Prankish partners on the prowl

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHACO CANYON, N.M., Jan. 7, 2010

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: A badger trots behind a coyote that zigzagged through the brush Monday evening at Chaco Canyon northwest of Pueblo Pintado, N.M.

BOTTOM: A coyote darts in and out of bushes while being followed by a badger Monday evening at Chaco Canyon northwest of Pueblo Pintado, N.M.

Photographer Donovan Quintero and I were driving back from an assignment in Nageezi Monday when Donovan mentioned he had never been inside Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Looking at the map, we noticed a short detour would take us home by way of the park, so we decided to stop in.

The massive, well-preserved ruins are always worth the drive, but on our way out, we saw something even more amazing.

First, a badger lumbered across the road in front of us.

"That's the closest I've ever been to a badger!" exclaimed Donovan.

"Me too," I agreed. "I don't think I've ever seen one all the way out of its hole."

Then I noticed a young coyote in the field to our left. Donovan trained his long lens on it, hoping for some nice wild photographs.

"That's weird!" he said. "The badger is chasing the coyote!"

Squinting through the sagebrush, I saw it for myself. The coyote was trotting across the field in a zigzag pattern, with the badger close on its heels.

"I don't think it's chasing it," I said. "The coyote isn't even running. It's more like they're buddies out on an expedition."

Donovan recalled Navajo stories of Badger and Coyote teaming up to trick the other animals, although they weren't really friends and could just as easily turn on each other.

The strange scene continued for several minutes until we lost sight of the animals.

Back in the office, I e-mailed Navajo Nation Zoo Curator Matty Holdgate to see what he would make of the odd vignette.

"Coyotes and badgers often hunt in pairs in a type of symbiosis called 'mutualism,'" Holdgate wrote back. "In a mutualistic association, both species benefit, for example: flowers and bees (bees benefit from nectar, flowers get their pollen dispersed)."

Holdgate went on to say the coyote and badger team up "so they can combine skills."

"Badgers are able to dig up rodents below the ground, while coyotes can run down rodents above ground," he explained. "If a coyote was alone, and a rodent dug down a deep burrow, he would never get to eat it - but the badger can get to it! Likewise, if the badger is digging for a rodent that slips by him and runs off, the coyote will have a feast."

Holdgate referred me to an article on the subject on (If you'd like to read it, check out

The article indicated the Diné are not the only tribe that has folk tales pairing Badger and Coyote, but the phenomenon was not scientifically documented until a 1992 study by the University of California.

According to the article, the researchers found that coyotes hunting with badgers caught one-third more game than solo coyotes. So the old stories had some truth in them that took science a while to catch up with!

Seeing two such powerful animals together must also have some spiritual significance, we figured. To find out, I called Robert Johnson, cultural consultant at the Navajo Nation Museum.

Johnson was reluctant to interpret the sighting for us, but did give us some clues.

"When a five-fingered being sees an animal like this, it has a message for us about what is going on in the world," he said. "You have to think about what is going on in the world around you, and then what the animal represents."

For example, Johnson suggested, the present can be characterized as a time of governmental chaos both in Washington and the Navajo Nation.

"Each animal has a positive and negative side," he continued.

Badger, for instance, is smart and brave - he was the first animal to test the ground of the Fifth World to make sure it would support the weight of the animals and people. He also figures prominently in the Shoe Game songs, and is one of the creatures responsible for the equal length of day and night.

"On the negative side," Johnson said, "he can dig up graves."

Coyote is also smart, but tends to be a doer more than a thinker, and caused chaos for the animals with his brash actions.

So ... seeing the coyote and badger working together could represent, for example, President Shirley and the Navajo Nation Council burying the hatchet and working together ... for better or worse?

"Mmm-hmm," said Johnson. "Powerful animals like that could represent our leaders in government."

Or, President Obama and Congress burying the hatchet and working together?

"Yes, that's possible."

Well, that can't be bad then. Less discord usually bodes well, even among mischief-makers. Unless they team up to trick the rest of the people!

Time will tell. Happy 2010!

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