terrible storms every day. Inside were pieces of coral, turquoise and silver, and a section of human skull.

Window Rock
At the second ceremony, a bowl filled with some type of tea was passed around to ingest, and then each employee was asked to look into a crystal to identify who had placed the hex. My dad says he saw nothing, but it was generally agreed that the perpetrator was a former employee who had been fired. She was part of a major Navajo clan, and her dismissal had possibly angered the wrong people. But the curse spoke of deeper problems within the Navajo and their way of life. The crafts people—those who made Indian jewelry and the iconic Navajo weavings—were at odds with the administration, which included my dad. There were those who wanted progress, and those who didn’t. At the conclusion of the ceremony, after a sand painting was created, the piece of skull inside the pot was burned. Two female employees reported instant relief from a terrible headache that had plagued them all evening. Back at home, at the same time, my mother said I’d been distraught and crying for hours from pains in my head, which immediately stopped when the bone was destroyed. It seemed family members had also been included in the hex.

My dad never attended the third, and final, observance—the Blessing Way—because we had returned to Phoenix. He has always joked that the hex was never fully removed. As evidence, he cites various mishaps that occur whenever he and my mother return to the Navajo Reservation: car breakdowns, money stolen, and in one instance missing a critical turnoff because five Indians stood in front of a directional sign.

I was glad to leave, but in the years since it’s been clear the experience left a lasting impression. No matter how hard I resisted, no matter how much I hardened my heart, the red rock and Navajo people seeped into the cracks of my armor, scaring me with the rawness and underlying pain, but also mesmerizing my senses with unseen forces that all but vibrated in and around me.


As I prepared this essay for publication on this blog (culled from writings on the subject I've penned over the years), it dawned on me why I've tended toward the mystical in several of my books, and why I've always been curious about the lives of Native Americans in the 1800's. Although I lived for less than a year with the Navajo, their painful history collided with my own anxieties and left a permanent marker in my mind. I've often considered that year a pivotal one in my development, especially as a storyteller. Even at nine years old, I couldn't keep the spirits at bay; they murmured in my ear at every turn. And so, I continually pursue tales that follow the footprints of those whispers.

I included details from the hex in my historical western romance novel INTO THE LAND OF SHADOWS. I also explored the Navajo tradition as it related to the world of the supernatural.

Stay in touch with Kristy


  1. Kristy, I want to thank you for your blog. It had to painful to write and remember. I hope your writing helps to heal that pain. (Hugs) I look forward to reading the book.

    1. Cindy,
      Thanks so much for stopping by. I'd written this essay last year, but wasn't sure what to do with it. Upon your suggestion, I decided to post it here. :-) I actually feel more positive about the experience now, and am grateful for it. Take care, Kristy

      (I posted the comment below, but then realized I didn't 'reply' to you. Hopefully you'll see this. :-))

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. All I can say is thank you :) you gave me some insight.

  4. I have always found the Navajo lands interesting but have only camped there to visit various Anasazi or Sinagua ruins and the trading posts. I have read quite a lot about their rituals and the supernatural occurrences that seem part of their lives. To me, it's a beautiful land but I would find it hard to live there because I wouldn't fit.

    Years ago we used to visit the Hopi mesas and felt very welcomed but the last two times we were near that area, the welcome mat seemed to have been removed. Maybe it was because of new agers using their sacred places for rituals that don't belong there. Maybe it's part of the division we seem to be experiencing worldwide.

    Anyway enjoyed your piece. We had feral dogs when I was growing up in the hills of the Cascades. Nothing is much more dangerous to humans as well as other animals.

    1. Rain,
      Thanks for your input. I've actually never been to the Hopi mesas. I hope to get there one day, but I understand that you need a local guide. I would imagine it's difficult to have tourists bugging you in your home. Take care!

  5. Kristy, you're a wonderful writer, but then I already knew that. I enjoyed your account very much and now understand your writing focus. Maybe one of your next novels could incorporate your experience as a child. I found it compelling.

    1. Hi Joan!
      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your kind words. I think everything that happens to us ends up in some way in our writing. But I have often thought of writing a YA novel about this experience. One of these days...All my best to you!