Sheep, Weaving, and Navajo Culture
Sheep is Life
Text and images provided by Dine be' iina, Inc. Diné is the term by which the Navajo people prefer to be referred.
Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving.
Sheep symbolize the good life, living in harmony and balance on the land. Before the Diné acquired domesticated sheep on this continent, they held the idea of sheep in their collective memory for thousands of years. While wild mountain sheep provided meat, and the Diné gathered wool from the shedding places, the ancient species of sheep in North America could not be domesticated. Therefore, the Diné asked their Holy People to send them a sheep that would live with them, that they could care for and would provide them with a sustainable living.
In the early 1600s, such a sheep arrived in North America.
The Navajo acquisition of “la raza churra” sheep from the Spanish colonists inspired a radical lifestyle change to a pastoralist way of life. In the high deserts and wooded mountains of Diné Bikéyah (Navajo Land), Diné pastoralists developed the Navajo-Churro breed, which thrived under the spiritual and pastoral care of their new human companions and assumed a central role in the people’s psychology, creativity, and religious life.
With songs, prayers, and techniques taught to them by Spider Woman and looms first built by Spider Man, traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Navajo-Churro wool.
It is said that Spider Woman taught Navajos of long ago the art of weaving. She told them, "My husband, Spider Man, constructed the weaving loom making the cross poles of Sky and Earth cords to support the structure; the warp sticks of sun rays, lengthwise to cross the wool; the heddles of rock crystal and sheet lightning, to maintain original condition of fibers. For the batten, he chose a sun halo to seal joints, and for the comb he chose a white shell to clean strands in a combing manner." – Spirit of the Weaving Comb
The Art of the Loom
Diné weavings are masterworks of both art and spirituality. Weaving is a sacred art, embodying creation stories, prayers and ceremonial practices, the ancient and historical past. In weaving, the individual preserves hózhó, the concept that combines order, beauty, balance and harmony.
Historical evidence shows that residents of these Southwest lands have been weaving for thousands of years with many fibers, including cotton and turkey feathers. From the 1680s to the 1800s, Navajo weavings were made using hand spun Navajo-Churro wool. This accounted for the durability and luster of the finished product. These weavings were primarily utilitarian, used by the people in their daily lives. Horse gear was particularly important—saddle blankets, horse cinches, braided halters and lead ropes were hand-crafted.
Many weavings in these styles are still made today with the same skill and dedication to excellence. Over the years, weavings have changed in design and use, from utilitarian within the family circle to a fine art recognized by collectors internationally. Weavings have also changed in response to market demands, such as the development of regional designs which were promoted by the trading posts.
Both on and off the Navajo Nation, men and women often combine weaving with many other jobs to support themselves, and those who choose to weave are growing in number. Weaving allows them to express their own ideas, and provides a balance between their spiritual and physical beings. Weavers continue to adapt, innovate, and create their art on the same type of vertical loom used for many generations.
Content on this page provided by Dine be' iina, Inc. Dine be' iina, Inc. (The Navajo Lifeway) is a nonprofit organization of Dine producers and weavers founded in 1991 and incorporated in the Navajo Nation. Some text and images contained herein also appear in Dine be' iina, Inc.'s international traveling exhibit. This content may not be duplicated or disseminated without permission of Dine be' iina, Inc.
Preserving the Navajo-Churro Sheep
The Navajo-Churro Breed
Navajo-Churro sheep were the first domestic livestock breed developed in North America, descendants of “la raza churra,” an Iberian breed brought to this continent by the Spanish five hundred years ago.
Spanish Conquistadors introduced the breed during their explorations of the Southwest. Juan de Oñate is credited with introducing the breed to the American Indians who inhabited North America in the 16th century. This breed thrived in the new land due to its inherent hardiness, adaptability, and ability to breed successfully. Within a century of their introduction to the Diné, the sheep were vital to their culture, diet, and livelihood.
History has shown that the Diné were initially responsible for saving this "old type" sheep from extinction. Spanish settlers cross-bred the Iberian sheep with other breeds to improve wool. But much of the original stock evolved in relative isolation on remote villages, its heritage carefully preserved. Today's true Navajo-Churro sheep retains its resistance to climate extremes and is not particularly susceptible to most diseases. Though they can survive on sparse food and water, their meat is lean and their milk is abundant.
The dual coat of the Navajo-Churro gives the wool many of its special qualities. A topcoat and soft undercoat provides a silky, lusterous wool that is low in lanolin (non-greasy). Herds display a colorful array of hues, ranging from white, tan, brown, black, gray, blue, or any combination thereof. The fleece grows all year, and sheep can be shorn twice a year.
