On a crisp July morning a few weeks ago, I sat amongst the red rocks in my backyard, watching the sun rise and the sheep graze as smoke from a local wildfire began to settle in the valley. I listened to the soft mutters that the sheep made as they ate, and my eyes began to swell with tears as I reflected on the tough year that we had in 2020. COVID-19 swept the globe and at one point the Navajo Nation led in cases per capita in the U.S.—many Diné lost their lives and many Diné flocks lost their shepherds.
The smoke, now thick in the air, was a stark reminder that the Southwest is still in a devastating drought. A curious lamb comes my way, she sniffs my face and hair before sneezing all over me, it was then my sadness turned into laughter as I wiped tear-ladened lamb snot away from my face.
The latest wave of the pandemic has brought painful memories back to the surface. I remember last year and feeling helpless as COVID-19 worked its way into Indigenous communities across the U.S. I was astonished that amidst the pandemic, many people around the world rallied together on social media and other platforms to organize relief efforts for Indigenous tribes. Those efforts orchestrated food boxes, household cleaning supplies, pet food, and PPE for those at most risk of contracting the virus.
While the Navajo Nation was being ravaged with cases of COVID-19, a group of influential fiber artists reached out to me via Instagram. Our conversation turned to ways we could help Diné shepherds and their sheep. The group was shocked to learn that for nearly a century, Navajo-Churro wool—the once preferred wool used exclusively in the most well-made Diné blankets and rugs—has been deemed inferior and that it currently has no place in the national or global market. Last year, a handful of Diné shepherds felt lucky to be paid 1 to 5 cents per pound for their Navajo-Churro wool; others weren’t as fortunate. “Our Navajo-Churro wool was kicked away,” said one Navajo shepherd (who wishes to remain anonymous) as tears fell down his cheeks. “The traders tell us our wool is worthless and that we need to start crossing our sheep with fine wool rams.”
Stories like this and frustration over offensive prices for Navajo-Churro wool are common amongst Diné shepherds, especially those that are continuing the work of their parents and grandparents. Their dedication fuels their determination to resist the outside pressure to switch breeds, always to commercial breeds that are not cut out for the extreme conditions of the Southwest. “Navajo-Churro sheep are a legacy passed down from generation to generation. They are my grandparents and where their heart always was. They are my parents and where home will always be. The sheep will always take care of us, so I have to take care of them,” says Kelly Skacy, a lifelong Navajo-Churro shepherd who has dedicated herself to motherhood, shepherding, and being a steward of the land.
As a child, my grandmother would tell me, “Always care for the sheep and in return they’ll care for you.” Growing up and raising my own flock of Navajo-Churro, I’ve come to understand what she meant. Shepherding in my culture is more than turning out the flock, feeding hay, and providing fresh drinking water. It is a never-ending lesson on responsibility, durability, and maintaining a strong will.
With the events of the past year, I began to take these teachings to heart in a new way. I felt moved to do something, not just to support my own flock, but to do something on behalf of my fellow Diné shepherds. I joined forces with a friend and Navajo-Churro shepherd in California named Kelli Dunaj. We feel a kinship in our reverence for the pastoral lifeway and are both enthralled by the enduring significance of Diné sheep culture over nearly five centuries. Kelli and I worked diligently on a plan to improve the financial sustainability of some of the largest remaining flocks of Navajo-Churro sheep on ancestral Diné land. From this, Rainbow Fiber Co-Op was formed.
Partnering with Fibershed, a nonprofit organization that develops regional, land-regenerating natural fiber and dye systems, Rainbow Fiber Co-Op has blossomed into a new and exciting wool cooperative. We are a Diné-led co-op that aims to create more equitable market outcomes for our flocks by starting up an e-commerce marketplace for Diné-grown Navajo-Churro weaving yarns. So far, the co-op has raised enough money through grants and private donations to pay a stipend to our shepherds for their shearing, a fair price per pound for their raw wool, a deposit on mill processing fees, the cost of creating an e-commerce website, and legal and administrative fees for the formation of a registered agricultural cooperative.
The goal of the project is not to profit, but to make enough money from the sale of Navajo-Churro yarns grown by Diné producers to fund the wool buy and yarn production again the following year. A onetime investment in establishing an online marketing channel will create a reliable and self-sustaining cycle of economic benefit for the shepherds and their flocks. Rainbow Fiber Co-Op believes that the shepherds’ hard work to preserve their culture and traditions through Navajo-Churro sheep has enormous value and deserves fair monetary compensation. It is our goal to provide these shepherds and their wool the same opportunity that other shepherds in the U.S. create for themselves through online marketplaces. The income generated will go right back into caring for these critically important flocks of Navajo-Churro sheep.
Why the Rainbow in Rainbow Fiber Co-Op?
In Diné culture, a rainbow is the connection between the earth and sky. It signifies protection and brings blessings to the land. In our traditional story of creation, it is told that the deities came together to create every living being on earth—including sheep. The sheep were created using different colors of clouds. White clouds, gathered in the daylight, were molded into white sheep. Black, nighttime clouds were gathered and then molded into black sheep. Dark, steel-colored storm clouds were used to create gray or “blue” sheep. Clouds that appeared yellow in the twilight were gathered to form tan-colored sheep. The Rainbow beings gave a part of their beauty to form their own sheep. They used the orange and red clouds, often seen at dusk, to form the first brown sheep. They told the other deities that the brown sheep will be a rare “blessing” to test the humility of humankind.
The first sheep were then assembled with wild tobacco for their ears, precious stones as their eyes, a willow branch broken into four sticks became their legs. The deities then recited sacred prayers and songs as the Wind beings swept through and blew first breath into them. The deities, satisfied with their creation, sent them to earth upon a rainbow trail and we have been shepherds ever since. Calling ourselves Rainbow Fiber, we are paying homage to our traditional story of the creation of sheep and call upon the rainbow spirits for guidance, protection, and continued blessings for Diné shepherds, their sheep, and their wool.
For more about the Rainbow Fiber Co-Op please visit rainbowfibercoop.org. You can also follow our journey on Instagram @rainbowfibercoop. We are currently fundraising to cover our first-year expenses. You can donate to support the project through the DONATE page on our website. All donations are 100% tax-deductible through our fiscal sponsor, fibershed.org.
Axééhéé’! Thank you! —Nikyle Begay
Editor’s note: Diné is the traditional name for the tribe commonly known as the Navajo.