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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter X:

IMPORTANCE OF LIVESTOCK The importance of livestock, particularly sheep and horses, cannot be over estimated with respect to the influence on Navaho history and habits of life. Sheep made the former Chama River farmers the large and important tribe which they are today: herds represent seventy-five per cent of their wealth. The sale of meat, wool, and blankets brings millions of dollars into the tribe each year, although the amount per individual is relatively small. Instead of being engulfed by the new tide of European civilization sweeping over the Southwest in the early sixteenth century, the Navaho rode on the crest of the wave as if the world had been created for the Dene alone. On horseback they ran off the stock of the Pueblos, Mexicans, and Spanish, and the herds which the Americans drove across the desert to California gave the Navaho a field holiday of raiding.

HISTORY OF HERDING Coronado brought the first sheep, cattle, and horses to America in 1540. It is thought that his sheep died. Onate's sheep of 1598 are believed to have been the ancestors of those kept by the Navaho. Experts debate among themselves whether these sheep were originally of Merino or Chourro breed. At any rate, inbreeding, degeneration, and the animals' necessity for adapting themselves to the geography and vegetation of the country, resulted, before long, in the typical small Navaho sheep with a hardy constitution.

EARLY INCREASE IN STOCK Any figures relating to the Navaho must be considered as mere approximations. They do, however, give some idea of the situation. We have already mentioned the Spanish report of 1785 (Thomas, 1932:350) which states that in a population of about 3,500, of whom 1,000 were warriors, the Navaho had "500 tame horses; 600 mares with their corresponding stallions and young; about 700 black ewes, 40 cows also with their bulls and calves, all looked after with the greatest care and diligence for their increase." At first the sheep were kept only to furnish the tribe with meat and wool for its own use.

In 1846 the Indian Bureau reported 500,000 sheep among the Navaho, with individuals owning as many as 5,000 to 10,000 head. Davis, in 1855, figured that the population of 12,000 had only 200,000 sheep and 10,000 horses; Letherman estimated 50,000 to 60,000 horses. Davis heard of one man who was worth $15,000 in stock. The wealth and livestock of the tribe were concentrated in the hands of a few leaders, whereas today there are many small herds, with only an occasional wealthy Navaho running a large herd.

RAIDING Calhoun reported* that in one night in 1850 the Navaho ran off 10,000 sheep from a ranch which was annoyingly near the military post at Cebolleta. A snow storm prevented the soldiers from tracking the thieves. Poor men united with the wealthy to serve as warriors and retainers; or they raided independently; again, they might join the Mexicans as spies on their own tribe.

*In Abel, 1915:268.

Letherman wrote that anyone with a few horses and sheep was a "headman" and must have his word in councils. The juntas or councils were composed of the richest men, each one a self-constituted member, whose decisions were unimportant if not approved by the people. The wealthy leaders, the "Ricos," were the ones who signed American treaties and promised an end to raiding. They had authority only over their followers, and it lasted as long as they continued successfully to raid and acquire property for division among the warriors. They could not speak for the vagabonds, who immediately took advantage of the temporary lull after a new treaty to go on raids, when they did not have competition from their wealthy tribesmen.

The Navaho, however, overreached themselves. The combination of General Carleton and Colonel Carson swiftly stripped the tribe of its herds, crops, and warriors, until in December, 1864, at Bosque Redondo, the 8,354 Navaho who had fallen captive had only 6,967 sheep and 2,757 goats. Carleton's bonus of $20 for each good horse taken by the army had reduced the number of horses to only 3,038, and 143 mules. The Indian Report mentions that they still had 630 looms, which rapidly fell into disuse without sheep to furnish enough wool for weaving. Four years later, when leaving Fort Sumner, the Navaho had even less--940 sheep, 1,025 goats 1,550 horses, and 20 mules. The Government purchased 14,000 sheep and 1,000 goats for them from Vicente Romero in New Mexico (Haskett, 1936).

MODERN PROBLEMS The statistics for the years following the return show a steady increase until, in 1931, they reached a peak of 1,370,--554 head, of which 631,427 were grown sheep, 345,242 were lambs, and 393,885 were goats. Partly as the result of the Government's attempt to reduce the number to the carrying capacity of the depleted ranges, the figures for 1935 show a total of 944,910, of which 548,579 are sheep, 250,508 are lambs, and 145,823 are goats. The greatest reduction has been in goats; sheep have increased since 1934 despite the number purchased by the Government; the number of lambs has decreased since 1931 but is only about 7,000 less than in 1932. The purchase plan of the Indian Bureau, which was worked out with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, was not entirely successful in its operation and results, in that the small owners suffered and the carrying capacity of the range is still exceeded. (Survey of Conditions, Part 34: 17538 ff.)

