Monday, January 17, 2011

“Sheep is life” According to the Navajo "Lifeway"

Near Monument Valley in Arizona, we stopped to photograph a Navajo sheep-dog tending his small flock. He casually walked over to our car for a friendly visit, and then, sensing his responsibility, almost immediately returned to his flock. I was very impressed by that!

Navajo 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.

In the mid-1600s, Navajo acquisition of the Churro sheep from the Spanish inspired a radical lifestyle change from hunting and gathering to pastoralism and farming. In the high deserts and wooded mountains of Diné Bikéyah, Navajo Land, the Churro thrived under the spiritual and pastoral care of their new companions, resuming their central role in the People's psychology, creativity and religious life.

Unlike wool from modern commercial breeds, wool from primitive carpet-wool sheep such as Churro is low in lanolin, not requiring valuable water for washing nor time-consuming carding. It can be shorn, hand cleaned and spun into tightly twisted yarn that readily absorbs indigo and native vegetable dyes, from which the Navajo artists create weavings famous for their exceptional luster, fine texture and durability. The wool can be easily felted for a variety of uses. The distinctive long-haired pelts are highly valued for many uses.

For centuries, the Churro provided the Navajo with what they needed to survive in the stark desert: meat for sustenance, wool for weaving clothing and blankets, sinew for thread. It's no wonder that the Navajo are grateful, even reverential when it comes to the Churro. But while the Churro are thriving, it may be that weavers are becoming a rare breed.

Like most Americans, Navajo have become tied to a paycheck economy and a new generation is growing up mesmerized by what's beamed in on the satellite dish. For a time the Churro was an endangered breed of sheep. Today, the Navajo culture is endangered, struggling for survival in a shrink-wrapped world.

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