Daily Archives: 1 October 2020

A Navajo Shepherd’s Day, 1920s

From Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez (Dutton Caliber, 2011), Kindle Loc. ~437:

After breakfast, we all helped Auntie pack bedrolls, the remaining food, and the heavy water bag onto the big brown “sheep horse.” This horse lived on the range with the sheep and carried the items necessary for us Diné to survive.

Snow, a white eighty-pound dog, stood alert at one side of the herd. Five other dogs took up their posts around the fringes. Then my two aunties, my uncle, my two brothers, and I moved out with the animals. We walked through deep grass, never worrying about our flocks having enough to eat. Other Navajo families shared the range, with no fences to keep anyone out.

After grazing in one place for two or three days, Grandma’s herd moved on to new grass. I knew that the constant movement was good for the safety of the livestock. Predators did not gather in any one area, knowing where to find the animals.

We followed the sheep. The day grew warm and quiet. A straggler headed toward a clump of juniper. I glanced at Old Auntie. She nodded, then watched me throw a small rock out beyond the lamb, turning her back in toward the rest of the herd.

A gray shadow flashed off to my right. Coyote? The hated animals often lurked among the thick piñon and sagebrush. I stood absolutely still and waited, then carefully bent down and picked a stone, fitting it into the rubber of my inner-tube slingshot. Young Auntie held a coffee can filled with rocks at the ready. The noise of the rocks, when the can was shaken, would scare a coyote. But I heard and saw nothing.

Just as I turned back to the herd, the sharp cry of a kid rang out. A coyote had grabbed the baby goat by the leg, pulling it into a clump of sagebrush. My heart beat fast as I aimed the slingshot, heard it thud, then charged toward the fracas. Young Auntie shook the coffee can, creating a racket. Old Auntie yelled and plunged from across the herd. Three dogs raced over, barking and growling. The coyote dropped its prey, running with its tail between its legs.

The mother goat and I reached the kid before Auntie did. It cried piteously. Four punctures marked its leg. Blood flowed freely.

“Good,” said Auntie, when she arrived. “The blood will clean the wound.” She examined the leg. “It’s not bad. He can walk.”

I stayed close to the kid and his mother as we continued our trek. Coyotes posed a serious threat to the lambs and kids, and sometimes even to the older animals. And any animal lost to a coyote was a double loss. Not only was the wool (or in the case of a goat, the milk) gone, but the meat as well. Even if our dogs recovered the carcass, no self-respecting Navajo ate meat killed by the devil coyote. Everyone knew evil people came back as coyotes after they died.

The scared little goat kept up with the herd. As the few scattered remnants of rain clouds evaporated, a turquoise-blue sky arched over us. The temperature in the early part of the “moon of large plants”—the white man’s month of May—rose to the midseventies. Life was good.

Some days we covered between fifteen and twenty miles on foot. That day we walked eleven miles or so, stopping to build camp on a slight rise in the shade of a piñon grove. Snow, the big sheepdog, selected the rise that day. He, like his six humans, preferred to watch the sheep from above, keeping an eye out for danger and stragglers.

I scratched behind the big dog’s ears. “Good boy.”

Snow, like all of the dogs, herded by instinct. Every morning he approached the sheep, eager to be moving. On the days when we stayed put, Snow climbed a rise and watched, ever alert.

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