Learning the Vanishing Art of Navajo Shepherding
In an excerpt form Robert Moor's new book, 'On Trails,' the author attempts to guide sheep on foot with some of the nation’s last traditional shepherds
On my first morning as a shepherd, I sat on a metal folding chair in front of my hogan waiting for someone to tell me what to do.
Buy the BookRobert Moor is an essayist and journalist living in British Columbia. His first book, 'On Trails: An Exploration,' was published in July.
This was my first mistake: as a rule, older Navajos do not relish the opportunity to explain things to naive, inquisitive white people. They would typically prefer the pupil learn through silent observation. Moreover, Harry and Bessie Begay, whose land I was sleeping on and whose sheep I would soon be herding, only spoke Diné bizaad, the traditional language of the Navajo people. Their English was extremely limited, as was my grasp of Diné bizaad. Unless one of her children was visiting, the only person who could translate for us was Bessie’s brother, a rascally character whose name was either Johnny, Kee, Keith, or all three. (Navajos are known to accumulate multiple names over their lifetimes.) When he was around, J/K/K acted as the translator between me and the Begays, but he had left that morning in a pickup truck with his friend Norman, saying he wouldn’t be back for five days. I was on my own, the only English speaker for miles.
The Begays’ land was wholly cut off from municipal electricity, running water, and phone lines. In exchange for herding their sheep, I would be given one meal each day and a hogan—a low, octagonal, domed roof hut—in which to sleep. I had learned about this opportunity from my friend Jake, who had in turn learned about it from an outfit called Black Mesa Indigenous Support, a volunteer organization that helps aging Navajo families remain living on their traditional lands. Jake, who had been shepherding for the past nine years, had regaled me with stories of life among the Navajo, who were among the only people left in North America still herding sheep in the old style, on foot.
It was not yet ten a.m. on my first day of herding, and I had lost every last sheep.
The hogan, like all hogans, was built facing the east, and the risen sun was on my face. Hearing bells, I turned to see a storm-cloud of sheep pouring out of the corral. Bessie walked behind them, leaning on an old broomstick. A sweet, tough woman in her late seventies, she stood no more than five feet tall. She wore a velveteen blouse clasped at the neck with a turquoise-and-silver brooch, and a black scarf knotted around her tight bun of steely hair. Her mouth tended to rest in a soft frown, except when she found something amusing, and then it lifted to form a smile the exact size and shape of an upturned cashew.
I jogged over to her. With her stick, she drew a circle in the dust, and then bisected it with a straight line: φ. At the top of the circle she drew another, smaller circle.
“Tó,” she said, using one of the only Diné bizaad words I knew: “Water.”
Using gestures and a few scattered English words, she made it clear that she wanted me to take the sheep to a nearby windmill, which pumped water from the ground into a trough, let them drink, graze them in a big circle, and then bring them home by nightfall. I had seen such a windmill on the drive in, and, while I didn’t know how to get back to it, I trusted that the sheep did. (This was my second mistake.)
The sheep were already streaming loosely across the yard toward the shallow canyons to the northwest, so I ran to my hogan, threw some supplies into my backpack, and jogged after them.
I found the sheep in the weeds just beyond the Begays’ yard. They went snuffling along the ground, plucking out tender green shoots of grass, their lips fluttering rapidly. Occasionally, I glimpsed the bright flash of a wildflower before it vanished.
I had been warned that the Begays’ sheep had a reputation for being “a difficult flock,” but as we left the homesite and dipped down into a series of sandy stream beds, they seemed sane enough. After spending all night penned up, they walked with vigor, only stopping to nibble once every few steps. The lambs leaped into the air in fishy wriggles. From time to time the young males paused to buck heads, then jogged to catch up.
The naturalist Mary Austin—who spent almost two decades observing and talking with shepherds in California—wrote that flocks are invariably made up of “Leaders, Middlers, and Tailers.” The leaders head up the flock; the middlers stick to the middle; and the tailers chase up the rear. Individual sheep tend to stick to a single role, she wrote, and because leaders can be used to steer the flock, shepherds typically took special care of them, saving them from slaughter to “make wise” the next generation. Some even went so far as to name them after their girlfriends.
However, in my (admittedly limited) experience, the flock dynamic was not so simple as Austin describes. There were, rather, many leaders in a single flock, who would arise in different situations. Even more curiously, I began to notice that certain individuals seemed to feel the need to be perceived as leading the flock—when the flock abandoned their leadership and changed directions, they would hurry to its front, like a politician scrambling to keep ahead of a shifting electorate.
The relationship between a shepherd and a flock, similarly, is not as clearcut as it looks. The shepherd is not the master of the flock; instead, the flock and the shepherd are engaged in a continuous negotiation, in turns pushing against one another and pulling together, harmonious one moment and fractious the next. Some shepherds claim to be able to control their sheep with words or whistles, which may be true, but the only signaling mechanism my sheep and I needed was the language of space: if I moved too close to them, they would inch away. In this way, I was able shape their movements, but only vaguely, like a cloud of smoke. The essence of herding is not domination, but dance.
