Long Thread Podcast Transcript: Shepherd & Navajo Weaver Nikyle Begay

In Spring 2022, we spoke with Nikyle Begay from their home on the Navajo Reservation in Season 5, Episode 1.

Anne Merrow Mar 10, 2023 - 44 min read

Long Thread Podcast Transcript: Shepherd & Navajo Weaver Nikyle Begay Primary Image

Podcast s5e1

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The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

LTM: Nikyle Begay is a weaver shepherd, storyteller, and a founder of Rainbow Fiber Co-op. They maintain a flock of Navajo-Churro sheep at home in the Navajo Nation and travel extensively as the co-op’s executive director.

LTM: You have been very busy on the road lately. Can you tell me what you’ve been up to?

NB: This all started at the beginning of the year [for Kelli Dunaj], my friend/co-founder and co-director of Rainbow Fiber Co-op, which is a wool co-op created by her and I. The idea of it is to bring back and empower Navajo shepherds, giving them a fair price for their wool—because it’s 365 days full of work, even more work when you have to shear them to harvest the wool. And since Navajo-Churro wool has been devalued in recent history, we just wanted to empower those shepherds again in hopes that they continue raising Navajo-Churro. The work for this year began at the beginning of the year, when her and I traveled across the reservation. And just to give you some context, the Navajo reservation is about the same size as the state of West Virginia, so it’s fairly big.
We traveled from east to west, north to south, visiting shepherds and of course visiting our co-op members—currently we have five in different areas of the Navajo reservation—and other prospective co-op members or producers with smaller flocks. We gave them clear bags, because oftentimes they’ll use dark bags to store the wool in. That’s not the preferred way to do it, especially if we need to look at that wool—it just encourages moths. And if you leave it out in the sun, black bags tend to get very hot, which will end up baking the wool. So anyway, so we gave them bags, we told them who we are, gave them info about the co-op, and just told them that we are interested in buying wool. So, you know, we met a lot of new shepherds.
And then in April we actually hired a shearer. And I’d like to give her a shout out—her name is Mary Claire Geyer from the state of Washington, and she works with Altitude Shearing. She came down and she had [. . .] I would say over 600 sheep, maybe. I didn’t keep a tally because I was busy skirting wool. But we went to every co-op member’s place, and right now we’re working with a few of the largest flocks of Navajo-Churro sheep on the reservation. So she sheared all of them while Kelly and I as well as a crew skirted, graded, then sorted and packed big tubes of wool. And we did that at four places this year. One of our other co-op members opted to shear on her own, since it’s kind of a family affair for her. So she did that and she brought us her wool. That was in April, and that took, wow, I would say 10 days. It was like two days at every place, but we did have down days in between. And then on Memorial Day, we actually set up at the Hardrock chapter house. (A chapter house here in the Navajo Nation is like a local governance house or government building.) And we set up there and we met shepherds that have anywhere from five sheep to a hundred sheep. They brought their wool and we purchased what we could handle.
[. . .]
At that point, you’re looking at 2,000 pounds of wool. So from that point on, we spent the next, oh, I would say seven days just cleaning, skirting, grading, sorting, and packing that wool again. And we actually made another 1,600 pounds. Purchasing 2,000 pounds of wool and only having a little bit of loss—that was amazing. So after we did that, we combined it with what we bought during the shearings in April, and we delivered the entire load to a wool mill called Winterstrom Ranch Fiber Mill. And we’re excited to get our product back after that.

LTM: That is just amazing. Do you have kind of a ballpark of how many different flocks that includes?

NB: I believe that was 28, but it could even be about 30 or more flocks that we purchase wool from.

LTM: And for people who aren’t familiar with the idea a wool co-op, is it kind of similar to a wool pool, a bunch of people who bring all their wool together to process together or sell it together, or something like that?

NB: Well, we are, you know, very unique. We don’t operate like your standard co-op because everything we make—and it’s in our membership agreements—everything we make goes back into the co-op so we’re able to purchase their wool again next year. And then just get like our bills paid, like mill fees, our website fees, postage. So we’re very unique in that sense, and I can’t really compare us to a traditional co-op or wool pool.

