By Colleen Oakes
We had arranged to meet Roy Kady at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post but our appointment was approximate because we hadn’t been sure of drive times. No cell phone signal is available at the Trading Post so we asked to call Roy’s home phone from the store. There was no answer so, we did a little shopping.
Fortunately, Roy showed up soon. He took us in to a side room at the trading post that holds all of the rugs and a wide variety of baskets and other exquisite objects. He started teaching immediately—pointing out designs, dyes, types of wool, and distinguishing hand spun from machine spun yarns. Churro sheep wool occurs in sixteen natural colors. The Churros’ fleece consists of a soft, wool undercoat and a long, protective top layer of hair that includes a small amount of long fibers called kemp.
As we followed Roy’s truck out of the trading post parking lot, he stopped to give a ride to a jeweler named Sam Tsosie. When Roy pulled over to drop him off, we had a few minutes to talk with Sam. His family also raises sheep, but not Churro. He talked about taking the family’s sheep up to the mountains in the summer and bringing them back down in the winter. Roy mentioned later that Sam had recently asked him about the possibility of getting some Churro. As we headed toward our vehicle, Roy told us he would like to stop on top of the next hill to take advantage of the cell signal and make some calls. This happened a few times over the course of the day.
We left the pavement to follow a dirt track that had been deeply scored by heavy rain, although no sign of water was evident as far as the eye could see. We stopped at a sheep camp consisting of a trailer, some sheds, and a sheep corral. We were there to meet sheepherder and weaver Ron Garnanez, but he wasn’t available. Ron’s brother, Reggie, and their mother had just released the sheep to graze. We watched as about 200 full grown animals and their lambs, made their way across the sandy red earth, stopping to nibble at the low, scrubby bushes. Reggie said that they would move toward the water, as he pointed off in the distance to his left, and then circle back to the corral. I still didn’t see any sign of water. Reggie explained that the family lives in Oak Springs and that they usually had a hired man looking after the sheep.
More about Ron later...
Roy left his truck at the camp and rode with us. He explained that the Churro is uniquely suited to the environment in this part of the world. Because they have little or no wool on their legs and bellies, they pick up less debris. They are disease resistant and tend to be small framed with lean meat. The wool is low in grease, which makes it easier to process by hand, but the long fiber is difficult for machine processing. The Churro thrives on the vegetation on the Navajo reservation lands, and ewes frequently produce twins and sometimes triplets. Cross breeding with other sheep breeds is not recommended because resulting offspring are larger and require more food and water. Also, the Churro ewe is too small to safely deliver the mixed breed lambs and their wool can also make passage through the birth canal difficult.
We asked Roy about his background. He explained that he had been born on the reservation. His family raised sheep and the women were weavers. Roy began learning about raising sheep, processing wool, which plants to use for vegetal dyes, and weaving skills from his mother and grandmother. He attended Wingate High School, a boarding school in Gallup, New Mexico. After graduation he left the southwest to study secondary education at institutions in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. But he discovered he had administrative abilities and worked for the Arizona Department of Economic Security for many years.
One day, his mother called and asked him to come back to the reservation. She told him that she couldn’t take care of the sheep anymore. His initial response was that she should sell them, but when he saw the look on her face, he knew that wasn’t the answer.
Roy returned to live on the reservation about 20 years ago and he began caring for the sheep. In addition to tending to their basic daily and seasonal needs, he also shears and processes the wool, gathers plants to make dyes, and weaves. Roy also told us about the various organizations and projects that he’s working on. He takes a holistic view of the Churro’s place in the Navajo culture and the many activities that fill his days reflect the breadth and depth of his perspective.
