Our neighbor on the land: Ma'ii

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 20, 2013

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(Times photo – Ravonelle Yazzie)

One of the two coyotes that can be seen at the Navajo Nation Zoo walks around in its pen Monday in Window Rock.

W e could not read the breeze, which kept changing direction. The road was white in the starlight.

Detail was lost among the dark blots of sagebrush and the ragged horizon of the forest. The east glowed and the forest breathed with the erratic breeze.

We stood, waiting for enough light to stalk deer.

A gang of coyotes, somewhere to the southwest, began a silly chorus. They started and stopped, waited five or 10 minutes then their chatter began again.

Across the valley, in the predawn shadows, a horse neighed. The stars flared and blinked.

The silence and stillness of the mountains was so complete that when a pickup approached on the road you felt it before hearing the engine's groan, like water seeping into a napkin.

Then below us headlights emerged and stabbed the dark, shaking and bobbing, spearing the road ahead as it turned a corner. Then its sound receded, echoing and fading until it became a feeling more than sound, then ceased.

A solo coyote barked somewhere to the northeast, breaking the silence with an introductory yap, then an aria building to its trademark howl.

After a pause, about two minutes or so, a chorus of coyotes above and behind us answered with a burst of barks characteristic of ma'ii.

This symphony occurred on a clear autumn dawn along the road from Mexican Springs, N.M. As we waited for enough light to begin our hunt, the coyotes stole the show.

We never saw any of the coyotes that morning but their barks, yaps and howls were all around us.

The sanctuary

Two coyotes, Codee and Lucky Sophia, live at the Navajo Zoological and Botanical Park in Window Rock.

According to zoologist David Mikesic, Codee, the male, was acquired by the zoo in 2011 and came from the Sanders, Ariz., area. Lucky Sophia, the female, arrived in 2012 from the Mohave Valley area on the Arizona-California border.

Most animals at the zoo can't live in the wild, Mikesic said, for various reasons like being orphaned when they were young or because they were injured, which is the case for the eagles, hawks and owls.

However, Codee and Lucky Sophia are a third category - nuisance animals.

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong things," Mikesic said.

Arizona Animal Services brought the coyotes to the Navajo zoo instead of putting them down.

Coyotes are resilient, adaptable and live all over the reservation.

"They can adapt to any situation," Mikesic said. "They'll eat anything and can survive in the deserts and the mountains."

Usually the coyotes and the wolves at the zoo are constantly in motion.

"Coyotes, and especially the wolves, are high energy animals," Mikesic said. "They are used to being on the prowl and will travel long distances to find food. So when they are put in an enclosure, they have to burn off the energy."

Codee trots in circles while Lucky Sophia is more relaxed.

"He is still very shy and timid around people," Mikesic explained. "So when he sees people, he thinks, 'Oh gosh, what do I do?'

"He still has the mindset of a wild animal," he said. "He will always be nervous around people."

Codee is in an enrichment program designed to show him his handlers are not going to harm him.

Meanwhile, Lucky Sophia's temperament is calm and mellow.

"She was much younger when she was picked up, a teen in coyote terms," said Mikesic. "She had an easier time adapting."

The zoo will keep the coyotes until they pass on, anywhere from five to 10 years. The last coyote, Chico, lived at the zoo for over 11 years.

The animals are given vaccinations, a strict diet and their pens are cleaned every day.

"The reality is if there was no zoo none of these animals would be alive," Mikesic said. "So we provide a sanctuary for them to live out their lives.

Jeff Cole, a wildlife manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there is no estimate of how many coyotes are on the Navajo Reservation. But, he added, "They are very prolific, they breed fast. If they are hunted, they breed faster."

The current drought impacts coyotes because it affects their prey, he said, and they will go up and down as the rabbit population goes up and down, also impacting other predators like bobcats.

For problem coyotes that damage livestock the department has two predator control agents who will set traps for the animals (to report livestock damage, call 928-871-6451).

A cultural icon

Coyotes play a central role in the stories and legends of tribes throughout North America. The Navajo ma'ii is no different.

"The dog and the coyote came from the same parents," said Tim Begay, a cultural specialist for the Historic Preservation Department. "One takes care of the house and the other is in the wild to be a messenger for good or bad things coming up."

The coyote is a big part of Navajo ceremonies, he said, and is a major cast member in the creation story and the story of how the stars were set.

"It plays a big part in Navajo culture and society," Begay said.

Begay agreed with Mikesic that the coyote trotting nonstop in its pen at the zoo is simply expressing its evolutionary character.

"It's always looking for its next meal," he said. "It's always on the move."

All the animals at the zoo play a part in the creation story, he said, and many people have heard the stories but don't get the chance to see the animals in the wild.

The Navajo Nation is trying to get cultural information to the young people, Begay said, and the Historic Preservation Department was consulted for the signs at each animal's pen at the zoo which describe how the animal is viewed in Navajo culture.

"Young people don't know much about our culture, our history and where we came from," Begay said.

For example, many people believe the Navajo came to this land by crossing the Bering Strait, he said, but the coyote and the other animals played a role in the people's journey from the lower world.

A part of the world

At the south slope of the Chuska Mountains on that autumn dawn, we stayed motionless and quiet as the coyote symphony continued.

Ranchers view the coyote as a pest that should be killed or driven away. Others view ma'ii as a jokester, character of legend and a bearer of omens. Others do not attribute any significance to the direction a coyote crosses in front of them on the highway, or that the animal crossed at all.

And some, like this writer, are simply thankful that this animal of the natural world is still on the earth, lending us its teachings and presence and its long tradition as a fellow inhabitant of this place we call home.

A place for offerings

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

Among the visitors to the Navajo zoo are those who believe the animals are sacred in Navajo culture.

The zoo includes bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and others - all of which play a role in the Navajo Creation Story, said Tim Begay, a cultural specialist with the Historic Preservation Department.

These animals are so special that some Diné visit the zoo not for recreation or education but to honor these cultural heroes.

"People do offerings to the bears and the eagles," said David Mikesic, a zoologist at the zoo. "The most popular is the Gila monster."

The sign on the Gila monster's enclosure was developed in consultation with the Historic Preservation Department, said Begay, as were the signs for all the animals at the zoo.

The sign for Tinîléî, or armored ground warrior in battle, states: "I bestow the gift of Hand Trembling to healers to solve the mystery of ailing conditions. I sing loudly with lashing tongue when lightning strikes during rainstorms. When I strike with my mouth it is dangerous and poisonous."

A common practice when Diné encounter a Gila monster is to sprinkle corn pollen on it then rub it off, thereby absorbing some of Tinîléî's power.

"As Navajo people, we are trying to hang onto our traditions," Begay said.

And of those who make offerings, he said, "Some still believe the old ways. Each animal has ceremonial names. They have names for everyday use and for ceremonies."

The zoo can accommodate opportunities for those who want to make offerings to the animals, Mikesic said, and people who wish to do so should call first (928-871-6573) and then plan to arrive before 10 a.m. to ensure privacy.

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