LTM: I think, for some people who aren’t familiar with the production side of wool, who either think about wool as coming out of a yarn mill or individually by the fleece, this idea of putting a whole bunch of fleeces together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts might be a little unusual.

NB: Oh, yeah. But it’s also very unique too, because we’re able to see just the different types of fleeces that are grown in different parts of the reservation. You also get to see what they’re eating and what they’re going through. Like this year we found a lot of juniper leaves and juniper berries in certain areas and other places we have cockleburs.

LTM: Because these sheep are not, you know, hanging out in pens with carefully defined fences either, they’re out in in open space.

NB: Yeah, yeah. So you just get to see basically their entire life for a year, you know, going through each fleece. It’s cool in a sense.

LTM: And all this has kept you on the road, but you also have a flock yourself, is that right?

NB: I do, I do. I have been shepherding all of my life. A lot of my earliest memories come from always wanting to go to my paternal grandmother’s house because she had a large flock of sheep. And I just remember that’s where I always wanted to be. You know, I would beg my parents, “please don’t let me go to school. I want to stay with Grandma and help her.” Whether it was raining, snowing, or blazing hot in the summer, that’s just where I wanted to be. So with my own flock, I began that in 2000. At the end of 2003, when I was going into high school, I joined the FFA [Future Farmers of America] club in the high school and decided that my project was going to be raising sheep. At the time, you know, I’ve always known about Navajo-Churro, but I didn’t know them as Navajo-Churro, if that makes sense.
You know, they’re here on the reservation in abundance, but we don’t call them Navajo-Churro. We call them by their traditional name. There’s actually quite a few of them. One that’s commonly known is Dibé dits'ozí, which means “the sheep with long, coarse wool.” And that’s what I knew them by. So to know that there was their own breed official breed name, and a breed standard and a registry . . . you know, that just blew my mind. So that’s what I wanted to get into. I started out with three, and then it blossomed over to 90 head at one point before I left for college. But after college and since coming home, I’ve always tried to maintain lower numbers, because we’re in a tight little confined area where I’m at. And it just makes it very manageable, especially when you have to work with them and shear them. So that was my long way around saying that I do have sheep and I continue to raise them.

LTM: And long, coarse wool is part of what makes them different from other sheep that you often see on ranges, at least in the northern part of the mountain states that I’m familiar with.

NB: Oh, right. Yeah. And their wool is actually very unique to Navajo type weaving. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to feel blankets from the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and when you go before the 1800a hundreds, those blankets are rare. But like I said, I’ve been very fortunate to actually examine them, feel them. And just knowing that that’s what Churro was: it wasn’t always necessarily coarse, it was very lustrous. It made me realize that it was the best wool suited for the type of weaving that my people were doing.

LTM: So does that connection [still exist] between the wool and the weaving? Do people still raise sheep and wool for weaving, or are they sort of different pursuits?

NB: I think they’re different pursuits now. Obviously, you have weavers who are unable to have sheep, because situations have changed under various circumstances over the years. For example, there are little communities where people live in housing projects, and obviously they’d be unable to have sheep. So weavers in that kind of a situation would buy their yarns from the trading posts. But weavers who remember their grandmothers having sheep, or remember being raised with sheep, they tend to prefer using Navajo-Churro wool. And then the ones that raise commercial sheep, I feel like are in it for the meat, since they’re a lot bigger than Churro.

LTM: So the yarn that the co-op is producing—because your mill is mostly turning it into yarn, is that right?

NB: Yes.

LTM: Is that for members to use, or is that mostly for sale?

NB: It’s mostly for . . . it’s actually all for sale. We do gift little gift boxes back to the members just to keep them updated as to what we’re producing, but as I said earlier, 100% of what we sell goes back into the co-op so we’re able to do everything again the next year.

LTM: So if I wanted to practice weaving blankets or items that involve that sort of tapestry-style wool, I would be able to purchase yarn from the co-op to do that?

