Diné shepherds have faced devastating systemic pressures over many generations. These pressures have included forced stock reductions (through mass slaughter and permit revocation), forced cross-breeding, and the ongoing devaluation of their work in the modern sheep and wool industry. Those that continue to preserve Dibé dits’ozí (Navajo-Churro sheep) and associated traditions do so with an inspiring level of purpose and determination.
Traditional Diné pastoralists have an enormous impact on their communities. Their flocks ensure food security while nurturing social and cultural connections to tending sheep, processing wool for weaving, honoring plant medicines, and living in harmony and balance with the unique bioversity of the range. We believe these pastoralists deserve support to continue their critical conservation efforts. We chose three ancestral flocks of Navajo-Churro sheep to start the Rainbow Fiber Co-Op based on their size, fiber quality, and the shepherd's commitment to the preservation of Diné culture.
Irene and her son Channing winter in Two Grey Hills, New Mexico with their gorgeous flock of Navajo-Churro sheep. In the summer they migrate with the flock on foot up to the family sheep camp in the Chuska Mountains. Only a handful of Diné shepherds are still able to do a traditional transhumance, taking their sheep from the desert floor to higher elevations with cooler temperatures and better forage during the dry summer months.
Irene grew up tending horses, cattle, and sheep. She learned everything about traditional plants, medicines, and caring for livestock from her father. When Channing moved back home to help with the ranch several years ago, Irene was happy to see that all the teachings from her father had stayed with him.
She recalls pressure from the U.S. government and county extension agents to raise more commercial breeds like Rambouillet. But Irene knew from first hand experience how poorly these commercial breeds did on the range. After seeing an incredible four-horned Navajo ram along the highway home from Shiprock, Irene grew more determined to keep her flock of Navajo-Churro.
Irene started weaving in the famous Two Grey Hills style as a young child. Her mother passed on all her knowledge and love for weaving and spinning yarn. The use of natural colors in these intricate weavings inspired her pursuit of natural color in her sheep. She set out looking for color in reservation flocks (many flocks are all white) and began trading for brown and black rams. Since then, her ewe flock has lambed quite a rainbow of colors including white, black, brown, dark gray, light gray, and a special shade of golden brown.
Prior to the pandemic Irene offered weaving classes and cultural experiences at her Chuska sheep camp. You can learn more about Irene in an article in the New York Times by Michael Benanav called “The Sheep Are Like Our Parents.”
Kelly raises a beautiful flock of all white Navajo-Churro sheep and Navajo Angora goats. She cares for them along with her husband and four children in Coppermine, Arizona located in the Western Agency of the Navajo Nation.
Kelly was born and raised in Coppermine and is the 2nd oldest of 5 girls. Growing up her father taught her and her sisters traditional skills like herding sheep, hand shearing, chopping wood, horsemanship, butchering, and tanning hides. Today Kelly’s children are involved in every aspect of raising the sheep. She feels it is important to keep her kids engaged in the traditions she grew up with.
Although fine wool or commercial meat breeds are more financially lucrative, Kelly has been firm in her stance to continue preserving the flock of Navajo-Churro sheep that was passed down to her from her parents and grandparents. She fears the breed could be lost if Diné shepherds can’t hold on to them. When asked what the sheep mean to her, Kelly said “they feed us, clothe us, and reassure us that they’re still holding onto this land for us.”
Kelly shares the sheep with her community as well, providing lambs for ceremonies and running a popular mutton stand. Kelly and her family were recently featured in an article in the Navajo Times called “Joy and peace: Cookout gives community a taste of home.” The article is about what it meant to be able to open up the mutton stand again after the pandemic.
Marjorie Curley lives with her husband Irvin in Ganado, Arizona, where they steward an impressive flock of mostly white Navajo-Churro sheep. Several decades ago they switched to Suffolk sheep for a short time, until they became frustrated with their poor maternal instincts. In 1978 they made the decision to return to Navajo-Churro because the sheep did so much better on the range. “When they lamb, you don’t have to worry about it. They tend to their young ones.” In addition to being “easy keepers” she believes Navajo-Churro sheep hold great cultural and spiritual significance for her people.
Marjorie likes to say raising Navajo-Churro sheep is “good for the family.” Her daughters, Sherilyn and Valerie, were enthusiastic sheepherders as children. "They tend to it; they just have their heart into it all the time. When they come home, they tend to them. When the pen needs cleaned, they do it. It's a family thing. It's not only my immediate family, it's also my nephews, nieces, and my sisters. They come over. It keeps the family together."
In the 1990s Marjorie collaborated with the Navajo Sheep Project on their breeding program—helping bring the Navajo-Churro back from the brink of extinction. She contributed to the founding of Diné be’iiná and was part of the very first Sheep Is Life celebration. Marjorie and her family are active in their communities, running road side sheep sales and providing butcher lambs for traditional Navajo ceremonies.