Tony Skrelunas, Navajo member raised in Big Mountain, Dine Nation, United States tells us of his plans to build a Navajo Nation Lamb Meat Cooperative…
I sometimes think back to the wild canyons, mesas, juniper forests, meadows, the many elders and the life of our traditional lands where I grew up on Navajo land. We raised sheep and crops in the same ancient fashion of our Dine ancestors. My great grandma had a handsome amount and everyone within our family had their own flocks. We always herded ourselves as the herds were too large to depend on sheep dogs and we followed a conservation ethic of letting the land rest in order to ensure the sheep were treated as family. We also incorporated ceremony into maintaining their overall health and wellbeing and we butchered our animals in the most respectful fashion possible, ensuring the maximum benefit of what we consider to be sacred food.
I am now honored to lead work on creating plans, assessing markets and strategies for ensuring that this long tradition survives for all humanity and that we can create livelihoods for our local herders whilst ensuring this sacred food is available to more of our Navajo people.
The Navajo sheep herding tradition dates back nearly 500 years and sheep are considered a vital component of living a harmonious Navajo life. After 25+ generations, there has evolved an immense amount of values and teachings around raising sheep. It is hard work: from organising a home, sheep corrals, adopting and purchasing the initial flock, securing lambs, learning the proper teachings, methods, medicines, songs, prayers, land area, water sources, the health of the land and collaboration with distant family and neighbors. It has become apparent that fewer and fewer families can realistically attain large herds and in some cases they can attain only a single herd, due to how challenging it is and the commitment required. As sheep in larger herds must graze on the land every day, during lambing season, the herd must be watched day and night. If not, new lambs will be lost to the cold. There are many threats to the herd, from coyotes to poisonous plants and thieves. Folks that let their herds wander alone report high incidents of loss of their sheep and goats. Yet the demand from young and elderly Navajos and Hopis is growing. We estimate that 70 percent of the community population on the reservation lands have a desire for various parts of the sheep during a typical week and can sustain several meals where various parts of the sheep are featured in cooking. The demand for sheep climbs very high during cultural and community events, such as a ceremonies, dance, chapter meeting, community dinners, birthday parties, weddings and other celebrations. In fact, it is most often the featured dish in almost every cultural activity. The same applies to the Hopi community.
The Navajo Churro or ‘Aadibei’ is the first domesticated animal in America. The breed was brought to the Navajo people 500 years ago and is an embodiment of sustainability due to their hardiness in the land and that they do not need water taken to them every day. They will go through a season with scarce food and grazing marginal land that other sheep breeds would not survive on. Lamb and mutton that originate from places such as Australia, New Zealand and Utah are currently sold at local grocery stores as they are the only option for USDA certified lamb and mutton. The local Navajo/Hopi demand can be categorised as a unique cultural niche market as many desire the taste and healthy qualities of locally grazed meat, especially when processed in a respectful, spiritual manner. On Navajo land there are many food establishments, grocers, restaurants, community markets and caterers, that all desire USDA certified locally Navajo-raised meat. The opportunities are great for a product that is marketed as a traditionally raised lamb, processed in a respectful manner, categorized as an organic product, raised sustainably and using traditional methods of resting and monitoring the land. In Western Navajo, there are over 100 area sheepherders that could be part of a meat cooperative.
The cooperative will have 3 divisions: 1) producers which are also shepherds and includes the creation of a large communal herd; 2) a mobile unit in the first year and then a permanent processing center later on and 3) a packaging and retail area. A large focus will be on ensuring land health using traditional knowledge and western science. Several of the permanent location options are places that offer real potential for complimentary business including an independent grocer, farmers market and traditional package foods.
I hope that my grandkids will someday look back on this moment and see what we did to ensure that they would also enjoy our wild country with flocks of sheep, knowing exactly how to care for them, the medicines they need including the appropriate grasses and vegetation, the conservation teaching, and even some of our songs. Ahxehee for reading!