NB: Yes. It’s available for everybody to purchase. It was actually quite interesting. The first launch that we did, we shipped yarn to Australia and Scotland, so it actually has gone global.

LTM: And actually, I shouldn’t be coy about it, because I know very well I bought some from that first batch. And one of the exciting things about it is the color range. I happened to get a package that included . . . how many colors were there?

NB: I think that first launch of yarns had seven colors.

LTM: That’s a lot of natural colors.

NB: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s very unique to Navajo-Churro sheep [. . . ] a wide range of colors. And that’s something that I actually had dedicated a lot of my shepherding life to, is studying the genetics of color pattern inheritance within sheep.

LTM: You did an article about that for Spin Off, I believe.

NB: I did, I touched base on it. It’s actually very fun, when you’re setting up your little breeding groups. It’s pretty fun to kind of guess what you’re gonna get, or I guess predict what you’re gonna get. [. . .] So just being able to study the color patterns has given me quote “control” of what I know I’m going to get. And usually I use a lot of natural colors, especially gray. So to have a little “control,” I’m able to achieve the colors that I need for my own weavings. So it’s been fun.

LTM: When you’re doing that with a co-op, is that partly what you’re talking about in terms of sorting, keeping the different colors separate?

NB: This last run that we did, I think we had six. We have white, and then we have tan, which is kind of like an off-white, light gray, dark gray, brown and black. So there’s gonna be six colors in this next run. And, since we expanded to buying more wool from more producers, we’re unable to keep those smaller lots of many more colors. So we kind of consolidated it into that color range.

LTM: So how much has this grown from the first year to . . . . Was last year your first year?

NB: Yes, actually. Last year was the first year. So that first year, I think we did two mill runs, actually. The first one we had seven colors, and these weren’t like huge burlap bagfuls of wool. It was just 55-gallon-size bags full of wool. But we did have an abundance of white, so we were able to play around with that color and actually create like different hues of the natural browns, grays, and blacks. And then the second time around, we had a little bit more, so then we’re like, “okay, let’s add a few more colors,” which was actually just a couple more colors since we only had nine. But this year, we went from 55-gallon bags of colored wool to these huge plastic tubes full of colored wools. So we have expanded, I guess.

LTM: So when you first developed this project, how many shepherds at first did you think you might reach?

NB: When we began, I already had three flocks in mind, and these three, I would say, are three of the largest flocks on the reservation. They’re ancestral flocks, so they’ve been in the family for quite a while. And I thought that we would get enough wool to do what we’re doing, but you always need more. So we expanded to another large flock in the New Mexico area, and another one atop Black Mesa. Not a large flock, but definitely a special flock.

LTM: You talk about members of the co-op, but then you’re also purchasing wool from other shepherds, is that right?

NB: Yes. As a registered co-op, the way we have it structured, the co-op members having the largest flocks, they kind of get more of the benefit, like shearing and skirting on the premises that day or couple days. And the smaller flocks, we would love to include them because they’re actually the source of a lot of colored wool. So, you know, we kind of play within that.

LTM: So what was happening to all this wool before the rainbow fiber co-op?

NB: Well, most of the times it was taken, at least the large flocks would take their wool to the trading posts to sell. And at the trading posts they were just given a hard time for even having Churro. A lot of times they were even talked down to, and it would basically break the hearts of the shepherds because they were told to their face that their wool is trash. And one of our co-op members even said that his wool was kicked away and said that they are losing money, and that they need to crossbreed to finewool rams to get just a few more cents for their wool. So rather than just having it go off of the reservation and sit in a warehouse, we’re kind of keeping it within the Southwest, to where once we have it in finished product, it is then sold from the Southwest, and then money comes back into the Southwest. And then we’re able to repeat this again.

LTM: There’s something wonderful about taking wool that has been so important—I mean, it has “Navajo” in the name “Navajo-Churro”—taking fiber that’s been so important to a group of people that was not getting a lot of value and really showing that it actually does have a lot of value.

