October 15, 2003
by Carol Snyder Halberstadt
"I put this livestock here for you; it is your father and your mother, your thoughts and your mind. You will have children and grandchildren and so forth as time goes on. Your livestock is going to be your life."
Second annual wool buy
Oct. 2003 -- On June 20 and 21, 2003, outside the Navajo Nation Hardrock Chapter House on Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona, with a hard wind blowing sand under a hot sun, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land held its second wool buy. We were joined this year by a mohair buyer from Chicago, who bought mohair at above-market prices as well as contributing 10 percent above that to the co-op.
We were also joined by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students who had just completed the freshman year. Their work was funded by summer grants for public service and creative projects from MIT. Together with the Din? (Navajo) workers and many Din? volunteers from throughout the community, they spent two days helping to sort, skirt and weigh the Churro wool and mohair as it came in for sale.
Thanks to their special efforts, MIT donated 12 computers to the Hardrock Chapter, which upgraded its previous four-computer setup into a modern, air-conditioned computer lab serving the entire region. The lab is benefiting Chapter staff, community healthcare workers, local Navajo Nation offices, students and adults of all ages, organizations serving Din? living under Hopi tribal jurisdiction and environmental advocacy groups working on water and land issues. The MIT students installed hardware and software (with software licenses provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Native American Access to Technology Program), taught computer classes and helped individuals and organizations design websites. The original packing boxes in which the computers arrived in Arizona from MIT were used to ship wool back to Massachuetts, and are now being used to ship wool to individual buyers nationwide.
At the wool buy, Black Mesa Weavers purchased 2,823 lbs. of Navajo-Churro wool at $1.60/lb. with funds raised this past year from sales of Din? weavings, wool, other products and donor contributions: 1,953 lbs. of white and 870 lbs. of colored fleece. This included 52 lbs. of very rare colored lambswool (black, grey-brown, grey, antique grey and antique brown) and 50 lbs. of white -- 102 lbs. of lambswool this year compared to 72 lbs. in 2002. We also bought almost 100 lbs. of extremely rare adult Churro colors such as antique grey and antique brown, some very fine "premium white" and white shell fleece and about 280 lbs. of high-quality natural black. A buyer from Japan who joined us at the wool buy bought an additional 550 lbs. of white, paying the same $1.60/lb. to the wool growers plus 10 cents/lb. to the co-op.
We arranged with the county FSA office to send a representative to the wool buy to sign up wool growers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture program, so they could receive reimbursement of about 20 cents per pound for Churro and about $2.00 per pound for mohair in addition to what they were paid for their fleece.
A Canadian wool buyer purchased 500 lbs. of white and colored fleece, the Chicago mohair buyer also bought 400 lbs. of white Churro, and 410 lbs. of colored and white fleece were shipped back to Massachusetts, for sale via the Internet and at Northeast fiber fairs and other fleece outlets. About 180 lbs. of black and other colors have been kept at Hardrock to be hand-processed into yarn. About 1,100 lbs. of white also remain at Hardrock to be sold or eventually processed into hand-carded, ready-to-spin batts and yarn. We hope to cooperate with other local grassroots organizations in growing dye plants using sustainable agriculture and recyled rainwater to offer handspun vegetal-dyed roving and yarns to Din? weavers and the general public. We are also looking forward to seeing our Churro fleece used in a Din? College weaving program to restore the use of traditional Churro yarn in teaching young weavers.
Growing participation and more Churro sheep
At our first wool buy in June 2002, we estimated that we bought fleece from about 350 Churro (2,265 pounds, of which 1,417 pounds were white and 848 pounds were colored fleece), and that there were about 450 Churro in the Black Mesa region on Hopi Partitioned Land (HPL) and Navajo Partitioned Land (NPL). In 2002, 35 households brought in Churro fleece; this year 50 households brought in almost 3,400 lbs. of fleece. Forty-five households also brought mohair to sell; some who did not have Churro.
In October 2002, the Navajo Sheep Project had distributed about 300 of its herd to Din? shepherds and weavers throughout the Navajo Nation; about 108 went to Black Mesa area Din?. Originally founded by Dr. Lyle McNeal in 1977, and dedicated to restoring the Churro, the Navajo Sheep Project developed its herd from breeding stock found among the Din? of Black Mesa, Monument Valley and a 1930s herd bred at Ft. Wingate, N.M., and preserved in California.
