The Navajo Nation: Sheep Stories

The Navajo Nation: Sheep Stories

Image credit: Yoonbae Cho on Unsplash

Dził Nitsaa: a Place of Diné Resistance

by Keanu Gorman

Dził Nitsaa means Big Mountain in Diné Bizaad (the Navajo Language). Dził Nitsaa is a sacred monument and a sanctuary for the people that have inhabited the mountain and its surrounding areas since time immemorial. It is located in Northeastern Arizona, nearly at the heart of what is today known as the Navajo reservation. Diné (Navajo) and Hopi people have shared and occupied this territory for centuries.

The ancestors of its current residents have herded sheep, planted corn, built hogans (traditional Navajo homes), performed ceremonies, and raised children at and around Dził Nitsaa for generations. Then in 1909, large coal and oil deposits were found on Navajo and Hopi land. Because of the need for electricity, a coalition of oil/coal companies formed to discuss the plausibility of mining coal in Navajo/Hopi territory for the purpose of development. After the Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils were established, years of negotiation took place and Peabody Coal took over Black Mesa territory, resulting in the passing of Public Law 93-531 in December of 1974. Navajo and Hopi families were forced to relocate. The matriarchs of Dził Nitsaa have been resisting and fighting against relocation for decades since. The dispossession of Diné folks of Dził Nitsaa due to Peabody Coal has shaped the Navajo and Hopi Nations and the economic statuses of these nations, as they are today.

The relocation of the families of Big Mountain begins with the establishment of the Navajo and Hopi reservations and tribal councils. The Navajo reservation was established in 1868 with the signing of the Treaty of 1868, also known as the Naaltsoos Sání. The Diné were kept in captivity for four years on a reservation called Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner, NM. This place became known as Hwéeldi to the Navajo people. General ’Kit’ Carson, under the command of General Carleton, began rounding up the Navajos in 1864 and sending them on a death march to Ft. Sumner; this death march is remembered as the Navajo Long Walk. Thousands of Navajo people were held in captivity alongside several hundred Mescalero Apache people. Many people did not return from Ft. Sumner.

After four long years of being held in a concentration camp, the Diné were released to return to their original homelands. Most families returned to their original homesteads. Among those that returned were residents of Dził Nitsaa. Then, in 1882, a reservation was created for the Hopi people in Black Mesa, the same mesa plateau that Dził Nitsaa is located within. Because there were both Hopi and Navajo families living in this area, the Navajo-Hopi Joint-Use area was established. Although the drawing of these boundaries led to resistance from the Diné and Hopi people, families continued to live on non-reservation land. Diné and Hopi people lived alongside each other for centuries. It is to no surprise that the two tribes have a long relationship with one another. The Navajo and Hopi traded with one another and even attended ceremonies of both tribes. The ties that these two tribes have with one another was disturbed after the discovery of oil/coal deposits on Navajo land.

The Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils were established so that oil/coal companies could mine for coal in Black Mesa. According to the Navajo Nation government website, “The discovery of oil on Navajoland in the early 1920’s promoted the need for a more systemic form of government,” thus creating the Navajo Tribal Council in the year of 1923 to “help meet the increasing desires of American oil companies to lease Navajoland for exploration.” For similar reasons, the Hopi Tribal Council was established in 1936 “with the adoption of the Hopi Constitution and By-Laws… to negotiate with federal, state, and local governments, and with the councils or governments of other tribes.” The establishment of the Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils served to negotiate on behalf of Navajo and Hopi people, respectively. Although the Tribal councils negotiated and signed agreements on behalf of the tribes, the councils’ decisions did not reflect the desires and intentions of traditional Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders. Therefore, when the Hopi and Navajo tribes signed land leases to Peabody Coal Company and families were told to relocate, families that were ‘on the wrong side of the fence’ retaliated.

The Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils signed land leases with Peabody Coal Company in 1973, and the Kayenta Coal Mine was established. Although reservations were designated for the tribes in the 19th century, many Navajo and Hopi families did not stay within these arbitrary lines, rather they continued to live on their traditional homelands. For decades after their reservations were established, Navajo and Hopi families lived on non-reservation land and they lived almost as they did prior, in peace. However, when the coalition of oil/coal companies expressed interest in mining for coal and oil in Black Mesa, that peace was disrupted. Between the years of 1882 and 1934, Navajo and Hopi lived within the ‘Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area,’ a portion of land that Navajo and Hopi were allowed to live alongside one another. Then, Navajo Livestock reduction happened. Prior to the establishment of Kayenta Mine, the Navajo-Hopi land dispute had to be settled; there could no longer be a ‘Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area.’

The dismantlement of the Joint Use Area resulted in the partitioning of Navajo and Hopi lands. Thus, the Hopi reservation grew, taking over the majority of the Joint-Use Area. Navajo families living on Hopi partitioned lands were forced to relocate by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to Navajo partitioned land. Hopi families were also relocated; Hopi families residing on Navajo partitioned land were relocated to Hopi partitioned land. Public Law 93-531 was passed, “to provide for the final settlement of the conflicting rights and interests of the Hopi and Navajo Tribes.” However, as mentioned, the Navajo and Hopi have occupied Black Mesa territory alongside one another in peace. Many Navajo and Hopi families were infuriated; they did not want to relocate. Consequently, the BIA under the influence of Peabody Coal Company began to attack the residents of Big Mountain, forcibly relocating them for the purpose of mining coal.

The matriarchs of Dził Nitsaa began organizing meetings in response to relocation. Diné and Hopi societies are matrilineal; matriarchs were in charge of inheritance and social status. When relocation began, the matriarchs that held the power within these societies retaliated against the BIA and refused to relocate. The Hopi were able to move ‘with ease’; however, for the Navajo it would be difficult for them to relocate because most Navajo families owned sheep.

Sheepherding is an integral part of Diné livelihood

Sheep are a fundamental part of Diné livelihood. By attaching an integral part of Diné lifeway, we as Diné people are under attack. Sheep are our food, their wool make our clothes, and different parts of the sheep are used in traditional ceremonies. As said by an elder, “Sheep is life. It is a philosophy.” Sheep are especially important to the Hózhǫ́ǫjí (Blessingway) Ceremony. The Blessingway Ceremony is an important aspect of Diné philosophy. Są’áh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón (SNBH) remains as the sole part of Diné lifeway.

Są’áh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón is a principle of Diné philosophy and refers to the circle of life. Są’áh Naagháí translates to “the path into old age” and Bik’eh Hózhóón translates to “in its path is beauty, harmony and peace.” Therefore, SNBH means to walk and to live in hózhǫ́ (harmony, peace, and beauty). Hózhǫ́ǫjí is an important aspect of that. The hózhǫ́ǫjí ceremony restores and maintains balance on one’s path, that path being Są’áh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón. Because sheep serve such an important role in the Blessingway Ceremony, they are connected to the main principle of Diné philosophy. Thus, sheep is most certainly life and philosophy for the Diné people.

Sheep are connected to the Diné matriarchal stewardship of land. “the central symbol of Navajo social organization is motherhood, and that the meaning of this symbol is found in the reproduction and sustenance of life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Navajo find a conceptual relationship between sheep and motherhood,”. Matriarchy is a very important aspect of Diné society. Matriarchs lead families and homesteads. They are in charge of the sheep and land. The Diné emphasize the connection between sheep, land, and matriarchy. A matriarch herself once said:

“The sheep have a story. When my mom’s time was short and her life was going to be no more, she spoke to me. ’Don’t look up crying thinking your mother has died,’ she said. ‘The earth is your mother. she nurtures, she feeds you. The holy ones, the blue and the night sky, our Creator, the sun, and White shell Woman.’ There are Blessing Way prayers here. ‘This is how we live here as Diné people.’ This is what she said.”

The Blessing Way prayers maintain this relationship between Diné and the land and its resources.

Keanu Gorman is a Diné (Navajo) translator, poet, and researcher. They are an A.B. candidate at Harvard College studying History & Literature with an Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights secondary. Their research focuses on Diné lifeways, culture, history, and language. Currently, they are working on research related to Indigenous Language Revitalization(s).

Coming Soon: Diné Oral Histories