The present capacity of the range, according to the soil conservation specialists, is 560,000 sheep units. The range is carrying not only the 944,910 sheep, lambs, and goats but also 25,000 head of cattle and 45,000 horses, mules, and burros. "Cattle and horses are converted to the basis of sheep units by considering that one horse consumes five times as much forage and one cow consumes four times as much forage as one sheep." The excess stock, figured in sheep units, is 709,910 (ibid., p.17,615). The income from livestock, excepting horses is estimated at $l,600,000.

In earlier days, a family group had a range with a radius of thirty miles; now it is more likely to be ten or fifteen miles. It has been estimated that at present, while there are about nine acres of suitable grazing land available per head of sheep, twenty to thirty acres are required to feed one sheep properly (Zeh, 1932).

The physical condition of the range was discussed under Habitat. As the Survey of Conditions states (Part 34:17,614): "Scientific recognition of the critical range conditions had long been given, but it is only recently that steps have been made toward correction." Navaho who do not understand the problem of erosion feel that a good rain would settle their pasture difficulties and that they could then not only support their present stock, but also continue their former program of herd increase. The conservationists, in explaining their program (ibid., p.17,616), liken the production of vegetation to a sum of money out on interest. The vegetation grown on a range capable of carrying 560,000 sheep units is the equivalent of interest on capital, if only 560,000 units feed on the new forage. If, however, a greater number of sheep units use the pasture, the forage-producing capacity of the range, the equivalent of capital, is reduced.

The amount and quality of forage differ in various parts of the reservation. This was true in 1855 and in 1937. Letherman considered the grazing and agricultural lands of the Navaho vastly overrated as to extent in spite of the abundant grama grass he saw. Today, grasses like grama, galeta, needle, and sacaton, and shrubs like chemise, greasewood, and shadscale, which are the natural coverage of the grazing lands, are being replaced by the hardier Russian thistle, trailing daisy, and other weeds without forage value and often actually poisonous to the herds.

NAVAHO AS HERDERS The Navaho have improved as herders through the years. There is a slow but steady improvement in the care and breeding of their stock. Letherman wrote that the flocks did not increase very rapidly through natural means because the rams were allowed to run with the flocks at all times, with the result that many lambs were born during inclement weather and died. More attention is paid to breeding in modern times, yet it is still frequently haphazard and unregulated.

Navaho care of sheep is still far from being as efficient and practical as that of white stockmen under similar conditions. On the other hand, the Navaho do not have behind them several centuries of traditions of herding and attending domestic animals as do stockmen of European descent. Likewise, their initiation into the business was under awkward and surreptitious circumstances, and in a pioneer country where fine points of care were not possible. Opinion differs regarding the merits of the Navaho as herdsmen, but most commentators maintain that the Navaho are "natural-born" shepherds. Their devotion to their herds is unsurpassed, and they have strong, affectionate feelings toward their sheep and goats. A lamb or two is kept as a family pet and allowed to play inside and outside the hogan.

BREEDS The Navaho sheep is scrubby, with long legs, a long neck, and little meat. It has about three or four pounds of coarse, long stapled wool, which does not gather dirt as easily as the curlier and oilier wools. At the Ganado Demonstration Area, the Indian Bureau found that with proper feeding and care a larger animal which yields an average of eight pounds of wool, could be raised on a range with the carrying capacity estimated by the grazing surveys. The Bureau also obtained a ninety-three per cent lamb crop (Survey of Conditions, 34:17,618). In the past there was no consistent program; now the Indian Bureau is developing a systematic program to eliminate poor stock and improve the quality and care of sheep, horses, and cattle. Before the program was instituted, a number of different breeds of sheep were introduced by various agents and traders in an effort to breed stock with more meat and wool. Reichard (1936:7) wrote that there were "white sheep with long hair, white sheep with wavy hair, black sheep, brown sheep, brown with black spots, black with brown spots, grayish brown sheep and brownish gray. As is true for the Navaho dogs, no combination seems impossible."

SHEARING Shearing techniques have improved decidedly since the day when Schoolcraft (1854:436) mourned the poor sheep, which yielded its wool at the cost of its life. He said that the Navaho, in their ignorance, killed the sheep to get the wool. This sounds extreme, but the shearing methods were certainly crude, and the sheep in their struggle for existence had obvious need to develop fortitude. Shears were gradually being introduced around 1855 (Welsh, p.25), and whereas the wool was formerly pulled off or hacked off with a knife or a piece of tin, a good shepherd now tries to shear the pelt in one piece.

