Traditional Navajo Taboos
By Ernest Bulows
Navajo Taboos for Nature, Domestic and Wild Animals
Coyote The Trickster
Of all the figures in Navajo life and mythology, Coyote (Maii') is the most
contradictory and delightful animal. Coyote is considered a god, a trickster,
and an evil spirit. He can not be killed because he is powerful and
The Coyote is important in traditional Navajo life, but he is
the object with almost little taboos. Coyote always seems to be hiding or
lurking just out of view. He is a shadowy figure that can be funny or fearsome.
Navajos have an omen that can also be considered as a taboo. They say
that if Coyote crosses your path, turn back and do not continue your journey.
If you keep traveling, something terrible will happen to you. You will be in an
accident, hurt, or killed.
Natural Powers and Nature
Don't point at a rainbow with your finger. The rainbow will cut it off or break
it. In the Navajo tradition it is improper to point at anything or anyone with
the extended fore finger, because of the threatening connotation of the action.
Navajos point with the lips. They put their lips in a type of kissing gesture.
The symbolic nature of the rainbow as a manifestation of life giving rain is
universal. Rainbows appear in Navajo sandpaintings. Rainbows, and anything
related to water, have a strong religious significance to the Navajos.
Winds have great religious significance to Navajos. It is the source of life
and breath. Traditional Navajos don't whistle too loud, or whistle for four
days in a row. If the do, they say they will be calling up the wind.
- Don't throw rocks at a whirlwind. It will throw them back and chase you.
- Don't call whirlwinds a name. Evil Spirits will get you.
- Don't go into a whirlwind. It will effect your heart and carry you off.
Dust devils are an evil wind that blows no one any good. They seem to be
animated by evil spirits.
- Don't whistle or you will call up the wind!
It is taboo to stand on high rocks. If traditional Navajos do, they say that
the rocks will grow into the sky with them. Another taboo is to not roll a rock
from a mountain. The holy people put them there and it will be bad luck. Every
high spot on the reservation and every unusual formation is considered as a
religious symbol to the people. Navajo Yeis have favored the high ground. In
several Navajo myths, the Holy People took heroes into their sky home of by
being carried upward by the high rock formations. The monsters that throw people
off cliffs, are said to inhabit high places so they are best avoided!
Traditional Navajos say not to look at clouds moving in the sky. Or you will be
a slow runner. Also, do not watch a river flowing swiftly, or you will get
dizzy and fall in.
Traditional Navajos believe that laziness is ugly and daydreaming is not
Sun and the Moon
Navajos beliefs tell the people not to stare at the moon, or it will follow
you. Navajos have an avoidance of thing of the night and darkness. They find
lunar eclipses more significance than solar eclipses. Tradition dictates
that Navajos do not eat when there is an eclipse, or they will have a swollen
stomach or stomach problems. They also are not suppose to sleep during an
eclipse because their eyes won't open again. Traditional Navajos are not
suppose to look at an eclipse, or they will go blind. This taboo is a fact.
People can go blind by looking too long at an eclipse.
The death of the sun
and of the moon is a frightful and ominous thing. Blindness is the punishment
of looking to long at the sun. This punishment is a fact on life for all
Navajos believe that they should not look at a shooting star unless they blow
at it, or they will have trouble and bad luck. The also believe if they look at
a falling star, there will be bad luck.
There are traditional Navajo taboos related to snow. Navajos can't catch snow
when its is falling, or it will keep falling and turn into deep snow. They can
not hold out their hands when it is snowing because where their had is will be
how deep the snow will be. If they eat the first snow, then they will become
sick. Navajos can not shake a flour sack in the winter, or the snow will get
big and cause blizzards.
Other Traditional Navajo Taboos in Nature
- Do not start a fire with a magnifying glass, or you will have a burning in
- Do not u will catch cold, make more rain, and cause a flood.
