The Navajo as Pastoralists

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 423-451.

The Navajo, almost alone among American Indians of the West, were primarily a pastoral people—shepherds, shearers, eaters of mutton, drinkers of goat’s milk, master spinners of wool. Navajos followed the slow and watchful life known among anthropologists as transhumance, a methodical seminomadism built around the seasonal moving of flocks to higher and lower ground in search of grass. This way of life was, in fact, an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world but nearly unheard of in North America. As pastoralists, the Navajo lifestyle was in some sense more akin to that of ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Arabs than to contemporary tribes of Native Americans.

The famous loomed wool blankets of the Navajos were among the finest in the world, patterned in bold, crisp geometric designs of red and black, and so tightly woven, it was often said, that they could hold water. (On the Santa Fe Trail, one Navajo blanket was worth ten buffalo robes.)

For the Navajos, everything revolved around the sheep. They talked directly to their flocks, gave them pollen to eat, and sang quaint songs to them on cold winter nights to protect them from freezing. “The sheep is your mother,” the Navajos told their children, “the sheep is life.” Most of their implements and artifacts were made from the hides, bones, and sinews of sheep and goats. Navajos slept on sheepskins. They made their carrying sacks from wool blankets sewn together with soapweed stalks. They ate every part of the animal—lung and liver, head and heart—even the blood, which they boiled and mixed with corn mush to make a thin, pinkish gruel. A special Navajo delicacy was sheep intestines tightly wound around a string of fat and roasted directly on the coals.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the Navajos found that the tough and surefooted churro sheep which the conquistadors brought with them was perfectly suited to their harsh rock world. Originally adapted for the spare environment of upland Iberia, the spindly-legged churro could eat nearly anything and travel long distances and climb steep cliffs. The churro’s wool was tight and coarse, and because it contained little natural oil—other breeds of sheep grew hair often greasy with lanolin—it could be spun without needing washing.

The horse, which also came with the arrival of the Spanish, profoundly changed Navajo life as well. Perhaps most significantly, horses gave the Navajos the speed and mobility to become sheep robbers on a large scale, thinning the flocks of the long and vulnerable Rio Grande Valley with impunity. The horse thus accelerated their pastoral culture. Less than a century after the arrival of the Spanish, the sheep had become the Navajo currency, their mark of status, their food and clothing and livelihood, and the centerpiece of their bedouin life—a form of movable wealth.

But the Navajos were far more than raiders of flocks; they also grew crops, tended orchards, carried on a vigorous trade, staged elaborate rituals, and composed epic stories and songs of a fastidious tonal complexity. The Navajos had a hand in everything, it seemed. They were horse people, cattle people, farmers, hunters, gatherers, weavers. They even occasionally ventured out onto the prairie to hunt bison, like the Plains Indians. They were clear-eyed pragmatists and far-out mystics. They were not sedentary, like the Pueblos, but neither were they strictly nomadic, like the Utes. They were the great in-betweeners, hard to pin down, semiwanderers rooted to their land but moving widely over it from season to season to make the best use of a stark desert topography.

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Filed under economics, food, migration, North America

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