In today’s contentious world an owl taboo taught me about why I should make the right choice to respect other’s beliefs.
May the words of my mouthPsalm 19:14
and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Respect is a Right Choice
“Oh, look!” the ranger said, bending to pick something up from the forest floor. “An owl pellet! How cool is that?”
Standing at the back of the group of students, I noticed two immediately turn and look the other way.
“Don’t you want to see?” I asked.
“We can’t,” one said in a respectful whisper, “we have an owl taboo in our Native culture.”
I looked at the other Navajo students, engrossed as the ranger pulled apart the pellet and exposed a mouse skeleton inside.
“We’re traditional Navajo,” the other one explained. “Not all Navajo respect the taboo.”
I nodded in understanding. My first year working with Native American students had shown me I had so much to learn from them. After the ranger-led activity, I found the math teacher, a Navajo man, and asked him to explain more about the owl taboo.
“Owls are considered bearers of bad news,” he explained. “But from my research into Navajo traditions, I think originally they were considered bearers of warning. They warned you to pray and proceed with caution.”
“So, if I hung a picture of an owl in my classroom,” I asked him, “that would be culturally insensitive because I would constantly remind traditional students bad news was coming?”
“Yeah, probably,” he said.
A Taboo Shapes My Behavior
I don’t often see owls when I go out birding, and each time I do, I consider myself very fortunate. Over the years, I’ve taken dozens of photos of different owl species. But I’ve never enlarged them or hung them on display in our home.
Students, and sometimes even parents visit our home on a regular basis (I work at a boarding school). I want to make the right choice to respect their cultural traditions. It doesn’t matter that I am not Navajo (not all Native cultures have an owl taboo—some venerate certain owl species).
As a Christian, I want to show respect and understanding for people around me. Not because I believe in owl taboos, but because I want to show my respect for other cultures. Paul counsels Christians to not eat meat sacrificed to idols if doing so would cause a weaker Christian to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:1-15).
Nowadays, we don’t have to worry about food sacrificed to idols (at least in the United States). But we have myriad right choices we can make about how we respect those different from us. I know some Christians who feel as if the beat of certain music causes their heart to beat erratically. And others who think ‘Christian rock’ is an oxymoron. When they visit my house or ride in my vehicle, I refrain from playing music I know will offend them.
If the conversation ever comes up in a natural way, I’ll happily share my opinions and beliefs. But I don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, unseen, unloved, or unheard by my actions or words. So I don’t hang photos of owls in my house when I work at a school where many of the parents and students believe in an owl taboo.
Have you worked with someone from a different culture and made decisions to show respect for that culture?