News piece mischaracterizes cryptozoology and Native American stories

I’m presenting this article as a particularly awful example of terrible journalism. It’s riddled with mistakes and false premises.

Instead of linking directly to the article, I have webcited it so it will not give advertising revenue or hit counts to the site. Because that makes them produce more of it.

Rez monsters: Bizarre creatures and spirits attract interest on Navajo Nation – Farmington Daily Times.

By driving though the Navajo reservation, no one would know that the vast tribal land is thought by cryptozoologists to be home to so many outlandish species.

“Navajo stories go way back, for years,” said Leonard Dan, a self-proclaimed cryptozoologist, someone who studies animals thought to be extinct.

What a mess. I’m not clear if the reporter is getting information from Dan or from independent research of the field of cryptozoology. They do not study animals thought to be extinct. They are interested in what people report as animals that are nonexistent right now. (Those who study extinct animals are palaeontologists – a totally different professional field.)

“There have been sightings of Pegasus, and of Griffins,” Dan said, referring to two creatures thought by most to come from Greek mythology.

Lately, an unusual number of people on the reservation also have spotted Centaurs, another animal of Greek mythology that is human on top and equine on the bottom.

These mythical creatures are biologically impossible. Serious cryptozoologists are interested in finding out what living creature may be responsible for the reports. That clearly fictional creatures are being reported is a hint that this thread is going no where in the realm of reality.

Brenda Harris, also of Upper Fruitland, said it took her a while to talk about her sightings of a pterodactyl, a winged Jurassic dinosaur, in the late 1990s because she was wary of the humiliation.

After talking about it, though, she found many of her neighbors had similar experiences.

To be pedantic, well, to say I know maybe a little something more about extinct flying reptiles than this reporter, pterodactyls are just one type of pterosaur (flying reptiles that lived at the time of the dinosaurs), certainly extinct for more than 60 million years but they were NOT dinosaurs. Giant flying creature sightings are rare but many reports do exist. Called Thunderbirds (more like giant feathered birds) or non-feathered (such as pterosaurs), they are steeped in Native lore. As far as I understand, they are metaphorical, an exaggerated version of real animals but not real. At least not organic as other animals around us.

[J.C.] Johnson [Dan’s partner and fellow self-proclaimed cryptozoologist] has independently researched all kinds of cases, from behemoth snakes to werewolves to upright hooded lizards that will shoot poison into a person’s legs and then eat them. Not to mention skin walkers, the evil Navajo spirits that are known to take the shape of a wolf, among other animals.

“The locals out there all know about it,” says Johnson.

[…]the Navajo police do not want to respond because of their own superstitions, or simply because they do not find the matters important.

Wow. Those are some truly extraordinary claims. They are so implausible that it’s clear we are not talking about flesh and blood creatures here.

This could have been a good piece. I am not well versed in Native traditions and the blurry lines between actual and folklore animals but the completely fantastic descriptions in these stories are indicative of an explanation that is not reflecting biological creatures but folklore and spiritual beliefs. The reader has no way of verifying anything in this story. It is told from the perspective of the self-styled cryptozoologists. There are no standards for that role. You can make it up as you go along. And it seems these stories are quite imaginative.

Thunderbird totum sculpture by artist Melissa Koch



  13 comments for “News piece mischaracterizes cryptozoology and Native American stories

  1. spookyparadigm
    December 9, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    I’d say it’s less bad journalism than embarrassing. It makes the community look something not unlike the Leprechaun videos that went around a few years ago, easily mocked by outsiders, in no small part due to the wild claims of some who really want to have their claims heard. I thought you’d like the note on how one of the cryptos calls the cops “Farmington Daily Times.”

    It arguably reports what the cryptos told the reporter (I’ve seen bigger fish, up to and including the NYT do similar), and the cops, who largely aren’t interested or are skeptical. The only thing really missing is non-authority voices from the community that are skeptical.

    What it isn’t, is a science piece. But given how routinely it moves between spirits and things that might not be considered spirits, I think that’s not an issue. Would we expect a physicist or biologist to be interviewed for a piece on an Icelandic community diverting a road for elves, to have to go through why elves are impossible?