This simple act—walking behind a flock of sheep—is a dying art. Harry and Bessie may well be the last generation of sheep herders in their bloodline; none of their six living children had plans to return to their ancestral land and scrape out a living raising sheep.
The steady decline of shepherding is a source of great concern for many Navajo people, since the practice has long been integral to their cultural identity. Archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that Navajos first acquired sheep around 1598, when the conquistador Don Juan de Oñate brought 3,000 Churra sheep to the American Southwest. However, the Navajo oral tradition maintains that shepherding stretches back much further, to the dawn of their existence as a people. “With our sheep we were created,” proclaimed a local hataałii, or ceremonial singer, named Mr. Yellow Water. According to one particularly vivid version of the Navajo creation story, when the celestial being known as Changing Woman gave birth to sheep and goats, her amniotic fluid soaked into the earth, and from it sprouted the plants that sheep now eat. Next, she created human beings—Diné, as the Navajo call themselves—and sent them to live within the four sacred mountains that still demarcate Navajo country. As a parting gift, she gave them sheep.
This simple act is a dying art. Harry and Bessie may well be the last generation of sheep herders in their bloodline.
For centuries, that gift has shaped Navajo culture, just as water sculpts a canyon. Navajos’ internal clocks were set to the daily schedule of herding, and their calendars were structured by the seasonal migration. The introduction of wool radically altered their material culture, by providing the means to weave lightweight clothing, warm blankets, and intricate rugs. Their architecture was fortified by the need to protect sheep from raiders. Pastoralism altered their diet, their relationship to the landscape, and perhaps even their metaphysics. One Navajo woman told the author Christopher Phillips that herding sheep informed her understanding of the sacred Navajo principle of hozho, or harmony. “The sheep care for us, provide for us, and we do the same for them. This contributes to hozho. Before I tend my sheep each day, I pray to the Holy People, and give thanks to them for the sheep and how they help make my life more harmonious.”
When a baby is born, Navajo parents often bury its umbilical cord in their sheep corral, in order to symbolically tie the child to the sheep and to the land. Indeed, as the anthropologist Ruth Murray Underhill suggests, in some sense the Navajo people as we know them—or more importantly, as they know themselves—arrived in this world alongside sheep.
In the calmer moments that first morning, I was able to able to admire the desert. The soil was the mingled color of pencil shavings, in turns a pale yellow, a powdery pink, and a dry black. Out of it grew a stiff yellow grass. I recalled John Muir’s description of California’s Central Valley in late May: “Dead and dry and crisp, as if every plant and been roasted in an oven.” Actual tumbleweeds actually tumbled across my path. Things poked at my ankles as I walked: spiky tufts of grass, tiny bamboo groves of the green ephedra plant called ‘Mormon tea,’ ankle-high cacti with spines the color of old toenails. The only shade came from the scattered juniper trees, which writhed against an ageless wind.
Off to the northwest, I spotted a windmill, but it looked as tiny as a tin toy. While I was contemplating whether, and how, to turn the flock around, the sheep—as if hatching a whispered scheme—began to divide into two equal-sized groups. I watched the split slowly forming, but I couldn’t move quickly enough to prevent it.
One group drifted downhill, off to the east, while the other nosed up the hill to the west. Placing my faith in the directional sense of the leaders—my biggest mistake yet—I focused my attention instead on the tailers, figuring that they would be less headstrong. I broke into a run and skirted wide around them. Then, shouting curses, I attempted to rush them up the hill. But now their gait—which all day had been brisk and light—was suddenly slow, their hooves leaden. They stopped often, glancing about, as if entering unfamiliar and dangerous territory. Growing increasingly panicked that I would lose half of the Begays’ sheep, I left the sluggards where they were and ran up the hill in the direction I’d last seen the other half of the flock.
The land rose to a flat tabletop, runneled with narrow washes and forested with pinyon pines. I imagined that sheep were lurking behind every stand of trees, and I even heard the spectral gonging of their bells, but they were nowhere to be seen.
As I reached the top of the mesa, something trotted across my path. It moved from my right to my left, low and quick. For a moment I thought it was one of the Begays' dogs, which normally stuck close to the flock.
Then I recognized it: a coyote. Ears up, mouth open, it glided over the sand with the cool certainty of a missile.
A sick feeling bloomed in my abdomen. I envisioned finding one of the lambs torn open, its red chest toothed with white ribs.
Running in a circle, I shouted for the dogs, whose names I did not know. Then I ran back down the hill, where I’d left the other half of the flock, only to find that they, too, had disappeared. It seemed impossible, an elaborate practical joke. I turned in circles, feeling dazed. In my mouth had grown a cat’s dry tongue.
The word panic, fittingly enough, refers back to Pan, the mischievous goat-legged god, whose bellowing used to terrify shepherds and their flocks. Suddenly I felt its true meaning—a blinding electricity that floods the mind, prompting action without premeditation.
I ran back up the hill. I found nothing. I ran back down to the valley: more nothing. Then, losing hope but unsure of what else to do, I ran back up the hill.
It was not yet ten a.m. on my first day of herding, and I had lost every last sheep.
Robert Moor is an essayist and journalist living in British Columbia. His first book, On Trails: An Exploration, was published in July.