Thus, at this second wool buy, we bought most of the Churro available in the region -- about 530 fleeces. According to Connie Taylor, registrar of the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, there are now about 800?1,000 Churro in all of the Navajo Nation. Our immediate goal is to continue to serve the Black Mesa region, to develop and expand a sustainable wool-growing economy based on high-quality Churro wool and mohair and to buy and market through fair-trade initiatives all the Churro wool the Din? wish to sell.
This year's wool buy, like the first one, enabled weavers in the co-op to buy back (at the same price just paid for the wool) different colors to use for their own weaving -- almost 100 lbs. After our handspun yarn-processing enterprise began, others bought wool for their own weaving use; some paying for the fleece with their labor. The co-op purchased a Louet hand-operated drum carder for the Hardrock Senior Center and ten Ashford hand carders (two for the Senior Center, which graciously hosted the start of the yarn project). During July, Din? of all ages -- from experienced elders in their eighties to young men, women and teenagers who wanted to learn how to wash, prepare, and card wool, began working on our first large handspun yarn order.
This was an opportunity to gather accurate data on how many hours it actually takes to hand wash, separate, hand-card, and handspin enough weft and warp yarn to weave a seven-by-seven foot blanket. Many weavers no longer use handspun warp, but our first yarn order was for handspun warp as well as weft. While some hours need to be deducted because of the additional time required by workers who were learning or less experienced than others, nevertheless, we are looking forward to a final tally to get a sense of how much labor is needed to entirely hand-process raw Churro fleece into yarn. Under the supervision of Colleen Biakeddy, the co-op field coordinator from Big Mountain, the first handspun yarn order is on its way to completion. We are looking forward to the continued development of the wool-processing enterprise at Hardrock where the Din? can work together on a variety of products and projects.
Economic development and beyond
"There were songs for the sheep and for spinning, and even for an orphaned lamb. There are so many songs, just like for the horses, and they go out to the four directions."2
"Their faces will be dawn, their eyes will be rock crystal, their ears will be plants, their wool will be white fog, it was said.?3
Clearly, the importance of this initiative and venture includes but goes beyond economics. The Navajo-Churro sheep, developed by and sacred to the Din? and at the core of their culture and economy, is the earliest and only domesticated breed of sheep indigenous to the Americas. The Din? had welcomed the Churro as a gift from the Holy People and it became central to their way of life. It is said that after creating the Corn People and giving "instructions for the raising and care of corn," Changing Woman returned to her home in the west (at the Pacific Ocean) and "created horses, sheep, goats, and game animals."4
Din? flocks and weaving arts flourished in Din? Bik?yah, a homeland bounded by four sacred mountains to the north, east, south and west -- until the 1850s. "As white settlers and prospectors pushed westward in the latter half of the 19th Century, displacement of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands became commonplace? In 1863 the new military commander in New Mexico, Brig. Gen. James Carleton, prepared to launch a sustained assault on the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches? 'Too long have they roamed lords over this extensive and valuable tract of country,' Carleton wrote. He "also recognized that the removal of the Navajos would open up their land for development of its mineral resources, which he believed to be extensive."5
In March 1863, Carleton sent Col. Kit Carson and the U.S. Army on attacks that decimated Din? herds and destroyed their crops and orchards. By 1864, about 9,000 Din? had endured the Long Walk and imprisonment at Hw??ldi ("the Place of Sorrow"), Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, hundreds of miles from their homeland. Some Din? -- perhaps several thousand -- were able to evade the soldiers and remained hidden with their remnant flocks in remote places such as Black Mesa, Navajo Mountain and Monument Valley. Internment at Fort Sumner was a catastrophe and thousands died. "The Navajos endured the wretched camp for four years, when the government relented"6 and a treaty was arranged. With the signing of the Treaty of 1868, the approximately 3,000 survivors of the Long Walk and exile were finally allowed to return to a portion of their homeland where they rebuilt their lives, their culture and their Churro herds.
The Din? of the Black Mesa region in northeastern Arizona continued to be crucial in saving the breed from near-extinction. "Once numbering two million, the breed was dissipated by a federally imposed interbreeding program,"7 which further threatened its identity and survival. Nevertheless, by the 1930s, only three generations after the Long Walk, their numbers had increased to a million or more, restored from the original hidden remnant. Their descendants still live on Black Mesa today.