SEPARATION OF SHEEP AND GOATS The Navaho have always permitted goats and sheep to graze together, for reasons which seemed excellent to themselves. Those interested in the welfare of the sheep and the vegetation urge their reasons for separating sheep and goats, and the Navaho are slowly being convinced that there may be something to this idea. But they like their goats; they like the meat; and if they drink milk at all, it is goat milk. A few are experimenting with mohair for weaving. The flocks are more easily herded if there are a few bright goats among the sheep to lead the way. Moreover, many ewes are unable to nurse their offspring because of an inadequate diet, and such lambs, as well as those orphaned by death or desertion, may be suckled by a goat as foster mother.

On the other hand, the lively and more aggressive goat travels faster than the sheep and gets the choicest vegetation and seedlings, varying its diet by denuding the trees of twigs as high as it can reach. The sheep trail far behind, getting the little food that is left. Were the goats eliminated, the sheep could obtain better forage, mortality among ewes and lambs would be lower, and there would be no need to keep goats to nurse the lambs. Many of the Navaho appreciate the vicious circle which has developed; yet they would be reluctant to see their beloved goats removed.

ROUTINE CARE OF STOCK The daily care of the sheep falls largely to the women and children, but during the busy spring, summer, and early fall, when lambing, shearing, dipping, and the selling of stock take place, everyone in the family helps to do whatever is urgent. Early spring is a rush season for the Navaho because they are both shepherds and farmers. The condition of the weather determines when they can begin their work, and when the weather warms up, everything may need to be done at the same time.

The garden has to be cleaned and made ready for flooding and planting. Once the lambs begin to arrive, however (in March), there is no time for any other work. The ewes with their lambs are kept near the hogan in small corrals, and the children, who also do much of the herding, care for the lambs. About the time the garden is ready for planting, the weather may be warm enough to shear the sheep so that they will not suffer from cold. Then shearing is out of the way, the gardening can get some attention.

During midsummer, a daughter and her husband, or an unmarried son, may drive some of the flocks to the highlands, while the rest of the family stay in the valley to care for the garden and the remaining sheep. Those who go to the highlands will, perhaps, have their own small garden in a mountain valley; or they may be asked to look after the family's mountain farm where oats, hay, and potatoes are raised. Children drive the flocks out to graze in the morning, and at night they return them to the corrals near the hogan. To prevent sun-and-wind burn, the Navaho rub a mixture of red ochre and fat on their faces.

The range of the family group progressively deteriorates as the flocks have to be driven farther each day. Twice a day they trample their former pastures as they leave and return to the corrals, and the herding is not always managed so as to make the most of the available forage. The sheep are permitted to travel at their own rate, and over as much ground during the day as they like, instead of being kept longer in one place. Also, they are not released from the corrals until late in the morning, so that they graze during the hottest part of the day.

Dipping the sheep as a prevention against scabies breaks into the summer routine. It usually means four more long journeys for the sheep--twice to and from the vats. The Indian Bureau now has about sixty dipping vats in operation in order to eliminate these long treks, which are hard on the sheep and on the land. The men usually put the sheep through the vats. The women, who own most of the sheep, are right at the men's elbows, however, to see that the stock is not handled carelessly, or roughly.

Late in the summer, after the herders come back to the valley from the mountains, a busy season of harvesting and storing crops and selling spring lambs begins. With the first snows, when the family is through with the fall shearing and the sale of wool and stock, they move to the foothills within their range, where they can get enough fuel for the winter. There is less work in the winter, and much time is spent visiting "chants." The sheep now depend largely on the brush and dried grass they find in their daily grazing, for few of the Navaho stall-feed their sheep. The alfalfa and hay, which a few raise around Black Mesa, Chinle Valley, and the region between Ganado and Keams Canyon, is principally for the cattle and better horses. The sheep are given stacks of juniper and cedar branches for browsing when the snow is too deep for them to leave the corrals. Desperate emergencies arise during the long, snowy winters, and large numbers of sheep perish through cold and starvation.

HORSES Of Navaho horses, Letherman wrote that they were small, fleet, sure-footed, and enduring. The description still fits. Backus* of the same period, the middle-nineteenth century, maintained that their speed and endurance were exaggerated, although they were better performers than any American horse given the same treatment. Like the sheep, they are not beauties, but natural selection has developed a type with the endurance to live remarkably long on the borderline between slow starvation and actual death. They have acquired a peculiarly effective, passive resistance to the damage done them by the Navaho's inability to understand horses. No authority has yet described the Navaho as a good horseman, in spite of the fact that he spends, during the course of a lifetime, a large number of his waking and sleeping hours on horseback. Indeed, there is not another tribe in the Southwest which uses horses more than the Navaho.

