Fate of Navajo Canyon de Chelly & Sheep Is Life Celebration on Field Trip Agenda

Frances Madeson

School for Advanced Research to visit Canyon de Chelly and Sheep Is Life Celebration

The School for Advanced Research, which since 1907 has been a center for the study of the archaeology and ethnology of the American Southwest, is bringing field-trippers from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Navajo lands in Arizona to visit historic sites of resistance and a modern-day festival of resurgence.

The 19th century wars, fought between the Navajos and the Union Army, especially The Battle of Canyon de Chelly in 1864, qualify the canyon as a site of “dark tourism,” but that is not the aim of the trip, according to its organizer.

“It’s a really dramatic example of a cultural comeback,” said the trip’s Study Leader, Ellen Bradbury-Reid, a former director of the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts. “Today, having returned, the Navajo again occupy the canyon, and approximately 70 families live both in it and along the rim.”

“Canyon de Chelly is still a living canyon,” explained Donovan Hanley, who is Diné and serves in the Navajo Nation’s Hospitality Department as Director of Sales. “Our people live in the bottom of the canyon during the summer and on top during the winter. They’re in the story of the canyon. And what it looks like today may be different in five years, or ten.”

Longtime home of the Anasazi and inhabited by the Navajo since at least the 1700s, Canyon de Chelly is now a national park in Chinle, Arizona, and is operated by Navajos under the aegis of the National Park Service. The guides, who are all Navajo, speak of the remarkable geology of what is the second largest canyon in the United States, and about what has been learned from artifacts found in the 84,000-acre archaeological sanctuary. But they also inform the 800,000 annual visitors about the tragedies that transpired there.

“Our visitors often have personal responses to the tangible and the intangible,” Hanley said. “They feel different energies, they experience emotions when they see the canyon, sometimes happy, sometimes sad.”

When the Union Army dispatched Lt. Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson to Navajo lands in 1863, it was not only the Diné people who were mercilessly outgunned. Carson’s “scorched earth” warfare purposely destroyed the peach tree orchards that graced the canyon floor of Canyon de Chelly, and his troops massacred the livestock, decimating flocks of sheep whose milk, meat and wool were crucial for survival. Wells were poisoned, crops were torched, and the hogans were systematically destroyed, forcing the Navajo people to flee into the canyon’s caves, nooks and crannies. Starving, and eventually forced to surrender, 8,000 Navajo people were subsequently marched to the Bosque de Redondo on The Long Walk, often referred to as the Navajo Trail of Tears, where they were imprisoned for four years.

“In 1868, the Navajo came back to Fort Defiance, and were each given two sheep,” explained Dr. Lyle G. McNeal, Carnegie Professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine of Utah State University. “It was a pittance, but it was something to start over with.”

McNeal who is a sheep, goat, wool and range specialist and founder of The Navajo Sheep Project, will address the field trippers on June 17 at the Sheep is Life celebration to be held at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.

The sheep, called Churro or more colloquially, “old time Navajo sheep” soon flourished, and by the 1880s their ranks swelled to two million.

“The flocks grew and the people prospered by making classic ‘chief blankets,’ from the wool of this healthy animal that could live in their arid ecosystem,” McNeal told ICMN.

But the U.S. government interfered.

“The government wanted another kind of wool, merino—the so-called modern breed from France and Spain—which was in demand in Boston where the wool mills were,” he said. “Merino rams were shoved on them, but their fleece was not as good; it was harder to handle and spin, and it was greasy.”

An even bigger blow was to come in 1934 when John Collier, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner under President Franklin Roosevelt, insisted on a stock reduction as a water-saving measure during a drought.

“For the Navajo, the sheep were assets,” McNeal said. “When the government started the stock reduction, they said ‘We’ll pay you a dollar a head.’ But not all the sheep were near rail yards and couldn’t be easily shipped to Chicago to the meat packing plants. Many were shot on site in the box canyons and up on the mesas.”

Over the years Navajo elders have showed him piles and piles of bones from what he terms “the sheep holocaust.”

“The elders would cry, ‘damn John Collier!” McNeal said.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had preserved some of the original Churros at Fort Wingate, and in 1967 auctioned some off and dispersed them. In 1972, when near Salinas, California, McNeal happened to spot some of the multi-colored sheep and four-horned rams that he’d heard about but never seen. He convinced the right people at California Polytechnic State University (where he was then teaching) to allow him to bring a flock to the campus for study, and thus began what has been a 45-year long journey of purposeful animal husbandry to restore the Churros to the Navajos.

“Now the Navajos are selling the Churro meat to fancy restaurants in New York City,” Bradbury-Reid said. “The sheep are back, and the Navajo are back too.”

“Time really slows down in the canyon,” Hanley said. “It’s a chance to drop the phone and pick up a hiking stick, and see the colors which change from sunrise to sunset. In the quiet you can hear things—the animals, the trees. In Diné beliefs there was a time when all beings spoke the same language. Our visitors get a feel for that.”