NB: Oh, yeah. You know, going back to the story of the shepherd who said his wool was kicked away and that they need to crossbreed to finer rams to get a little bit more money, he was like, “Well, I have been raising my flock since the 1970s. These sheep are special to me. You know, these are the sheep that my grandparents had. Why would I change that for money? You know, why would I?” Especially to a trader who would pay, oh, let’s say 10 cents a pound, but flip it to 60 cents a pound off of the reservation, and then it sits in a warehouse. So just keeping that connection to our ancestors and the sheep that they had, you know, it just remains a special part of the co-op and our mission.

LTM: I do think that many shepherds feel that their particular sheep are special. I’ve talked to Kate Larson about her sheep and what for her makes them special. And she believes that her sheep are the most beautiful anywhere. She understands that other people believe that their sheep are very special too. So, you know, these sheep are connection to within your family. But it sounds like a lot of people have a connection to this particular breed that that goes back a long way.

NB: Oh, yeah. Within our culture, we’re raised with that notion that the sheep have always been here. You know, history tells a different story, but our traditional stories tell another, and how it goes is there was a time where we did have sheep, and we remember those sheep, and we lost them due to whatever circumstances. And that if we continued to say their sacred prayers and chants and basically pray for them again, they would be returned. So it seems that with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, they brought their sheep, it was just kind of like a reintroduction. And if you really look at the Southwestern tribes that were also introduced to sheep at the same time, it was the Navajo or Diné as we call ourselves, who really picked it up and who have continued it to this day. And that’s been 500 years.

LTM: And using that wool has become such an art form as well.

NB: Oh, it has. Like I said, I’ve been very grateful to see pieces from different times throughout the years. And the ones that were made with Churro wool are just [. . .] still nicely intact. And they’re just of a different, and I would even say superior, quality.

LTM: What makes them superior?

NB: You know, there’s just something about it. There’s a lot of character, and I think I might just be a little biased, you know.

LTM: But there’s a theme there as well, that something that is different, and other folks might not value because it doesn’t fit the same mold, can actually be not only as valuable, but more precious because it requires individual attention.

NB: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. So, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but [. . .] especially Navajo-Churro wool produced here in the Southwest had actually played a big part in the global market, since it’s called a carpet wool. It was being bought up by, factories in China. But when a lot of government intervention came in during the Long Walk and stock reductions, and then during the boarding school era . . . . It seems like to control my people, they first had to control the sheep.

LTM: Now, when I hear rainbows, I have a particular idea nowadays, but I believe I read somewhere that the rainbow wool has a particular meaning and that there’s a reason why you chose that to be the name of the co-op.

NB: Yes. Funny story, actually. You know, it is pride month now, and shout out to that. It’s just, in our early days, we were asked if this was an exclusive LGBTQ+ plus co-op, and we’re like, no, it’s not. We’re just actually paying homage to the rainbow deities within our culture. The story goes that the deities—we don’t just have one, we have many that represent every element within the universe. Actually, they all came together and they were creating the first sheep, and as they were creating the first sheep, they were also creating colored sheep. So they were using different colors of clouds to create the body and the wool of the sheep. So they took white day clouds and made the white sheep, and they took black night clouds to make black sheep. They took storm clouds to make gray sheep, and they took . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that yellow cloud, like early in the morning, the sun’s coming up, the clouds turn yellow, or they reflect yellow, I should say.
They took that cloud and made a tan sheep, and it was actually the rainbow deities, who are a beautiful spirit who said (and I’m just kind of going off here, but in a sense) we are the beautiful spirits here, so we’re gonna create the most beautiful sheep. So when the sun goes down at dusk, oftentimes the clouds reflect an orange, so they used that cloud to create brown sheep, and they said that it would also stand as a test to human beings: if they decide to stay reverent and humble about the blessings of the sheep, oftentimes they will be blessed with a brown sheep in their flock. And it is so amazing that my ancestors created that story. I’m getting emotional, because after studying color pattern genetics and inheritance, brown is very, very, very recessive. It’s just like they’re in a roundabout way saying that brown is a recessive and beautiful and sought-after color. So as a testament to the rainbow spirits and their blessing of the brown sheep, we decided to call the co-op Rainbow Fiber Co-op, and also homage to the various colors of sheep that are raised here.