*In Schoolcraft, Pt. IV:212-213.

Droves of horses are on the reservation, but there are too many horses of poor quality and not enough good ones. One phase of the Navaho stock reduction campaign has been to cut out the poorer specimens. Each person needs several ponies because trails are poor, automobiles are scarce, and there are long distances to be traveled to trading posts, "chants," dipping vats, and around the pastures. The men are fond of horse racing and spend hours training their ponies or in discussing the merits of their horses. The riding gear with ornaments of silver which the Navaho manufacture is of Mexican style.

Formerly, a man gave from five to fifteen horses to a girl's family when he desired her for his wife. This was not a payment but a courtesy gift required by tradition, and the girl had some choice in the matter of marriage, since by refusing to feed or water the horses left by the man, she indicated that she was not interested. A beautiful, modest, neat, and fairly well washed girl was worth the larger number of horses.

OWNERSHIP Everyone except the poorest people own sheep and horses, but the size of the herds owned by each individual, or each. family, varies in different parts of the reservation. Using figures from the years before the reduction in herds, Ben Wetherill informally estimated that the average family of five had about one hundred and fifty sheep, sixty goats, and ten horses. Now the figures would be lower because of the stock reduction program on the reservation.

Parents give their children presents of sheep and goats, and these, with all their offspring born from the time of presentation, belong to the children. A flock derived from parental gifts forms the nucleus of the individual's wealth. A popular subject for discussion in American farm magazines in past decades, and one which can still arouse editors and subscribers to earnest debate on its legal and moral aspects--namely, whether son's colt should become dad's horse--would not be understood by the Navaho. The Navaho Indians respect a child's right to the property given it during its minority and they will manage such property as carefully as their own. They would demand no pay for such a service whether it was done for a child or an adult. Family ties are thus strengthened, and in case of necessity the trustees would expect these relatives to offer their assistance.

The Navaho take for granted the right of women to hold property before and after their marriage. (The high position of women is duplicated among the Pueblo tribes, which apparently influenced Navaho customs in this respect.) While Navaho men usually own most of the cattle and droves of horses, the women more frequently are the owners of the sheep. A man would not sell a sheep from his wife's flocks to a passing traveler without asking her permission. She, of course, would get the money, for her property is distinct from that of her husband's. If the wife should die, the property goes to her children; or, if they are minors, her brother gets the possessions. Actually, however, it works out that he is only holding this property in custody for his sister's children, for according to custom, they are his heirs, and he is responsible for their welfare. The father is not relieved of any responsibility. He is devoted to his children, of course, and makes them many presents, but his first obligations are to his sisters and to their children, since blood ties, not marriage, determine obligations and inheritance to a great extent. Thus a Navaho man, whom we shall call Hastinnez (Mr. 'Tall'), looks first to the welfare of his sisters, the sisters' children, and his mother. He knows that the brother of his wife, Slim Woman, will look out for the welfare of Slim Woman and the children of Slim Woman and Mr. Tall.

"Mother's place" is home to daughters and to sons, and descent is traced through the mother. The daughter usually stays on the same range throughout her lifetime; the families of her mother, mother's mother, and sisters are not far away. A son leaves when he marries, and goes to live with his wife's people. If his wife dies, or he is divorced, or if his mother needs a man to help her, he will go back to his mother's residence. Formerly when there was more polygamy than today, and if a man had not been lucky enough to marry two sisters (which would save him much traveling), it would be more convenient to keep his flocks on his mother's place. Otherwise, if one of his marriages failed and his flocks were with those of the spouse who divorced him, he would have the inconvenience of moving them back to his mother's place or to another wife's.

In modern times changing conditions have altered time old usages. Flocks herded together may include the sheep owned by both maternal and paternal sides of the family. Mr. Wetherill tells of a wealthy family in the western part of the reservation which had large flocks of sheep, fine pastures, many sons, and not one daughter. When the boys married, their parents naturally did not wish to lose the benefits of their labor, so they transferred the daughters-in-law and their relatives to the range occupied by the boys.

Hereditary claims established the right to use grazing lands, although, as in the case of gardens and water rights, need must be respected. According to Father Berard Haile (1922), relatives and clan members may live amicably near each other for years, sharing the grazing lands; yet should someone with large herds need more land during a drought, old ties would be overlooked, and the small owner squeezed out. They may protest violently, knowing that they would do likewise under the same circumstances.

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