Navajo Nation residents are 35 times more likely to be killed by dogs than other Americans
Part I of a three-part series.
See also: Pit bull proliferation hits “Indian country”: fatal dog attacks triple and Pit bulls now in the “rez dog” gene pool.
WINDOW ROCK, Arizona––Three-year-old Kayden Colter Begay was on July 14, 2016 fatally mauled by 12 pit bulls reportedly belonging to neighbor Marlinda Begay, identified by Cindy Yurth of the tribally owned newspaper Navajo Times as “a relation on Kayden’s father’s side.”
Kayden Begay, of Seba Dalkai, Arizona, a remote crossroads consisting of little more than a school and post office, was at least the fourth person to be killed by free-roaming dog packs on the Navajo Nation since 2010, but was the first killed in an incident in which the attack was witnessed and the dogs were identified.
First in dog attacks
The 27,425-square-mile Navajo Nation reservation, designated by the U.S. government in 1868, sprawls across northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico, bordering Colorado.
The Navajo Nation is in fact the largest area of what Native American media loosely call “Indian country” within the U.S., counting all of the land encompassed by reservations in the U.S., designated First Nations territory in Canada, including Nunavut, and anywhere else that is predominantly Native American in ethnicity, culture, land ownership, and governance.
But with just 175,000 human residents, the four Navajo Nation dog attack deaths in under seven years would be proportional to 7,200 in the U.S. as a whole, about 35 times more than have actually occurred, even though the U.S. has had more fatal dog attacks over the same time than cumulatively in the entire 20th century.
Wrote Yurth, “Kimasha Begay of Gallup said her son (the victim) was visiting his paternal grandparents, David and Sharon Begay, in Seba Dalkai and had followed his aunt out to get the cattle when the pack of 12 pit bulls attacked him.
“From what I was told, the aunt didn’t know Kayden had followed her,” Kimasha Begay told Yurth. “She turned around and saw the dogs gathered around something. She went to see what they were doing, and that’s when she found my son.”
Added Yurth, “Kimasha Begay said she was told the left side of Kayden’s face had been torn off and his thigh was gnawed to the bone. According to Kimasha Begay, people in the area had repeatedly complained to the Navajo Nation Rangers about the pack of dogs attacking livestock, but nothing was ever done.
“They weren’t registered, they weren’t vaccinated, and they were skin and bone,” Begay told Yurth. “They were probably hungry.”
After the attack, Begay said, “They destroyed some of the dogs, but I don’t think they got all of them.”
The Navajo Nation Criminal Investigations Office is reportedly looking into the incident, but––serving a community in which dogs have always run loose in large numbers––is unlikely to file charges. No charges were filed in connection with any of the other recent Navajo Nation fatalities, nor in several other recent life-threatening attacks by free-roaming dogs.
Jason White Hip, 39, of Crow Nation, Montana, the most recent fatality before Kayden Begay, was found dead on January 2, 2015, shortly before he was expected to take a bus back to Montana after an extended visit to Navajo Nation relatives.
“According to a Gallup Police incident report, a woman called for help after she noticed White Hip lying near some bushes with blood on his face,” Associated Press recounted. “The woman reported seeing several dogs in the area, and said that two brown dogs and one black dog growled at her.”
White Hip, a firefighter, is believed to have fought off the dogs, only to die from the combination of his injuries and exposure.
“What will it take?”
Larry Armstrong, 55, and Tomas Jay Henio, 8, were killed in similar unwitnessed attacks by free-roaming dog packs in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
Another Navajo Nation victim, Josiah Teller, of Upper Fruitland, reportedly survived a May 2014 pit bull attack that nicked the carotid artery in his neck when a 10-year-old girl used both hands to pry the dog’s jaws open.
“What will it take for the Navajo Nation to begin protecting its residents from loose, violent dogs?” asked Teller’s mother, Wanona Theberge.
The Navajo Nation has in truth tried. Navajo Nation wildlife law enforcement and animal control manager Kevin Gleason told Dan Schwartz of the Farmington Daily Times that his six animal control officers impounded 6,270 dogs in just the first six months of 2014.
“A lot that are not reported”
The agency had responded to nearly 200 bite complaints, Gleason said, but added “I think there are a lot that are not reported.”
The five Navajo Nation animal control shelters, at Crownpoint, Shiprock, Fort Defiance, Many Farms, and Tuba City, whose work is augmented by several nonprofit humane societies and rescues, collected and killed 33 dogs per 1,000 residents in 2011, after the Armstrong fatality.
This was more than three times as many dogs killed per 1,000 humans as the U.S. national average, but––largely because of spay/neuter outreach programs––the toll was down markedly from the 136 dogs per 1,000 Navajo Nation residents who were collected and killed in 2003.
