Daily Archives: 4 October 2020

Navajo Legacy of the Livestock Reduction Act

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. ~1130:

It was odd that in Depression times, the mutton of the slaughtered animals was not preserved as food. Nor were the wool and leather utilized. A small portion of the meat was canned for later use, although the meat from Grandma’s herd and neighboring herds was simply destroyed. Three or four years later, some canned mutton was distributed to chapter houses on the Checkerboard and the reservation.

Some Navajo families were paid a pittance for their destroyed livestock, less than three dollars per head of sheep, when the market value vacillated between eight dollars and fourteen dollars per head. Other families were never paid. I am not sure whether my family received any money for their dead animals.

There are historians who suggest that the government’s stock reduction program was aimed at making the Navajos less independent and more dependent upon the “generosity” of the government in Washington, D.C. I don’t know about that, but I do know that for us Navajos, the government’s “livestock reduction” program ended in failure.

Historians name John Collier, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, as the instigator of the massacre. But I remember another man, E. Reeseman Fryer, who, during the New Deal, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the superintendant of the Navajo Reservation under John Collier. He served from 1936 until 1942, and was personally responsible for implementing much of the livestock reduction program. This man was especially resented. He was a white man, enjoying a position of power over the Navajo tribe.

The popular belief was that what Fryer fried was the Navajos.

The extermination went on for some six years, with different sections of Navajo land targeted at different intervals. By the time it stopped, the rain had stopped as well, and the grass continued to dry up.

The effect on the Navajo sense of community was devastating. In the time before the massacre, friends and neighbors helped one another. When someone fell sick, neighbors pitched in to care for their animals. Medicine men and women were summoned to cure both people and animals. Neighbors and family assisted by gathering together at night and praying for the sick to recover.

The livestock reduction challenged this sense of community by pitting Navajo against Navajo. Those who kept livestock resented the Navajo exterminators who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neighbors put up fences to enclose their pastures, saving them for the sheep that they had left. The year-round migration from one community grazing area to another that had always been the norm as I grew up became impossible. As a result, ties between neighbors weakened.

The toll in self-respect was also huge. Families, unable to protect their own livestock, felt powerless. And nothing could have done more to erode the local work ethic. What was the point of working hard to build up wealth, a sizable herd, when the government just stepped in and destroyed it?

The massacre killed more than livestock. It changed the dynamic between neighbors; it changed the meaning of hard work; it changed everything.

After the Long Walk, the livestock massacre is considered the second great tragedy in Navajo history. A story now woven into oral tradition, the extermination is discussed wherever Navajos meet, so that like the Long Walk, it will never fade from memory.

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