Roy is committed to respecting tradition while embracing modern reality. The Navajo Lifeways is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1991 to provide leadership, along with technical and economic information to sheep and goat producers in the Navajo Nation. Navajo Lifeways and Diné College cooperate to host the annual Sheep is Life Celebration at the college each summer. Roy has been working with a group of young apprentices to teach them about the Churro’s place in traditional Navajo culture, and to open their eyes to possibilities for how Churro could continue to play a central role. He invited Navajo elders to teach the apprentices how to make traditional blue corn mush. He then asked the elders for permission to allow the young people to modify the recipe to make it their own. Permission was granted, and the apprentices cooked their own versions to serve to the elders. Roy also demonstrates to his students that a single sheep’s fleece, weighing about 3 pounds, can produce upwards of $9700.00 in products. As an alternative to leaving the reservation for education, Roy invites his students to imagine being out with the sheep while taking online college courses via satellite on a lap top.
Our next stop was at Irene Bennalley's ranch. For some years, Irene worked on her family’s ranch on the reservation during the week and returned to her husband in Farmington, New Mexico on the weekends. After her marriage ended, Irene moved to the ranch full time. Her father passed the grazing rights for the land to her and this has caused a great deal of discord within her family. Irene raises mostly Churro sheep and Angora goats. Irene is a weaver and, while she processes a portion of her wool by hand, she also has some of it machine processed. Irene raises sheep and goats in a wide range of colors and often chooses to use the natural, undyed wool in her weavings. She also sells Churro meat to restaurants and organic food markets through the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium, an organization Irene founded with Roy to foster a market for Churro meat.
When we asked Roy about issues related to grazing rights and land stewardship, he started with some background on the existing system. Since the 1930’s, the Federal Government has allowed the Navajo nation to grant land use and grazing permits, but this is stewardship, not land ownership. The land is owned by the Federal Government and held in trust for the Navajo Nation. The permits are passed on through inheritance, but only one person’s name can be on the permit and that person must be personally involved with the use of the land. Roy said that the intention was to avoid overgrazing and formulas are used to specify how many of each type of animal can be accommodated by the land. No elective system for oversight or accountability exists and while some permits are not being used, it’s impossible to track or redistribute them. The only way to obtain a permit right now is to inherit one. Since only one person’s name can be on each permit, families have been completely disrupted by the process. The Obama administration initiated an annual Tribal Nations Conference to focus on education, economic development, and improving federal/tribal relations. Recently, the Federal Government has actively sought tribal input on revising land grant laws. The current proposal would allow nonpermit holders to obtain one, and also introduces a process to take away permits that aren’t being used. Public hearings on the proposals are held at Navajo chapter houses and are attended primarily by elders. When asked why they don’t get involved, young people say that they don’t think the elders want to hear what they have to say. The fact that many young people don’t speak Navajo also presents a significant barrier. Roy advises young people to look past these obstacles, to get involved with tribal government and to be persistent.
When we drove up to his house, Roy’s sheep were calling from the corral and the sun was setting. His living room is dominated by a number of large looms and his current commission, a pictorial weaving that will include hummingbird images, is front and center. The walls are covered with family photographs and objects gathered during his travels around the globe to visit, teach, and learn from sheepherders and weavers.
Ron Garnanez stopped by while we were at Roy’s house. In addition to being a sheepherder and a weaver. Ron works as a home healthcare nurse. He wasn’t able to meet us earlier in the day because he was filling out massive quantities of paperwork for his job. Ron told us that he left the reservation to attend Haskell University and he has two daughters attending school there now. Ron learned weaving from his grandparents. He processes and spins his wool by hand and weaves traditional patterns using natural, undyed wool.
Roy told us that he is creating an archive of stories told by the elders. He was often frustrated initially when he would request permission to record a story and the teller would refuse. But he has since come to understand that while the basic story is shared by the entire culture, many variations exist because the oral tradition is alive and mutable. Writing the stories down creates the danger of claiming primacy of one version over another. He said that the oral tradition allows purity and change to coexist.
Roy’s works reflect his priorities, challenges, and philosophy as a contemporary Navajo sheepherder, weaver, and teacher. Throughout the day, Roy often referred to the importance of achieving balance in life and learning that the process is dynamic and ongoing. He respectfully incorporates traditional elements while infusing the work with his own creative spirit and commitment to fostering cultural continuity in the modern world. In Roy Kady’s vision of a path forward, Navajo sheepherders are able to remain committed to traditional culture while living and working in the twenty-first century.