The Navajo Nation cracked down on free-roaming dogs in January 2009 after a man and a woman, both in their sixties, were attacked by packs of seven and four dogs, respectively, in unrelated incidents.
But the crackdown appears to have lost momentum after PETA and the Humane Society of the U.S. amplified local protest over the June 2009 shooting of 40 to 50 dogs allegedly owned by a man who had been in jail for a month for gun law violations.
Historically, free-roaming dogs were not considered a problem on the Navajo Nation, nor on most other large Native American reservations.
Below the Arctic Circle, where sled dogs of traditional northern breeds prevailed, reservation dogs were almost all small to midsized mongrels of the sort described by European settlers as “Indian dogs,” found in pre-settlement times around Native American villages all over the Americas.
The Yellow Dog of Crypt Cave, Nevada, whose mummified remains were interred about 6,300 years ago, was such a dog, as were many others whose less well preserved remains have been discovered by archaeology.
The dogs ran loose, scavenging the refuse from successful hunts, keeping predatory animals away, alerting the small, isolated communities to the approach of human enemies. Before the Native Americans had horses and livestock, the dogs were no threat to anyone. When Native American villages were annihilated by disease and warfare, after the arrival of settlers of European descent, many of the dogs remained right where they were, becoming the street dogs of colonial New England, the Old South and Old West.
Paul Revere’s dog, who helped him on the 1775 midnight ride that helped to found the United States, was a typical “Indian dog.” Revere memorialized his small but heroic dog by including him in the foreground of his engraving of the Boston Massacre.
Dangerous dogs came to the Americas, including the U.S. South and Southwest, at the same time as horses, and in the same manner. These were the “war dogs” of the Spanish invaders, dogs who would today be recognized as the forebears of the Presa Canario, Dogo Argentino, Cane Corso and Fila Brasiero, half mastiff and half fighting bulldog.
“The conquistadors came with their own canine-sporting and loving culture,” summarized Louis Werner in Dog Tails of the New World (1999), “but quickly learned to eat dog meat as well as to hunt and kill men with dogs, an ‘amusement’ they called la montería infernal. While Spaniards may have frequented dog butchers in the great Mexico City market, they also butchered Indians in order to keep their mastiffs keen for the taste of man’s blood.
“According to Bartolomé de Las Casas,” a 16th century Spanish bishop who wrote to the Pope on behalf of the human victims, ‘To feed these dogs, they [Spaniards] ensure they have a ready supply of natives chained and herded like calves on the hoof, whom they butcher as the need arises. . . They run a human abattoir where a dog owner can casually ask, not for a quarter of pork or mutton, but for a quarter of human flesh with which to feed his dogs.”
The first dangerous dog legislation in the New World, and the first dog laws enforced within the territory that later became the United States, including the Navajo Nation, may have been the repeated decrees of Spanish Catholic missionaries seeking to keep soldiers with “war dogs” away from mission settlements where the Native American residents had converted to Catholicism, at least superficially, and had accepted Catholic rule.
Despite the priests’ entreaties, which in mission times largely kept “war dogs” out of the Catholicized parts of the future U.S. Southwest, dogs descended from the Spanish “war dogs” remained in frequent use and continued often tasting human flesh. Such dogs were used to guard slaves in the Caribbean region, South America, and the southern United States, and to hunt down and kill any slaves who ran away, as described by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“War dogs” were also used to help drive Native Americans out of parts of the South, as the plantation culture expanded. A pack of “war dogs” were released from Fort Nashborough, Tennessee in 1781, for instance, to repel Native Americans from the future site of the city of Nashville.
Later descendants of Spanish “war dogs” included the “Cuban bloodhounds” used to guard and sometimes kill Union prisoners at the infamous Andersonville concentration camp during the U.S. Civil War.
Mixed with fighting dogs imported mostly from Britain, the “Cuban bloodhounds” morphed into the pit bulls favored by generations of dogfighters, and by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate and sometimes help lynch black people.
The menacing but later heroic and eventually rabid stray dog hero of the 1956 novel and film Old Yeller, was described by author Fred Gipson as a yellow half Labrador retriever, half mastiff. Old Yeller, set in post-Civil War Texas, was a work of fiction, but had such a dog actually existed, more than 30 years before the first recognized yellow Labrador retriever was born in 1899, the dog would likely have been a mix of Spanish “war dog” and “Indian dog” lineage.
Until relatively recent times, just a few dog generations ago, the likes of Old Yeller, actually named Spike, were the most dangerous dogs likely to be found on or near most Native American reservations below the Arctic Circle.
This is the first of a three-part series. See also: Pit bull proliferation hits “Indian country”: fatal dog attacks triple and Pit bulls now in the “rez dog” gene pool.