TSAILE, AZ - Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Sheep
is Life Conference. Or, if you prefer, the 20th time the conference
was held on Navajo soil. Or, if you count the first unofficial conferences
at Utah State University, before the sponsoring organization, Dibé
be'iina, was incorporated, this was the 31st one.
But its roots go much deeper than that.
Tyrrell Tapaha spends his afternoon demonstrating how to weave
at the 25th annual Sheep is Life conference in Tsaile, Ariz.,
on Friday. Navajo Times | Ravonelle Yazzie
You could think of it as going back to 1977, when Utah State
University agriculture professor Lyle McNeal established the Navajo
Sheep Project after the great Annie Wauneka complained to him that
the churro breed was on the verge of extinction and she needed some
help to preserve it.
You could think of it as originating even before that, when
McNeal was a boy listening to his grandfather, who was a part of
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, lamenting the near-extinction
of the buffalo.
That, McNeal told the audience at the conference's closing dinner
Saturday, was what set him on the path to preserving heritage breeds
"It's not only the churro," he told the audience of about 80.
"It's breeds of pigs, cattle, chickens, rabbits, horses. They are
the heritage of all of us, and they're all mistreated and misvalued."
But last week was all about the churro sheep: butchering it
the proper spiritual way; cooking the meat; carding, spinning and
dyeing the wool; weaving and felting.
According to conference coordinator Aretta Begay, the silver
anniversary conference drew more than 600 people from all over the
Four Corners and beyond the farthest-flung participant, she
said, came across the sea from Wales.
"I would say we had double the attendance of last year," Begay
"It's a lot of fun to teach people who are interested," said
Dibé be'iina President Ron Garnanez, "and that's who shows
up. Most of them are people who already have sheep, but always want
to learn more."
While Garnanez appreciates the bilagáana ranchers and
hobbyists who are helping keep the churro breed alive, he was especially
grateful this year for the presence of a record number of Navajo
"They came to my butchering class," he said. "It was so emotional
to see them there, so innocent-looking."
For the first time, the youth, most of them apprentices of the
iconic Roy Kady, took a leading role in organizing the conference.
They taught workshops and even served the excellent Native foods
dinner cooked by Navajo/Hopi Chef Terri Ami (keynoted, of course,
by tender slabs of churro lamb).
Any way you do the math, Dibé be'iina has been around
for a generation. And the leaders are getting tired. Kady, who has
been with the organization for 18 years, announced his resignation
from the board, even as he accepted its Fiber Artist of the Year
"All of us are getting older," observed board member Cindy Dvergsten.
A glance around the group confirmed that; there was more grey wool
than was being spun at the fiber arts classes. Dvergsten confided
that she intended to use the conference's closing event, a pancake
breakfast on Sunday, to lobby the young members to seek a seat on
Garnanez, himself a sprightly hexagenarian, is confident they'll
"The way I see this group, the young people and the elders just
appreciate each other so much," he said. "We never fight. And you
know Navajos, we can fight."
Garnanez attributes the group's calm demeanor to weaving.
"Weaving is our Prozac," he said. "It just unwinds you."
As for the next 25 years, we'll see what the great Shepherd
in the sky has in store there's talk of a woolen mill in
Bayfield, Colo. specifically geared to the coarse churro wool. But
at least the next four years are assured.
"Last year, we signed a five-year contract with Diné
College," Begay said. "For the next four years, Sheep is Life will
be the third weekend in June at Diné College. It's been a
wonderful collaboration between the Dibé be'iina board, the
college administration and the college's Land Grant Office. This
brings some stability to the event we haven't had in the past."
Dibé be'iina is an all-volunteer organization, and it
basically takes all year to plan the next conference, so if sheep
are your life, don't be baa-shful about volunteering.
be iiná, Inc. - The Navajo Lifeway
Diné be iiná, Inc. is a grassroots, nonprofit
organization founded in 1991. Diné be iiná,
means the way that we, the people live. We promote a sustainable
livelihood through the Navajo Way of Life. Traditionally, this has
been sheep, wool, and weaving and whatever comes from that.