We often paint this time of year in a somewhat romantic light, as the buy brings with it beautiful wool, and the ability to connect with the people who raised it. While we love focusing on wool, the buy brings to the forefront many issues the Navajo Nation is dealing with on a daily basis, impacting the ranchers who raise the wool for our yarns. We’re incredibly thankful to the educators from the Diné College and the Navajo sheep ranchers who we spoke with this year, who shared their knowledge with us.
We tend to think of plentiful rain as a good thing, seeing a green landscape and breathing out a sigh of relief. It’s not always that simple. The drought last year resulted in many ranchers cutting down on their numbers, resulting in fewer sheep per flock. This year’s wet and cold winter further reduced numbers with freezing temperatures well into April, when some had already begun to shear. The rain has encouraged a proliferation of invasive and non-nutritious plants, outgrowing the useful and traditional forage.
The weather patterns have become more and more unpredictable, allowing little dependable forecasting for what the year ahead might bring, and a struggle to maintain a consistent herd. Add to this the pressures from the Bureau of Land Management (who controls grazing rights), and the ancient practice of raising sheep as a way of life is under severe threat. The problems with overgrazing and invasive plant species mean that each year the struggles to raise sheep can bring a myriad of difficulties. Despite this, we still see families who are maintaining their way of life, raising and tending their flocks, spinning and weaving their wool.
Unpredictable weather patterns aren’t the only environmental concern Navajo sheep ranchers are navigating. The federal government began mining uranium in the Navajo Nation during the Manhattan project, continued through the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Today, there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines awaiting cleanup within the Navajo Nation. Some of these mines are near where cattle, sheep, and goats graze, causing an unknown amount of damage to food and water systems. The Diné College is conducting field research to show the effects of radiation on the sheep and other animals, and what that might mean for the animal and human population on the land. We often feel confused and frustrated when we hear about the hardships in trying to push through policy and laws that will positively affect the Navajo Nation. The Diné College is doing an immeasurable amount of work within the community, and we encourage everyone reading this to visit the Dine Environmental Institute website to learn more about this issue. (link: https://www.dinecollege.edu/about_dc/dine-environmental-institute-dei/)
Speaking to ranchers first hand is the best part of every wool buy. This year we were happy to see familiar friends and faces, and to talk about the struggles and successes for the families. Seeing the same people year over year, bringing in beautiful fine wool, is the best part of seeing each truck in the lineup. We met many newcomers, who had heard about the buy via the newspaper, radio, and social media as well. Many of the first-time sellers this year were people who were previously burning their wool, as they no longer spun and wove with it, and couldn’t get more than $0.10/lb for it previously at the trading posts.
We saw fewer elders this year, and more family members taking over the care of the sheep. We heard stories of hit and runs, missing native women, and suicide. We learned more about the Navajo idea of animal ownership and what it means in their culture.
We were so proud to see the work that the Black Mesa Water Coalition is continuing to do. For the second year in a row, they hosted a wonderful event at the Tuba City buy location, bringing together weavers, artisans, musicians and community members to celebrate and learn. Many of our friends have been working on building traditional hogans and we loved hearing about their progress.
The Diné College is also making wonderful strides in their agricultural department. Approval for a new warehouse will include new educational space, new animal housing and a small storage facility for wool gathered throughout the year.
We changed our shipping methods this year to include repacking every small trash bag that came through the buy, which allows the wool to be more efficiently freighted, using less trucks and improving the carbon footprint of our wool. Mid States began a wool bag exchange program to encourage transparent bags, and because we’re able to see the entire lot of wool, we can give better prices. This year, we pulled in nearly 130,000 lbs of wool, and had such an amazing crew to help implement these positive changes.
The Diné College estimates that we’re seeing about a third of the wool in the Navajo Nation, and they want to change that number to 100%. We hope to be a part of this buy for many years to come, to help support families living this traditional lifestyle, and to help organizations like the BMWC and Diné College encourage positive change for the Navajo Nation. Thank you for coming along this journey with us.
-The Peace Fleece Team