Saturday, September 21, 2019

Robin and the Snake


The world of Navajo ritual belief is complicated, and it has many twists and turns. As in all world cultures, that which is right for one may be wrong for another. There are general guidelines, however, that help one navigate the landscape. It is with great caution that individuals cross the line between common sense and indiscretion. Those who tempt fate are looked upon with a skeptical eye by their peers. For example, the portrayal of snakes in Navajo art can be either positive or negative, depending upon how the 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 may cause you great harm.

Since they are associated with thunder, lightning, and an undying spirit, snakes have plenty of power to adversely affect your well-being. 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; 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.

A few years back, Robin Willeto was wandering the banks of the San Juan River near Farmington, New Mexico, and 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, shape, or form. Being the son of famed Navajo carver, Charlie Willeto, and an accomplished carver in his own right, he grabbed the wood and hauled it home. What he had seen in that big stick was a great yellow snake, and he was intent on releasing it. There was no stopping his creative force. Due to the form of the wood, it did not take long to finish the project.

A few weeks later, Robin wheeled up in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post. I just happened to be standing behind the counter looking out the open doors down onto the parking lot. What we 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, brightest, yellowest, snake I 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 was 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 ninety degrees. I don't think the car had an air conditioner. By the way those guys exited that car, I was sure of it.

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 gotten 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 he seemed totally unconcerned about the whole thing. We could just imagine the emotions he had conjured up, rolling across the rez in his snake-mobile. Robin was not much of a talker and when the deal was done, we shook hands, he pocketed the cash, and headed out. The crew piled back into the car and spun out of the driveway on their journey home. We all stood there for quite some time chuckling about the incident. Finally, shaking free of the moment, we went back about our business. We have never forgotten that most unusual event and have often thought, "Just what was he thinking?"