LTM: I love that. I love the way that natural color is so essential to the whole project.

NB: Oh, yeah. You know, growing up and actually seeing other families that had sheep, but it was kind of on the commercial side, black sheep and even some of like the tan and the . . . Well, I never saw brown, but the ones that were obviously colored, those were the first ones used for food. Nobody at the time was buying colored wools.

LTM: Which is a shame because you have such cute spotty sheep. You have many different beautiful colors of sheep, but I just saw one that’s so cute with her cute little spotty face.
NB: Oh yeah. That must have been in my Instagram stories. Her name is Carmelita, and she is a cute, very spotted ewe. She actually was a surprise lamb. I say surprise—I knew she was coming, but I had bred her mom, who was a brown pattern ewe to a solid black ram, and out comes this cute spotted-pattern sheep, which was Carmelita.
But you know, you can tell (especially here on the reservation) the weavers, because if you look at their flocks, they have colored sheep.

LTM: Sure. I mean, if you can get color by breeding it as opposed to putting it in the dye pot, that’s a resource that you don’t have to stand over the stove to get.

NB: Yeah. And actually, that’s kind of a funny story as to why I started breeding for colors, because even though I was exposed to Churro sheep growing up, it was always, even then, kind of a commercial mindset to just maintain a flock of white, so you can always dye the wool. I had always been attracted to the colored sheep, but I did have a lot of white, so I tried dyeing wool on my own, or yarn on my own. You know, some mordants you have to boil before you use them. And I boiled some in the house, and it just made me very nauseous and sick and, well, I literally poisoned myself. So, you know, I never wanted to do that again, so I was like, okay, there must be an easier way to get a very nice gray or a very nice brown, you know.

LTM: So for the first year you worked on this, you worked with Kelli who has Navajo-Churro sheep, but she doesn’t actually live on the reservation, is that right?

NB: Uh, no. She actually lives in the North Bay in California, so over 15 hours of driving.

LTM: Oh my goodness. What made you guys decide to work together on this project?

NB: She is in every essence of the word my sister. When we first met, we just bonded. We just became instant friends and we were talking every day. And the day that I thought about Rainbow Fiber, or at least doing something for the shepherds and the sheep, she was the first person I told, and she was like, “Let’s do it.” You know, there was no hesitation. She’s just like, “All right, whatever you need, let’s do it.” And she has brought a lot of her experience to the table, and I just appreciate that, because I don’t know where I would be if she didn’t.

LTM: But now that the project has gotten started, it sounds like you’re gathering other folks in to help you, that there are other folks who also want to come and be part of this.

NB: Oh, yes. We are expanding. We legally have to have a board of directors, and the way we drew out our format is that our board of directors are going to be of Navajo descent, so by the end of this year we are committing ourselves to becoming fully Navajo-led.

LTM: But then there’s also . . . Do you guys have some sort of a partnership with Fibershed as well?

NB: Yes, they have been very essential in what we’re doing. They are actually our fiscal sponsor as well. So they do for a lot for us.

LTM: It seems like this would be right up their alley. It might be hard to do everything within 50 miles because the reservation is so big, but the idea of getting everything from local, whatever local means.

NB: Oh, yeah. It’s an interesting story because they had just done a similar project in California, but with I believe finewool sheep. So, you know, they brought in their experience from that and helped plug it into what we’re striving to accomplish, and it’s working out great.

LTM: How many times a year are you seeing a lot of these shepherds now? Because if you’re going out early in the year, to sort of make contact and then seeing them begin for shearing, does this become a year-round occupation for you?

NB: I think it will be. We’re always texting each other anyway, because it also had built friendships. A lot of the shepherds I have already known throughout my years raising sheep. But for Kelly or someone who did not have that network already, these strong friendships are building and it’s becoming, you know, it’s just really amazing to see where it’s going actually.

