Land-grant professor offers Navajo herds a helping hand

  • A Navajo woman shears a Churro

    Lyle McNeal
  • Bag of USU Stew Stick, Mutton with listed ingredients


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Trying to save two of the parts.

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 delicious.

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.

"Cheeses!" he 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."

"I look 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 laws.

"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 pastures.

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 small producer.

"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 of life.

"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 says.

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 sheep producers.

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.

Joe Benally 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.

And 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?' "

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