navajo taboos and seventh grade science

marjorie jannotta -- tst may 86

This is an interview I did with a teacher at a Navajo boarding school. The teacher has three degrees in science. She discusses her experiences in teaching Navajo children without her knowing much about the cultural customs. The snake incident occurred during her first year of teaching and this interview was during her third.

We had gone on a field trip to Navajo National Monument. A group came running up and said,

'Teacher, Teacher, a snake - Come see it !'

So I went racing back to find a big bull snake on the side of the trail.
I picked it up, and the kids absolutely freaked out, like kids do. As I held the snake, I talked to the kids about the fact that it was a bull snake, about is life history, that it was not poisonous, and whatnot. The kids all wanted to touch it, and some of the braver ones wanted to hold. it. Soon I had a whole string of kids holding it. The Navajo aides were all standing around the ousted of the group of kids, and none of them made any comments about the incident at all.

At lunch, some of the aides were looking at me and saying, 'Oooo, you touched it, you touched it,' in a way that made me realize they found that disgusting. I said, "Yeah, but it's normal to feel that way ... even people from my own culture who are afraid of snakes feel that way.'

I didn't really think anything of it.

That night, one of the kids came to my door. It was Andy, a kid who is normally very happy.

I have never seen him upset about anything, ever, and he looked like a ghost.

He asked me if he had touched the snake. I asked him if he thought he had, and said he didn't remember.

'I need to know,' he said. "my father has to know if I touched it."

And I said, 'Well, Andy, do you think you touched it ?'

And he said, 'Yes, I think I did."

He went racing off like a jackrabbit, and at that time I realized that something was going on that I didn't know about.

I started calling around trying to find out if there was something about Navajos & snakes and found that yes, indeed, there was "something" about Navajos and snakes.

Their believe is that if you touch a snake, an evil spirit, a 'chein-dee,' enters your body. Maybe not right away, but sometime in your lifetime, that evil will cause sores and illness and aches and pains at the point that touched the snake. This is something that the traditional Navajo believe. Watching snakes eat is the same kind of thing.

If you see a snake eat or even a picture of a snake eating, you will develop digestive problems.

a clash of beliefs

I didn't think too much more of it; however, about six months later at school a bunch of kids came running up and said,

'Teacher, teacher, there's a snake! Come see what kind it is.'

I went over, and there was a snake in the bushes. I saw that it was another bull snake and picked it up with the thought of moving it. The kids asked if I would keep it instead, and some of the other teachers said they would like to have it to show around. I went ahead, and put it in a terrarium and kept it. I spoke with the other teachers about it, and told them I did not want them to get into the same trouble I had gotten into. I made it very clear that the kids should not touch the snake.

I kept it in my classroom for the rest of the school year, and the kids asked me to bring it back the next year. I still have the same snake. Technically, I am continuing to break the social, or rather the religious, taboos; however, as a science teacher, I have found that many things I do break a taboo one way or another. Science and traditional beliefs do not usually coincide. Almost every place I go I am doing something that's against the beliefs.

I did a unit on instincts and had the kids try to make a bird's nest after researching how birds build their nests. I was told afterwards that bird's nests are taboo and that the same thing happens to you if you touch a bird's next that happens if you touch a snake.
Bones are the same way.
Owls are supposed to be representations of death; if there's an owl around then it's a messenger of death. The way I found out about that was doing a bulletin board with an owl on it.

living in both worlds

Everywhere I turn as a science teacher ... i'm constantly running up against taboos. I have decided that I will take precautions in using certain things, for instance ... the snake. I have it in a sealed terrarium with a big sign: Do Not Touch.

You see, the problems is the kids don't know the traditions either.

For some reasons, the parents are not teaching them the traditions. When something happens, tho, the parents react in a traditional way. Most of the parents ... are traditional. They wear traditional clothing, believe in medicine men and traditional ways, and they live in hogans. Everything is done traditionally. But, the children are being raised in boarding school. I'm not sure exactly what's going on because the parents kind of expect the kids to be traditional without being taught. The school does have some cultural clubs and a foster grandparents program to work with the kids on some of the traditional things, but it's not enuff. A school that is primarily run by Anglo teachers who don't know the traditions .. can't teach them. It's awfully tough because the kids are living in both worlds.

I have students now who want to touch the classroom snake, and the first thing I ask is, 'Do you come from a traditional family?' Not, 'Are you traditional?' If you ask the kids they will say, "No, I'm not traditional.' But the family might be.

a thin line

I've had the younger adult community members come in and ask me things like, 'What do you do in here ? Do you do any dissections ?' I say no, we do none of that because it's against the culture. They say, 'Good, because I wanted to know if my child was going to be involved in something like that. That is very bad and we can't let our children do that.'

It's not so much of a problem because I don't believe in doing dissections in 7th grade anyways. All you end up doing is playing with frog guts. I imagine it's quite a problem at the high school level, where you're working with comparative anatomy and need to do dissection. It is difficult to anticipate what the taboos are; once I become aware of them I try to come up with alternative activities, but it is not easy because of the numerous taboos.

I understand that I'm walking a very thin line, for example, keeping a snake in the classroom. I tell the students right at the beginning of the year, if anybody is offended by having a snake in here or anything else ... anything at all ... that you feel goes against your traditional beliefs ... then write me a note, you don't have to sign it, and put it on my desk. I will remove the offending object immediately.

I don't like the idea of really stepping on somebody's traditional beliefs, but I also believe that these kids need to be exposed to some other things. I try very hard to respect the traditions. At the same time, I believe in preparing my students to survive in and understand a modern world.