Another interesting characteristic of the Navajo-Churro is its ability to grow multiple sets of horns. The polycerate gene, quite rare but found in some heritage breeds, allows them to grow six or more horns (though four is more common). Females may have horns or nubs balled scurrs.
Rise and Fall
The Diné quickly adopted herding as a way of life. Exceptional shepherds, their flocks grew quickly. But several events throughout the last two centuries have decimated the tribe and their ovine companions. In 1865, military actions against the Diné by the U.S. government devastated their peaceful way of life. Agents led by Kit Carson were sent to destroy orchards, fields, and livestock. Approximately 9,000 Navajos were forced to leave their lands and march hundreds of miles, where they were held at an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Poor conditions caused the death of both people and livestock.
Three years later, the Diné were allowed to return to their homeland and were issued two sheep per person. However, these were newer breeds that did not have the long, low-oil fleece or other special qualities of the “old type” breed. Yet with careful fostering, flocks of Navajo-Churro once again flourished. It is estimated that by 1930 over a half-million Navajo Churro sheep roamed throughout the southwest, along with goats, horses, and cattle.
The Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory, established in Fort Wingate, New Mexico in 1934 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducted experiments to determine the best type of sheep to live on the arid Colorado Plateau. The “T'áá Dibé” Navajo-Churro breed was determined to be the best for survival, wool, and quality of meat and dairy they provided.
Unfortunately, severe drought conditions throughout the 1930s prompted another near-annihilation of the breed. The U.S. government called for a stock reduction to save water. Some animals were sold at a low price, but up to 30% were slaughtered without recompense. Many families never recovered. This destruction of the Diné livelihood still lives in memory.
By 1977, less than 500 “old type” Navajo-Churro sheep remained. This hardy heritage breed was in danger of extinction.
Preserving the Tradition
Faced with the loss of a species and a way of life, Dr. Lyle McNeal of Utah State University formed the Navajo Sheep Project to stabilize numbers. He used data from the Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory to determine standards and establish breeding criteria. Preservation efforts have been further aided by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, and Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. The Slow Food Ark of Taste has joined the preservation efforts to support the marketing of Churro meat.
One organization working to preserve the traditional pastoral way of life, as well as provide learning opportunities for tourists, is Diné be’ iiná, Inc. (DBI). Founded in 1991, its mission is to restore the balance between Diné culture, life, and land. Thanks to dedicated Diné pastoralists and fiber artists, Diné be’ iiná, Inc., and many other supporters, this important breed is flourishing once again in the Navajo Nation.
DBI also presents the annual Sheep is Life Celebration, a unique opportunity to experience Diné arts and culture first hand. The event happens each June at the Diné College Rodeo Arena on the Tsailé Campus in the Navajo Nation. Visitors can enjoy demonstrations of various fiber arts techniques, vendors, exhibits, talks, sheep camp, Navajo rug show, fireside discussions, youth programs, Navajo-Churro sheep and wool shows, good food and other great activities. In addition, workshops with Navajo master fiber artists are offered for a fee. Please visit DBI’s website for information about this year’s event.
Traders and Trade Rugs
For decades, Navajo weavings served not only as expressions of art. They became commodities to be exchanged for goods after settlers arrived. Trading posts were the centers of this type of economy.
These videos are excerpts from interviews with trading post owners created by the United Indian Traders Association Oral History Project.
Jim Babbit is the grandson of C. J. Babbitt, one of the original Babbitt brothers who settled in Flagstaff. After college, Jim supervised the family’s trading post operations, including Tuba City Trading Post.
Sallie Wagner moved to the Colorado Plateau when her husband worked for the National Park Service in the 1930s. She and her husband owned Wide Ruins Trading Post throughout the 1950s.
The United Indian Traders Association, a group of southwestern traders and merchants, incorporated in New Mexico on December 30, 1931. Its main purpose was to protect and promote the sale of genuine Indian hand-made arts and crafts.
Complete video interviews and a number of others are housed at Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, United Indian Traders Association Oral History Project.
Jim Babbit Discusses Navajo Creation Story
Jim Babbit shares the Navajo creation story, including the symbol of the Swastika, and its place in the “Storm Pattern” rug design. View complete video and transcript courtesy of the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University.
Jim Babbit from Tuba City Trading Post
How did woven rugs come to be popular items at trading posts? Jim reveals a humorous answer. View complete video and transcript courtesy of the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University.
Sallie Wagner Co-Owner of Wide Ruins Trading Post
Sallie recollects trading for rugs and her role in helping promote weaving within the Wide Ruins community. View complete video and transcript courtesy of the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University.