It is from these cherished small herds that the Churro survived through the forced government stock reductions of the 1930s, 1940s and 1970s, which killed hundreds of thousands, and the confiscations and impoundments of the past three decades, to persist as the remarkable animals still central to Din? culture. There are elders today who clearly remember the trauma of the stock reductions. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) and Slow Foods, "By the 1970s, only 450 Navajo-Churro sheep were left in the United States."8 There were once at least a million Churro sheep in Din? Bik?yah, gifts to the Din? from the Holy People, from Asdz?? n?dleeh?, Changing Woman, herself. While there are now about 2,000 Navajo-Churro registered to mainly Anglo breeders nationwide, there are only about 550?600 Churro on Black Mesa, and their future is still not secure. Yet, as they have in the past, "the real sheep," "the old ones," continue to hold the hope and future of self-reliance for the Black Mesa Din?.
In its list of "Conservation Priority Livestock Breeds 2002," the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines a Rare Breed as "Fewer than 1,000 annual North American registrations and estimated fewer than 5,000 global population." The Navajo-Churro is also noted as "unique to North America." Our estimated count from the June 2003 wool buy of at least 550 Din?-owned Churro in the Black Mesa region alone is therefore of major significance in the context of such a small total population.
Thus recognized nationally and internationally as a rare and endangered domestic breed, the Churro is hardy, intelligent and of rising economic value. Many are resistant to scrapie and other diseases as well as parasites. Not only is Churro fleece of unique quality, the meat is leaner and significantly lower in fat than other domesticated sheep breeds. The double-coated Churro fleece is one of the finest in the world -- long, lustrous and low in grease, with an amazing range of natural colors and whites of remarkable purity that take both vegetal and commercial dyes with great clarity and depth. Some have four horns, a rare trait among sheep, and one of the characteristics that marked them as sacred to the Din?.
Many Black Mesa Din? also raise angora goats as well as sheep and there are good niche markets for their mohair, including the less common colored mohair. Mohair is also sometimes spun together with Churro wool to make a fine weaving yarn. We are looking forward next year to again being joined by the mohair buyer from Chicago.
Developing niche markets and next steps
Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land was cofounded in 1998 by a group of Din? and a Massachusetts resident to help restore economic and social self-sufficiency to the region through preservation of traditional lifeways based on shepherding and fair trade marketing of wool, mohair, weavings and other related products. Faced with the problems of economic and cultural survival in a fragile and threatened ecosystem, our organization empowers local Din? communities to expand their traditional economy within the contemporary marketplace through sustainable development and reinvests in the strength of the community. What happens on Black Mesa can be a win-win for everyone who cares about the future of indigenous cultures and livestock, and a powerful example of ecologically balanced agriculture.
Since 1999, we have been working with the Black Mesa Din? to preserve the land that nurtures them. We have demonstrated how an all-volunteer, grassroots organization can improve the lives and well-being of people through the work of their own hands. We have shown how to expand the limited market access to which the Din? have been restricted and empower them to get their products to a wider market by fair trading from the source. Now we are taking our mission, organization and ideas to their next level and fuller potential.
In September 2000, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land began selling fleece in addition to weavings on its website after seeing bags of Din? Churro wool sitting unsold in the sun on Coal Mine Mesa because the local market rate was only four to six cents per pound. About 300 pounds were sold in the first 18 months and customer feedback has been very positive.
To our knowledge, the 2002 wool buy was the first time an accurate estimate had been made of the number of Churro on Black Mesa. Clearly, the number of Navajo-Churro on HPL remains well below the maximum of 2,800 sheep units allowed under a 1996 Accommodation Agreement and also well below the approximately 2,300 sheep unit permits allocated for HPL Din? during the past two to three years.
The wool buys at Hardrock also offer a chance to continue to enroll sheep in the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association (N-CSA) registry. A front-page story in the July 20, 2002, Gallup Independent featured the first wool buy and was picked up by the AP and published again in the Albuquerque Journal. The second wool buy news stories and photos were published on June 23, 2003, and July 28, 2003, in the Gallup Independent and may be accessed via www.gallupindependent.com (click on "archives") and are linked on our website at www.migrations.com/blackmesa/blackmesa.html
In 2002, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land sold almost 500 pounds of fleece from the first wool buy via its website, Cultural Survival fairs, and direct sales to handspinners and weavers worldwide; 2003 sales are also well under way. We have begun to obtain grant funding to expand the cooperative and develop its business plan. In August 2002, at the invitation of the Hardrock Chapter, we submitted a proposal to set up a wool-processing enterprise on Black Mesa. The handspun yarn project is the start of this initiative, launched after the June 2003 wool buy. This enterprise will enable the group to market handspun Churro fleece products, from raw wool to yarn, directly from the source, providing jobs and income for Din? and their communities. It is the next step in expanding the market for Din? Churro wool and bringing wool processing back home to the people who developed the breed. The wool-processing enterprise will offer an alternative to the mass-produced commercial yarn currently used by many weavers; it will make high-quality handspun Churro warp and weft yarn available for weavers to buy and use throughout the Navajo Nation and worldwide.
Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land is working to ensure that the Hopi Tribe works cooperatively with HPL Din? sheepherders to help protect these remarkable animals. It is our hope that the Navajo Nation will continue to support the cultural and economic survival of the HPL Din? and will work with Din? sheepherders everywhere -- on HPL, NPL and throughout the Navajo Nation -- to implement a sustainable environmental policy that will provide for the restoration and development of the Navajo-Churro as a breed of livestock uniquely adapted to the arid ecosystem in which it thrives.
About 1,750 pounds of fleece from our first wool buy at Hardrock were purchased by "Wool Traditions" of Ranchos de Taos, N.M., a new nonprofit educational center for sustainable agriculture, whose executive director writes: "I hope we will be able to raise more money for more [wool] when you do your wool buy in June. We look forward to continue to work together with you to support Din? weavers and the sheep."
In September 2002, our organization became members of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) at its 25th anniversary celebration at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., where we sold wool and weavings and distributed information about our projects in the Round Barn, flanked by two Churro from New York State and several Karakul, along with many other rare and heritage breeds.
We are honored to be a Special Project of Cultural Survival, Inc. Since its founding in 1972, this nonprofit 501[c]3 human rights organization has been advocating for the rights, voices and visions of indigenous peoples and their ecosystems worldwide. We have expanded our Advisory Council, which is now comprised of six Din? wool growers, weavers and educators, and Robert J. Golten, director of the International Human Rights Advocacy Center at the University of Denver, Colorado. This year, thanks to an agricultural marketing grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (WSARE) program, administered by Utah State University, we are designing a marketing campaign to expand our sales in a wide range of current and potential niche markets for Din? wool and mohair products. In August, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation awarded the co-op a grant as general support to develop the Black Mesa wool-processing enterprise through fair-trade initiatives. And thanks to a recent Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development grant we will be able to increase our community-based marketing of Navajo wool and mohair.
Our co-op is continuing to explore partnerships and possibilities for economic growth, new products and uses for Din? wool and mohair, the promotion of sustainable water, land and renewable energy resources, and a future for wool and weavings fair-traded from the source.
As Thomas Yazzie, community services coordinator of the Hardrock Chapter, wrote in support of our project: "I can?t emphasize enough the importance of a non profit venture of this sort which promotes economic sustainability in this rural area. The Churro Sheep is also part of the Din? Heritage and has always provided the Din? with wool and mutton. Nothing is wasted when it comes to Churro Sheep and it gives everything back and more to the Din?. Sheep is Life."
For more information, contact coordinator and cofounder Carol Snyder Halberstadt
P.O. Box 543 / Newton, MA 02456 or visit www.migrations.com/blackmesa/blackmesa.html
?2003 Carol Snyder Halberstadt. All rights reserved.
This is an updated and expanded version of articles originally published in the Cultural Survival Quarterly, Winter 2003, and in the ALBC newsletter May/June 2003. Related articles have been published in Countryside (May/June 2003) and Sheep! (July/August 2003) magazines.
- "Relocation Booklet, Teesto, Arizona," from Time Among the Navajo: Traditional Lifeways on the Reservation, Kathy Eckles Hooker, photographs by Helen Lau Running (Flagstaff, Arizona: Salina Bookshelf, 2002), p. 65.
- Personal communication, Din? Churro sheep raiser and weaver, Big Mountain, August 2003.
- How sheep were formed, from the Blessingway as told by River Junction Curly, in Blessingway, Leland C. Wyman, editor, recorded and translated by Fr. Berard Haile between 1928?1938. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975), p. 626 ff.
- Ibid., introduction, pp. 32?33 ff.
- The Second Long Walk, Jerry Kammer (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980), pp. 21?22 ff.
- Smithsonian Magazine, December 1997 (online edition: http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues97/dec97/bosque.html
- "Navajo-Churro on Board the Slow Food Ark USA," e-mail press release, ALBC and Slow Food Ark USA, October 23, 2002.