- Trees and rocks struck by lightning have ceremonial significance to the
Navajos. However, only a qualified medicine man will touch, remove, or bother with
Other Taboos related To Lightning
- Do not use partly burned wood because it might be from a lightning struck
tree. If you do it will cause illness or bad luck.
- Do not stand up when there is lightning. If you sit down it will go away.
- Do not yell when it is raining or you will be struck by lightning.
- Do not have a dog or cat in the hogan during a storm because it will draw
- Do not look lightning in the mirror because it will strike your hogan.
- Do not kill a nighthawk or you will be struck by lightning.
- Do not use aspen wood for a fire because it causes thunder and lightning.
- Do not stand by the loom when it is raining because the lightning will
- Do not weave when it is storming or it will cause lightning. This depends
on the pattern being designed on the loom.
- Do not climb a tree when it is raining because lighting might strike the
- Do not lean against a wall during a storm or the lightning will strike you.
- Do not ride a horse during a storm or you will be struck by lightning.
- Do not touch metal objects when it is raining because you will be struck by
- Do not wash your hair when it is raining because you will be struck by
- Do not eat an animal killed by lightning because you will be struck by
lightning or get sick.
- Do not play around a lightning struck tree because you will get sick.
- So not call the thunder's name or the lightning will get you.
- Do not do a rain dance during a rainstorm because you will be struck by
- Do not lay facing the sky in a storm or the lightning will strike you.
- Do not eat corn when it is raining because lightning will strike you.
Taboos Related To Pinion Nuts
Nuts from the pinon pine were a staple food for the Navajos, especially before
they learned to grow corn and also during hard times. The pinon can be found
throughout most of the Southwest. The nut was vital to the existence of many
- Do not sleep on a pinon shell because it will go into you. You are also not
showing respect. This taboo implies that the person was lazy due to leaving
discarded shells in the bedding. Eating in bed is a taboo too.
- Do not shake a pinon tree to get nuts because only bears do that. Behaving
like a bear is bad behavior. It will also attract the bears to you.
- Do not eat the nuts from a lightning struck pinion, or you will swell up
and have bad luck. Some traditional Navajos believe that a pinon pine struck by
lightning had been taken over by the spirits. All the nuts that this pinon tree
grows are the property of the spirits.
- Do not put salt on pinons because it will make it snow.
- Do not burn pinon shells or the snow will be deep.
- Do not throw pinon shells in water or it will be will get cold and there
will be no more nuts.
These taboos suggest a lack of respect for an important Navajo food staple.
There is only a short time span that these nuts can be harvested. Navajos do
not like laziness and frivolous behavior when important work has to be done.
Only a few wild animals or birds are considered friendly to the Navajos. Owls,
crows, mice, and coyotes are considered helpers of the witches and evil
spirits. When the monsters were seeking the infant Hero Twins, the owls, crow,
mice, and coyotes spied for them. Cottontail rabbits are also associated with
witches. While bear claws are commonly warned for their talisman's power by
almost all Native Americans, Navajos avoid any parts of the bear. Antlers from
elk and deer are not used. Mountain sheep horn, buffalo parts, and antelope
horn are used in rituals and ceremonies. Navajos can use mountain lion skin and
a few feathers. The eagle's feather is the most important feather that is used
by the Navajos. Most feathers from other birds are prohibited. All water
animals can be found in Navajo taboos. Snakes are associated with lightning and
Wild Animals Taboos
- Do not kill frogs, lizards, salamanders, and toads because it will rain and
keep on raining, result in a flood, ruin your crops, you will jump around, you
will become crippled, it will effect you unborn child, or it will cause
paralysis and other diseases. This is one of the taboos where Anglo biology
teachers have a problem. They expect Navajo students to dissect frogs or other
animals that live in the water. It is taboo for any Navajo to do anything with
a dead animal, especially the ones associated with water.
