It's a daunting proposition: Take 100,000 Navajo sheep producers, 25,000 native weavers, 24,000 square miles of high desert rangeland and 300,000 sheep and goats, and figure out how to improve life for all of them.
But Utah State
University Professor Lyle McNeal, four Navajo families and nine
agricultural experts are going to give it their best shot. With a
$100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they aim to
prove that sheep can be raised profitably and without environmental
degradation on the Navajo Nation's lands. The pilot project aims to
make the four Navajo families' livestock operations sustainable.
Ideally, those families will then serve as role models for other
tribal sheep producers.
McNeal has already had
significant success with the Churro sheep (see story previous page)
through the Navajo Sheep Project he started 16 years ago. Most of
the Churro wool produced on the reservation is spun and sold to
weavers and knitters through a direct mail catalog distributed by
the project. The rest is sold to a trader who commissions Navajo
women to weave rugs from it. The project also markets Churro meat
in a vacuum-packed "lamb stew stick" that McNeal swears is
But the rest of the reservation's
sheep industry lags far behind. It generates dismal profits by
selling lambs and raw wool to buyers off the reservation. McNeal
hopes to vastly increase the sheep producers' earnings with the
help of a federally-funded Sustainable Agriculture Research and
Education (SARE) grant:
"I'd like to see more
weavers," he says, adding that selling rugs and tapestries to
outlets in Germany and the Pacific Rim could expand the market.
"I'd like to see each of the flock growers producing more lambs per
ewe. I'd like to see an internal marketing structure on the
reservation with marketing centers to enhance the sale of lamb and
unprocessed raw wool."
He'd also like the
Navajos to make more money by processing the wool into yarn on the
reservation. Direct marketing to shops in affluent towns like
Telluride, Colo., could earn native weavers more than their
customary 50 percent take per rug.
says. "Instead of importing all these gourmet cheeses in from
France, why not make "em here from sheep milk?"
The project has a long way to go before
achieving its marketing goals, but its environmental challenges
loom at least as large.
McNeal considers the
Navajo Nation's rangelands "a disaster."
at BLM rangeland after I've been on the rez, and a lot of it looks
like the garden of Eden," he says. He doesn't lay the blame on the
Navajo sheep producers. Instead, he points to tribal officials who
look the other way when it comes to enforcing environmental
"It's political suicide to enforce the
grazing regulations' he says.
Daniel Tso, a
former member of the Navajo Tribal Council in Window Rock, Ariz.,
agrees: "There's hardly any enforcement," he says. "It only occurs
in pockets of cooperation."
McNeal says the
tribal government isn't only falling down on its law enforcement
duties, but also neglecting the wind-powered pumps that sheep
producers rely on for irrigating their
He hopes to construct solar-powered
water pumps to provide irrigation water, as well as build some
fences to control grazing on the range. He hopes eventually to
alleviate pressure on the range by securing Navajo rights to graze
their sheep off the reservation during the summer, on their
ancestral grazing grounds in southwestern Colorado's San Juan
National Forest. Although such grazing rights are still a "long
shot" proposition, the four Navajo families involved in the SARE
project plan to graze their flocks this summer at CSU's San Juan
Basin Research Center in the mountains near Hesperus, Colo.
"Anglos do it all the time - they graze in the
mountains in the summer and the desert in the winter," he says.
"But the Navajo just have to stay in the desert."
McNeal is just as frustrated with the Navajo
governmental power structure as he is with the Anglo-dominated
land-grant university system, because both are insensitive to the
"If I was a Navajo, I'd say, "I'm
mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," " says McNeal.
"As for me, all I can do is work at the grass roots."
That's what the SARE project is all about. His
partners - the Navajo families and the agricultural experts from
Utah State University in Logan and Colorado State University in
Fort Collins - believe in change from the ground up.
Participant Sharon Begay says that if the SARE
project, or something like it, had not refocused her family on the
importance of its sheep operation, their sheep would be gone and
the land with them. She says the problems faced by many Navajo
families are directly related to the loss of their agricultural way
"While the non-Indian society can
survive the loss of the agricultural way of life because their
values are transportable to the factory or office, Navajo values
and family systems are not transportable," she
When McNeal looked for families on the
reservation to work with, he looked for those who would serve as
good role models for the tribe. These families have raised sheep
and goats for generations. But to survive financially these days,
they need several sources of income. Among the participants are Leo
Natani - a mediator who works to resolve arguments between tribal
members so they don't have to go to court. His wife, Sarah, teaches
weaving at Navajo Community College in Shiprock when she isn't
working with the family flock of Churro sheep. Marjorie Curley also
raises sheep, as well as working at the local elementary school.
Eventually, McNeal hopes, these families will
invite members of the community to their homes and travel around
the reservation demonstrating new techniques and methods to help
As McNeal intended, the project
has become a two-way exchange between Anglos and Navajos. Mary
Begay, a well-known Navajo herbalist, is working with a university
specialist to investigate the use of native plants in veterinary
medicine. Meanwhile, Kitt Farell-Poe, an engineering specialist
with Utah State University Cooperative Extension, will test one
family's water for carcinogens and look for ways to deliver water
for their sheep closer to their grazing grounds. And Kathy
Williams, a textiles specialist with Colorado State University is
helping investigate markets for wool.
said that sheep were of crucial importance to his people. "It's not
about making money," Benally said, "Raising animals is about
disciplining children, teaching them responsibility and planning
for the future. It encompasses the concept of being humble."
Despite the project's promise, McNeal worries
about the long term. "When I retire, what's going to happen to the
program?" asks McNeal. "We need an endowment. If we could get $3
million or more, we'd be pretty well taken care of."
But he draws sustenance from both his
relationship with the Navajos and his Mormon faith: "My religious
beliefs have taught me that if you do something you feel good
doing, you'd better do it well," he says.
he's encouraged by the enthusiastic response of university experts
- -They're more people-oriented," he says. "They're not lab or
grant oriented. They keep saying, "When are we going next?"
* Lisa Jones, Linda