Robin and the Big Snake
The world of Navajo ritual is complicated and has many twists and turns. As in all cultures, that which is right for one may be wrong for the other.
There are general guidelines, however, that help outsiders navigate the landscape. It is with great caution that an individual crosses the line between common sense and indiscretion.
Those who tempt fate are looked upon with a skeptical eye by their peers. The portrayal of snakes in Navajo art is an area of concern and can be either positive or negative, depending upon how snakes are depicted, and many Navajo people fear those who portray this powerful image in a permanent form.
Navajo common sense says leave snakes alone. If you agitate their spirits, for any reason, they can cause great harm.
Since they are associated with thunder, lightning and an undying spirit, snakes have plenty of power to affect your wellbeing.
In spite of all this, some artists still take chances by creating images of serpents in their art. These individuals may feel they have protected themselves through ceremonies.
Some believe they are promoting the positive, protective, side of the creature, and believe its guardian nature is being advanced, while others feel they have already faced all the bad things the world has to offer and there is nothing left to lose.
Some also believe that by turning the tables on snakes, refusing to acknowledge the negative power, their situation may improve.
Several years back Robin Willeto was wandering the banks of the San Juan River near Farmington, NM. He stumbled upon a long, slightly twisted branch from a cottonwood tree.
What his artist’s eye saw in that crooked piece of wood would have made most traditional Navajos walk away. They would have left mumbling prayers and sprinkling corn pollen, trying to get thoughts of snakes and their dangerous powers out of their head.
Robin, however, is not your typical Navajo, not in any way. Being the son of famed Navajo carver, Charlie Willeto, and an accomplished carver in his own right, he grabbed the branch and hauled it home.
What he had seen in that piece of wood was a great yellow snake, and he was intent upon releasing it. There was no stopping this creative force. Due to the form of the branch, it did not take long to finish the project.
I remember the incident quite well. Answering the telephone that day, I listened a moment, looked up and said, “Sure, bring it in.”
About four hours later Robin wheeled up in front of Twin Rocks. I just happened to be standing behind the counter looking out the open doors down onto the parking lot. What I saw was an amazing sight. Although Robin generally visited us in a beat-up Chevy van, this time he was driving a subcompact car.
Strapped to the top of his small vehicle was the largest, bright yellow, snake we had ever seen.Nine feet in length (about a foot longer than the car, and growing with each telling of this story), eight inches at its widest point, mouth agape with huge fangs, and forked tongue sticking out.
Every Navajo within sight had stopped what they were doing and stood staring, as did everyone else. Both doors flew open and out of the car pushed five large Navajo men. They were all dressed in leather coats, Levi’s, and bandannas around their heads.
This was typical of Robin. He rarely traveled without his entourage of thirsty buddies. And it was hot out there, at least 90 degrees. I don’t think the car had an air conditioner. By the way those guys exited that car, I was sure of it.
Soon they unlashed the snake, and with Robin holding its head, up the stairs they came. Five hoodlums packing a great yellow snake.
The excitement the scene caused was interesting to say the least. People were gawking, pointing and shaking their heads in amazement.
We bought the piece as quickly as possible, just to break up the crowd and quiet things down. We asked Robin what response he had seen traveling across the Reservation with the snake on his roof.
He said that because of the hot, crowded conditions in the car he hadn’t noticed, and seemed totally unconcerned. We could just imagine the emotions he had conjured, rolling across the Rez in his snake mobile.
Robin is not much of a talker, and when the deal was done, he shook hands with us, pocketed the cash and headed out.
They all piled back into the car and spun out of the driveway on their journey home. We stood there for quite some time chuckling about the incident.