LTM: And I know that each of these flocks is special both to the pool and to the shepherds. But are there any that you were particularly excited to work with, you know, big or small?

NB: Yes, actually there is one flock, atop Black Mesa. It’s kind of in the heart of the Navajo reservation, and it also is kind of the heart of the Hopi reservation. And for those of you who do not know this, the Hopi reservation sits pretty much in the center of the Navajo reservation. So it’s surrounded by the Navajo reservation. And due to conflicts back in the 1970s, things were divided between the two tribes, and one reservation expanded while the other ones who, as they would say themselves, were told that were in the way of that expansion, were relocated to a different part of the reservation. But there are some who are known as resistors that live in what is called the Hopi partition lands. And this means that they essentially live on the Hopi reservation now, but when their homes were built and where they were born, it was formally the Navajo reservation.
So there was one flock that sits below Big Mountain that I was just so excited to work with. And this is 80 year old granny who is herding her own sheep, who has resisted relocation. Because when you agree to be relocated, at least at that time, you forfeit your grazing permit. When you forfeit that, you’re unable to have sheep anymore, and plus you’re moved away from home. So she’s resisted, and you know, I’ve known her basically throughout my life, since I started so young, and I’ve always known that the quality of her wool and the quality of her sheep are just outstanding. So when we were able to go and shear for her and buy her wool, I just felt just like, this is Rainbow Fiber, and this is what we’re doing and want do.

LTM: It sounds almost like a special island of sheep, except that it’s an island in land. But still in this one special place, there’s a flock that’s been there.

NB: Oh yeah. And, it’s an ancestral flock. So she resisted everything just to keep her sheep and of course the homestead. And that is just, to me, just amazing.

LTM: So you’ve put all this effort into getting these thousands of pounds of wool to the mill, you get a little bit of a breather while the mill works on it. Maybe just a couple days, but what happens next?

NB: We basically plan out the next year, and that’s gonna start by going out and visiting more people, because this time around we weren’t able to buy from everybody, because we’re not in contact with everybody. But by word of mouth, like, “Hey, the, this group is buying wool.” You know? So now we have people reaching out to us like, “Hey, we have Churro.” You know, so our list is gonna get a little longer.

LTM: But you’re glossing over what for some of us is the most exciting part, just the most selfishly exciting part, which is: when does it come back from the mill?

NB: Well, wow. Not to put any pressure on the mill, Winterstrom, but we’re looking at a November turnaround date. So I believe November 1st is the date that we were given.

LTM: But I don’t necessarily have to wait till November 1st to buy some yarn, do I?

NB: No. Actually, on our website right now, we have natural-colored yarns available in two different weights: in a blanket weight (which, you know, here in the Southwest, we classify weights a little differently than the rest of the world). So blanket weight is kind of like between a sport and a worsted weight, if that makes sense. And then we have a rug weight, which is more of like a bulky yarn, maybe between a worsted and bulky.
LTM: So that’s available in the shop now? Because I know that it did go pretty quickly when it was first available.
NB: Yeah, yeah. The day that we launched it, there were a lot of orders that came in, but I know that there are still some available. I think certain colors are going faster this time. Like the natural blacks and the very dark browns are just flying right out the door, which is amazing. Last time that we did this, it was the dyed yarn that sold out right away.

LTM: And you have folks who are small-batch dyeing. I say small batch—it looked like it involved a great big cauldron, but that’s still a considered a small batch because you put skeins in it by the singles and by the dozens and not by the hundreds.

NB: Yeah. I believe during our last dye event, we did dye about a couple hundred pounds, but we did do them in smaller batches that our pots would allow. But we we’re able, though, to keep kind of a consistency within the different dye lots. And, me not really being a dyer, I found that to be very fun. I learned a lot.

LTM: Now, are you doing both synthetic and natural dyes?

NB: Yes.

LTM: That’s pretty special as well. So you could actually have natural dyes and naturally colored wool, which is a very special way to make a woven project.

