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Tradition Today: Time Among the Navajo

  "Sometimes it can be a boring job," Daisy says. "I bring a book, and my dad does leather work. We can fill the time and get two jobs done at once."
photograph of Leonard Deal in the early morning
Herding at Cedar Ridge.
Text by Kathy Eckles Hooker
Photographs by Helen Lau Running

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.

- Relocation Booklet, Teesto, Arizona

Ella and Leonard Deal are sheepherders. Thirty years ago, Ella's father gave them a flock of 10 sheep and two goats as a wedding gift. Today their herd numbers 150 sheep and goats and is an important source of income for the family. The surplus animals are either sold at auctions or butchered, their wool sold or used for weaving.

Ella, her daughter Daisy, and I stand outside the Deals' hogan this morning and watch Leonard in the distance as he herds their flock of animals back to camp. The white coats of the sheep and goats contrast sharply with the green fields. "The sheep and goats got up early this morning," Ella says, "and they have been grazing, just eating grass and drinking water." Leonard moves the animals back toward the corral as Ella continues: "He knows when it's time to bring them back because they are missing home, and it's getting too hot for them." During the warm weather, sheep and goats graze from mid-morning to noon and from afternoon to sunset.

As Leonard swings a lasso and yells to the animals to move on, a sheepdog leads the parade through sage and rabbit brush. Three other dogs harass the herd, snapping at their heels. While the dogs bark loudly, the animals bleat in complaint and stomp their feet in rebellion. Heads bobbing in objection, the animals kick up clouds of dust as they enter the corral.

Once inside, the babies nestle close to their mothers to nurse. Leonard checks the flock, cooing to them. After feeding their lambs and kids, the sheep and goats cluster together in the shade of the corral walls. All is quiet. Leonard closes the gate and says good-bye softly, returning to his hogan for a cup of coffee and rest. It is time to return to the peaceful part of the sheepherder's life.

All of the elder Deals herd sheep, and many hours are spent with the animals. "Sometimes it can be a boring job," Daisy says. "When my mom is with the sheep, she brings her wool and spins and cards it. I bring a book, and my dad does leather work. We can fill the time and get two jobs done at once. Even though we're busy, we still keep an eye on the sheep."

Deal family life revolves around their sheep -- it's essential that they prevent overgrazing damage to the land. The family moves with the flock to a different camp every season. "We move from camp to camp and move the sheep, too. They go where we go because then we can find them lots of food," Daisy says. "We used to move all four seasons, but now we don't have to. We only have three hogans because the hogan at our fall camp is too old and broken down. We're not worried, though. We know our sheep get enough grass from three moves." Each camp is a home, complete with hogan, shed, and corral. The winter camp is located in a forested area of their land, but the spring and summer camps are on flatter terrain. "In the winter," Daisy continues, "we take our sheep to the mountain. They eat trees and leaves up high because the ground is covered with snow. In the summer, they eat in the flat area."

The sheep eat rabbit brush, greasewood, pi–on, and juniper. "My sheep eat many kinds of grasses," Ella says. "We chase them to the salty weeds up on the mountain. If you don't chase them up there, they will eat dirt! We're lucky to have enough for the sheep to eat, but we do worry about finding enough water for them. When we herd, we listen to the animals and do what they want to do. Sometimes they want to drink and drink, and in the winter they eat snow for water. We can't always count on water in the summer. The hole dried out last summer, and we had no water. The tribe had to haul water to us."

Aside from worrying about the scarcity of water, the Deals must protect their sheep from wild animals. "It's best to stay with your sheep. If we just let them run around, then the coyotes get them. So far, we've lost two lambs this summer. The coyotes don't kill just one sheep. They kill one and then keep on trying to kill them all. You have to watch for foxes, too. Most of the time the sheep don't run off. We chase them across the wash, and then they eat their way home."

In addition to watching the herd on a daily basis, the Deals have seasonal tasks to perform, such as tending the ewes at lambing and shearing in the spring. "We [three women] shear before it gets hot. It took us 25 days to shear our sheep. We're busy," Ella says. Also in the summer, the family dips their sheep with a chemical solution that controls pests and skin diseases. "The tribe has a place near our area where we can go and dip our sheep. We usually dip after the Fourth of July. Some of our sheep might carry a bug, so we give them a shot and put them through the dip."

Family members, including the children and the elders, help with the herding, lambing, shearing, and dipping. Learning to care for livestock is considered an important maturing process for young Navajos. The Deals' sheep and goats are a source of both livelihood and pride. With a smile, Ella says: "When you're able to care for yourself and your sheep, you are grown. It's hard to keep sheep, but we like them. We're proud that we have them. My children get hungry for mutton. They come home and butcher. They get homesick for it, and we're glad we have our sheep and goats."

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