WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — Whenever Amy Begaye’s extended family butchered a sheep, she was given what she considered easy tasks — holding the legs and catching the blood with a bowl. She was never given the knife.
That changed recently.
In the pale light of dawn at this year’s Miss Navajo Nation pageant, 25-year-old Begaye and another contestant opened a week of competition with a timed sheep-butchering contest. Begaye says preparing to compete, which also required she practice spoken Navajo and learn more about her culture, brought out another side. It taught her to be confident: that she, as a gentle young woman, could be courageous and independent enough to fulfill such an important responsibility.
“We butcher the sheep because it is a way of our life,” said Begaye, who won this year’s pageant and is preparing to speak about the importance of sheep as a cultural ambassador over the next year. “That’s how my ancestors were able to provide food for their families.”
That way of life is in peril. Climate change, permitting issues and diminishing interest among younger generations are leading to a singular reality: Navajo raising fewer sheep. Keeping hundreds of sheep, of historically prized Churro and other breeds, used to be the norm for many families living on a vast reservation that straddles parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. But today some families have given up raising them all together. The ones who do report having far fewer sheep, sometimes just a handful. Still, many Navajo shepherds say they will keep their sheep as long as they can, and some younger people are speaking out and finding ways to pass on the tradition.
Navajo, who use every part of sheep, became stewards of the animals that arrived with Spanish colonists around the late 16th century. They raised them for meat and wool and helped turn the region into an economic powerhouse that supplied local trading posts with the expertly woven rugs that became an icon of the Southwest. But over the centuries, violence and outside influences have inflicted damage on shepherds.
Beginning in 1864, the U.S. Army forced several thousand Navajo into exile during what came to be known as the Long Walk; they returned to destroyed homes and livestock. Some hid with their sheep and survived, only for the government to again kill thousands of sheep during forced herd reductions in the early 1930s.
Most afternoons these days, shaggy herding dogs encourage a flock of sheep to follow Jay Begay Sr. out to graze. The brassy tinkling of livestock bells rings out over a vast plain of dry grasses near the community of Rocky Ridge, Arizona, close to the border between Navajo and Hopi lands. Begay Sr. uses a walking stick to wind past pockets of yellow flowers, heavily trafficked anthills and the occasional prickly pear. Eventually the afternoon sun casts long shadows, and with a breathy whistle or two, Begay Sr. leads them back on the half-mile trek to their corral, the dogs loping not far behind.
For Begay Sr., his wife Helen and his son, Jay Begay Jr., this way of life is precious. But Begay Jr. has noticed his parents slowing down, and they have reduced their numbers, from 200 down to 50.
It’s a story familiar to many others in Navajo Nation.
“A friend of mine says, ‘You can’t blame people for not wanting to work this hard,’” Begay Jr. said. It’s harder now, he added, “because of the way the climate is changing.”
A mega drought across the Western U.S. has sucked moisture from the land, leaving cracks and barrenness in its wake. The next count of sheep isn’t planned until 2024, but Navajo Department of Agriculture officials say the number is lower than the 200,000 counted in 2017. Adding to the problem is the long-standing issue of water scarcity on Navajo Nation, where roughly a third of people lack reliable access to clean water. The Supreme Court recently decided that the federal government was not obligated to identify or secure water rights for the reservation.
The previous Miss Navajo, Valentina Clitso, says she has seen the impacts of water shortages firsthand, including on livestock. During her travels as an ambassador for Navajo culture, she says people have voiced concerns about springs running dry, about hauling water across long distances. Less forage for the sheep also means families have to spend more on expensive feed in the winter.
Lester Craig, who lives near Gallup, remembers when his family had over 600 sheep. His mother would buy their school clothes by selling the wool, and she would weave, too.
Now Craig has just a few sheep and goats, some horses and a few dogs, including one herding dog named Dibé, the Navajo word for “sheep.”
Like Begay Jr., Craig worries about climate change. He pays more for feed in the winter and must haul water from a filling station in Gallup, about an hour roundtrip.
But Craig doesn’t just haul water because of drought. The land where his family lives was contaminated in 1979 by a tailing spill from a uranium mine — he points over the ridge in the direction of the site of the biggest radioactive spill in U.S. history.
The windmill wells near his house functioned but had polluted water. For a long time they used them anyway, not knowing anything was wrong. It was clear, clean water, or so they thought. Now they know, and no longer use those wells.
To prevent erosion, a problem worsened by wild horses that have been allowed to run rampant on the reservation, the allowed number of sheep and other livestock is controlled by grazing permits. Craig has seen the erosion, and tears up thinking about how the contours of the land he once roamed as a child have changed.
Leo Watchman, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, says grazing management is the worst it’s ever been on the reservation. Among other things, he cites bureaucratic inconsistencies between the federal government and Navajo jurisdictions and holdups on environmental studies that determine how many animals can be kept on any given area of land.
He says thousands of people have been waiting for years for grazing permits. Meanwhile, others have permits they don’t use or trespass on land they don’t have the right to graze on. Sometimes all of this happens amongst family members who live near each other — a recipe for land disputes.
Meranda Laughter, who works at the Tractor Supply Co. in Gallup, says over the last five years her family has gone from 300 to just 10 sheep. Despite the sharp drop, Laughter thinks they will eventually increase their flock’s size, and that continued education and better management can alleviate some of the problems that have been stacked on top of the drought.
“We need to give time for the land to breathe,” she said.
For Craig, a big concern is that that some of the younger generation, including his own family, aren’t interested in carrying on the tradition of keeping sheep.
That’s something Begaye echoes as she describes what it’s like to be a young Navajo. Like some other young people, she wanted to leave the reservation and experience city life. And for a while, she did. She went to Utah Tech University in St. George. But then she started to realize that someday she would want to pass on her culture to her children.
The experience of returning home and helping care for her grandmother, who has dementia, helped shape her choice to reengage with her culture. That led her to compete to be Miss Navajo, and thus help her community band together to overcome challenges and strengthen traditions like sheep herding.
“It just hit me,” she said. “This is who I am. This is where I come from. These are my roots, and I don’t really want to change that.”