Navajo ranching in the Chuska Mountains

Keeping a tradition alive in western New Mexico.

  • While trying to feed her chickens, Irene Bennalley, Diné, 56, of Two Gray Hills, N.M., gives in to an intrepid goat that loiters around her small wooden cabin in the Chuska Mountains.

    Diego James Robles
  • Flanked by a rag-tag army of sheepdogs, Bennalley, left, and Rebecca Cecil of Santa Fe, N.M., move the herd past a dying stream. The severe drought affecting much of the Western United States has also taken a toll on the Navajo Nation.

    Diego James Robles
  • Benalley spins homemade yarn on her rural ranch, high in the Navajo Chuska Mountains.

    Diego James Robles
  • Visiting from California for the summer, Shaandiin Powell, 16, fights a hungry goat while trying to feed more than a dozen cats on her grandmother’s mountain ranch.

    Diego James Robles
  • Bennalley detains a lamb for inspection after she noticed it was acting lame.

    Diego James Robles
  • Powell keeps an eye on the herd as her grandmother closes the pen door for the night.

    Diego James Robles
  • Bennalley, right, shows Cecil of Santa Fe, N.M., how to herd sheep and goats across different pasture lands and watering holes. To supplement her income, Bennalley hosts tourists who want a taste of traditional life.

    Diego James Robles
  • During a chilly summer night in the mountains, Bennalley keeps an eye on the tortilla bread while her ranch-hand, Lee Cohoe, adjusts the fire.

    Diego James Robles
  • Bennalley poses with her favorite “lammie,” and two rambunctious sheepdog puppies that refused to get out of the picture, high atop her working ranch in the Chuska Mountains, Navajo Nation.

    Diego James Robles

 

Up a winding mountain road in western New Mexico, following clear streams and green meadows, 56-year-old Irene Bennalley helps keep Navajo agricultural traditions alive. Once a prevalent way of life, ranching is now fairly rare in the Navajo Nation. Bennalley grew up in Two Gray Hills, New Mexico and inherited a family ranch from her father, where she still rears hundreds of animals, including Navajo Churro sheep, goats, cattle and horses. Her children, who are now grown and live in cities, have little intention of taking over the property in the Chuska Mountains. As Bennalley gets older, the ranch and her way of life face an uncertain future. Los Angeles-based photographer Diego James Robles visited Bennalley at her ranch over a few years to create the images shown here.