    As for the “cryptos study extinct,” it’s poorly written, but I think there is some truth to it. Namely, that cryptozoology is a folk “science” response to the vast discoveries of both biology and zoology. All of your major brand-name cryptids, except Chupacabra, have until recently been explained as supposedly extinct creatures (Gigantopithecus, plesiosaurs, zeuglodon, pteradons, sauropods, and so on. It’s hard to think of many well-known cryptids not framed that way, until recently when we’ve had the rise of thought forms and or forest people).

  2. spookyparadigm
    December 9, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    That should be “both biology and paleontology” in the last para.

  3. December 9, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    There are many levels of knowledge within cryptozoology, and sometimes media-described “self-proclaimed cryptozoologists” attempt to repeat parts of what they may have read inarticulately. By the time it goes through the two screens (non-academically based cryptozoologists and local media), what are we to expect?

    And, indeed, I think you have correctly hit the nail on the head in terms of the major result: A badly researched and poorly written article like this one.

    I feel the quote that most highlights this is this one, talking about a “pterodactyl, a winged Jurassic dinosaur.” You dissect of it is spot on. This one sentence shows me specifically that the reporter apparently received a bit of information, and added the mistakes.

    Same goes with the definition of “cryptozoology.” Some cryptozoologists are so involved in theories (“Bigfoot are Gigantopithecus,” “Yeren are Homo erectus,” “Mapinguari are Giant Ground Sloths,”) that reporters overhearing this level of detail do misunderstand that cryptozoology is about the study of as yet-to-be verified species, some of which may be completely new and others that might be considered previously extinct.

    Thank you for your level-headed approach and critique of this news item, which I seem to have found as extremely troubling as you did.

  4. December 9, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    OMG. Typo: “You dissect of it is spot on.” = “Your dissection of it is spot on.”
    Thank you,
    Loren Coleman

  5. D. Walker
    December 9, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Can You say “Peyote” ??

  6. December 9, 2012 at 4:11 PM

    I can’t figure out how to allow user edits of comments. 🙁

  7. spookyparadigm
    December 9, 2012 at 4:24 PM

    Crap, that should be in the first para calls the cops “to give his research an added credibility that is, if they will come.”

  8. Phil
    December 9, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    As a nerd I would also point out that seeing Greek mythological creatures on the Navajo nation makes no sense. It would be like living in Metropolis and seeing Spider-Man. Wrong comic book company!

  9. December 9, 2012 at 6:00 PM

    Heh. Never thought of that but you are right.

  10. Massachusetts
    December 9, 2012 at 9:30 PM

    I like the thunder bird totem sculpture–colorful and imaginative, though it does seem heavily influenced by the Pegasus myth. I’d always thought of the thunderbirds as actual birds, not horse birds. But this is a modern sculpture so influences abound. Regarding the thunder bird legends, I also think that large real birds may seem much larger under certain circumstances (perspective, lighting, background / foreground variation, etc.) That might explain some of these sightings.

  11. Massachusetts
    December 9, 2012 at 9:35 PM

    Yes, the incongruity seems very strange. But a hard core believer might say that’s proof that these phenomena are real, i.e., they’ve been observed in multiple cultures and nations over thousands of years. It would be interesting to see what programs were playing on the sci fi channel and such when these sightings were reported. CG might provide fertilizer for the imagination, and there are lots of cheap prehistoric critter flicks out there.

  12. Brian
    December 10, 2012 at 10:10 AM

    **Brenda Harris, also of Upper Fruitland, said it took her a while to talk about her sightings of a pterodactyl, a winged Jurassic dinosaur, in the late 1990s because she was wary of the humiliation.**

    I have seen what she has. “Wha???” you might be thinking. What I am sure she saw was a type of crane. I saw similar here a couple months ago. It looked for all the WORLD like a pteradactyl! I knew what it was, but at the same time, my inner dinosaur loving 9 year old was jumping up and down screaming “DINOSAUR! Oooo! Ooooo!”. My guess is (I am sorry, I dont know what kind of bird I saw was exactly- they are around here in Fla), this bird either got lost, or lives around that area- or they are common there (?), but are arely seen- because people have their heads buried in some electronic device too much.

  13. December 10, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    You are correct. When you see some of these birds fly, their feet look like tails.

Comments are closed.