- Do not kill horned toads because they are grandfathers or guardians of
arrowheads. If you kill one you will get a stomachache, or swell up, or have a
- Do not watch a frog eat or you will have throat problems later and trouble
- Do not kill a spider unless you draw a circle around it and say, " you
have no relatives." Or "a Zuni did it." If you don't its
relatives will come and bite you. The reason the Zunis are blamed is the angry
spiders will go seek them and bite the Zunis.
- Do not urinate on an anthill because you will have trouble going to the
- Do not burn ants because red spots will cover your body or you will get a
- Do not burn bees because you will have a rash.
- Do not throw stinkbugs in the fire or you will get a rash or sores.
- Do not kill grasshoppers because it will give you a nosebleed. Bees,
grasshoppers, cicadas, and many other insects are important in the Creation
story and in other Navajo mythology. According to the Navajos, flies have their
place in the natural order of life too.
- Do not bother baby hawks or eagles because you will get a rash or sores on
- Do not kill moths or you will jump in a fire.
- Do not count the number of legs on a centipede or the number you count will
be the number of years that you have left to live.
- Do not kill a bald headed insect and spider or you will go bald.
- Never carry or handle feathers from ravens, crows, owls, buzzards, or most any bird because you
will get boils. (Since it is difficult to know the source of many feathers it is best to leave all alone!)
- Do not kill porcupines or you will get nosebleeds.
- Do not spit on a spider rock or you will not be able to breathe right.
- Do not put food in a bird's mouth or you will get a sore throat.
- Do not kill a lizard or you will get skinny.
- Do not burn any animal skin or you will get a rash.
- Do not urinate on a deerskin or you will clog up.
The poisonous snake on Navajo land were a real threat to Navajos and their
livestock. The snake is also a symbol of the lightning people and brings rain
to the dry land. While the only significant venomous snakes present are the rattlesnakes,
all snakes are avoided. Snakes are seen in Navajo sandpaintings and other artworks.
- Do not cross a snake's path unless you slide or shuffle your feet because
you will have leg aches, other diseases, or bad luck.
- Do not eat in front of a snake because when you get older your throat will
- Do not watch a snake swallow its food or your neck will swell up.
- Do not open your mouth when you see a snake or he will jump in.
- Do not kill snakes or lizards because it will make your heart swell, it
will dry up, or you will get crooked teeth.
- Do not burn a snake because you will get sores or a rash.
- Do not kill a snake when it is raining or lightning will strike your house.
- Do not put a snake in the open when it is dead because lightning will bring
it back to life.
- Do not put a dead snake on a rock or you will cause a thunderstorm and it
will come back to life.
- Snakes are an earthly manifestation of the Lightning People and related to
They are in communication with the supernatural world. If dead snakes are
exposed to the sky, it will draw the attention of the Serpent Spirits.
- Killing snakes for the no reason will drive away the life giving rains and
cause a drought.
- Do not kill a snake with your hand or your hand will swell up.
- Do not pick up things between two fingers because only snakes do that.
However the thumb and the forefinger is a different motion. This taboo is to
avoid Navajos behaving like an animal. The animal behavior displayed might
offend the mimicked animal and offend it. The animal's power will hurt you in
some way, or at least attract unwanted attention from the offended animal.
- Do not step on a snake because your legs will swell up or get crooked.
- Do not watch snakes mating or you will go blind.
- Do not draw in the sand with your fingers or snakes will come to it.
- Do not talk about snakes or they will come around.
- Do not laugh at a snake or it will bite you.
- Do not make faces at a snake or it will bite you some day.
- Do not spit at a snake or it will come after you.
- Do not watch a snake crawl out of its skin because you will get sick or
jump out of your skin.
- Do not shoot an arrow at a snake. It will shoot crooked and hit something else.
- Do not run over s snake in your car or you will have a bad life.
- Do not snake eggs or the snakes will get you.
- Do not wear anything made out of snakeskin, especially boots or shoes or
you will get crippled.
- Do not touch a snake because it has nothing and you will have nothing.
- Do not call a person a snake or one will be bite you.