NB: Oh, yeah. Actually, this fall we want to do a natural dyeing session with natural dyes exclusive to our area. So that will include things like cliff rose, what we call wild carrot rabbit brush sage, as opposed to (I mean, of course we’re gonna have it again) like indigo and cochineal, which you can easily order online. These dyes that we’re planning on doing will actually be grown here for the sheep grays.

LTM: It reminds me of those small tapestries I’ve seen by Mabel Burnside-Myers, or that she put together. Have you seen those? The very small tapestries that include little pieces of dyestuff, and they’re really special, very small. They have a little bit of plant and a little bit of yarn.

NB: Yeah, I have seen those. I actually grew up seeing them because I live near Hubbell Trading Posts, and they were always in stock with those. Even the local hospital here had one. Now I think they come in an 8 x 11 inch kind of frame. This one was like three feet by two and a half feet. And it was huge. And it had like a little woven piece in the center, and then just like little offshoots of yarn that went to their respective dye plant.

LTM: I think the first time I saw them, I didn’t quite realize how special they were, and that somebody had put them all together, and that there was a person in a family who started by just making these little tiny works of art that were also little natural history displays.

NB: Yeah. They’re wonderful pieces of art as well as just a nice way to preserve what our ancestors used back in the day, before synthetic dyes became available, or even before they had to unwrap cloth to get red yarn, or even unravel weavings made with Germantown yarn.

LTM: Oh wow.

NB: We will have more dyed yarn available, and this time we’re going do it a little differently. Last year we let the board members choose their favorite colors from the synthetic dyes. We had a really nice orange, which I chose. We had a very electric green that another board member chose, and we used a different mordant with cochineal to create a very vibrant red, which another board member chose. This year we’re actually thinking of doing dye sets that pay homage to the regional-type weavings. So for instance, a Ganado red rug being a regional style, it’s very exclusive to the Ganado area. It has a red background with a black and white border with just different shades of gray creating the designs on the inside. And usually it’s just an elongated diamond. So we’re thinking of creating sets, to where it pays homage to those regional type weavings and colors.

LTM: That’s really cool. So that people can make the connection between the fiber and the woven art tradition.

NB: Mm-hmm. And we will have indigo and we will have cochineal again.

LTM: Those are classics for a reason.

NB: Oh yeah. I was teasing, the board, I said if it was up to me, I would die all the excess white yarn with madder root. Because I just love madder. It’s a really pretty color, especially when you start mixing up the mordant.

LTM: That kind of red-orange color.

NB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LTM: That’s so beautiful.
So I guess there’s just one last thing I wanted to ask you about. I’ve heard about a celebration that actually just took place in the reservation called Sheep Is Life. And not only is it a celebration, but I’ve heard it before as a phrase. Can you tell me what that means?

NB: Sure. So in Navajo we say Dibé be’iiná, which basically means “sheep is life.” And we say this because we also have another saying, which I was raised with, that if you always take care of the sheep, they’re always going to take care of you. And that relationship with the sheep becomes a lifeway. You know, whether you live a pastoral type shepherding life to where you move with your animals, or if you’re kind of like a homesteader with a farm situation. Either way, they do provide us with sustenance, whether it’s food or harvesting their wool and using it so much so that it has become our lifeway. Back in the times of my ancestors, it was their life, because nothing was not planned around the sheep.

LTM: I just love that with Rainbow Fiber Co-op, you have found a contemporary way of taking care of the sheep and the shepherds.

NB: Oh, yes. And the day that I was thinking about all this, that phrase that my grandmother told me so long ago was going through my head the entire time.

LTM: Well, Nikyle, thank you so much for talking to me about your project. I can’t wait to see what goes up in the store, and also just to see what you folks get up to in the upcoming years.

NB: Yeah! And thank you—Long Thread Media have been a great friend to the Co-op.

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Rainbow Fiber Co-op
Sheep Is Life
Rainbow Fiber Co-op Instagram
"Navajo-Churro Sheep and Shepherds: Meet the Rainbow Fiber Co-Op" by Nikyle Begay, Spin Off magazine website
"The Diné, Their Sheep, and a Tale of Survival," Handwoven magazine website