Tattoos, drawing, or writing on any Navajo is prohibited. Some young Navajos
ignore this taboo.
Some of the taboos associated with bears are probably due to their rather human
appearance when they are standing straight up. Bears are also the main figure
in an important Navajo ceremony, the Mountain Way. The bear taboos have a
common theme. If a human being mimics a wild animal, he will become like that
animal. In the case of bears, the taboo is more powerful because of the
humanlike resemblance of the bears. Also, because bears are one of the were
animals associated with witchcraft.
Other Bear Taboos
- Do not step on a bear's waste because it will bother you or act like a
- Do not make fun of a bear or it will make you sick.
- Do not step on rocks turned over by a bear or bears will chase you.
- Do not walk over a bear track because you will get hairy, you can not get
off the track, or you will act crazy.
- Do not walk on a bear track or you will turn into a skinwalker.
- Do not say "Shush" (bear) in the mountains because bears will
come after you.
- Do not laugh at bears or they will come after you.
Since their introduction, cattle sheep, and horses have always been important
to the economy and lifestyle of the Navajo. Large herds of mustangs roam
the Navajo reservation and eat the grass that could have been used for sheep
and cattle.. However, the Navajos do not consider these animals worthless
and they will not consider the disposal of some of these animals. Navajo
take good care of their livestock. There was a time in the history of the
Navajo that a man's wealth was measured by how many horses he owned. The
Navajos were well known across the Southwest due to their excellent
Domestic Animal Taboos
- Do not say bad things about your livestock or something bad will happen to
- Do not kill a sheep or goat that is unusual, or has three horns, or is of
both sexes. They are good luck and you will lose your flock if one of
these animals were killed.
- Do not count your sheep to much or you flock will get smaller.
- Do not clap at sheep because things will happen to them and you will have a
- Never put a sheep's head on the ground upright or it will go away and you
will lose your herd.
- Do not play with a ball when you are herding sheep or your lambs will be
- Do not throw things at the sheep or they will disappear.
- Do not ride on a sheep's back or as punishment you will be hurt.
- Do not waste any part of the animal after butchering or your flock will be
- Do not burn livestock manure because you are burning the animals too.
- Do not kill to many sheep at the same time because the herd will not
like. They will disappear and run away.
- Do not burn wood because your sheep will be poor and something will happen
- Do not play with the horns of a goat because one will bother you and it is
bad luck for the herd.
- Do not twist goats' tails because they might come off. You will have
- Do not go to sleep while you are herding sheep because a crow might take
your eyes out.
- Do not say, "I wish I had some meat" when you have the hiccups or
your livestock won't grow.
- Do not cut the tips off of a horses ears off or earmark the ears because he
will become stupid and hard to manage.
- Do not burn horsehair because you will lose your horses.
- Do not ride a pregnant animal or make it work hard because it will lose the
baby and never give birth again.
- Do not watch a horse or other animals give birth or you will go blind.
- Do not cut a horse's tail because it will fall of a cliff.
- Do not leave deer blood where sheep can walk on it or all the wool will
- Do not let your sheep or yourself walk on a deerskin or they will go crazy
and run away.
- Do not spit on anyone because you will owe him a white stallion.
- Do not eat livestock killed by coyotes or other will animals because you
will go crazy and act wild.
- Do not put a rug over the head of a horse because he will go blind.
- Do not buy a dog or cat for a pet or you will get poor.
- Do not open the eyes of newborn kittens or puppies because you will go
- Do not kill dogs because they belong to the spirits and you will become
- Do not brand a dog as a joke or you will lose your livestock.
- Do not choke a kitten or you will have throat trouble.
- Do not watch a dog mate or you will go blind.
- Do not watch a dog go to the bathroom or you will go crazy.
- Do not give food from a ceremony to the dogs because it will spoil the
- Do not let a dog bite the Medicine man because the sing will not work.
- Do not talk to dogs or other animals because they might talk back and you
- Do not let a dog eat in front of you when you butcher or you will lose the
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