moving across the landscape

Pinabete Arroyo, Wild Ram Spring, & Cottonwood Wash

Pastoralism and Sheep


Family butchering sheep, mid 1950's.


Butchering rack on site NM-H-28-099. Note bone scattered beneath.

According to oral history, the Holy People created horse and sheep for Din4 to use. Horse was to carry the burden and make travel easier; and sheep was created to use as food and to make clothing. Sheep and horses also were catalysts for change in the Navajo world. The colonial Spanish introduced livestock to the Southwest; and later – the Mexicans, and much later – the New Mexicans territorial citizens also spurred growth in that industry. Goats were important for meat and the production of mohair for weaving and sale. Later, as early as the 1600s, some Navajo also raised cattle, horses, burros, and mules. Most of the cattle were nearly wild and ranged far. Cattle were kept only by the wealthy families and were a symbol of status. Burros and mules were used for food and to pull wagons. The Navajo took to raising livestock, especially sheep and horses, with great pride.


Small bands of Navajo sheep rapidly increased in size and soon Navajos had large flocks. Self-sufficiency was taught to children through the care of livestock because it provided for many aspects of life. Young children herded the sheep, and young girls were taught the skills of shearing, carding, spinning, and weaving. Women wove clothing and blankets that were utilitarian, initially; but later, weaving became important in the trading post economy. Shearing season is an important time. The wool was used for weaving or sold at the trading post. In the fall, lambs, old ewes, and rams were culled from locks and sold. Until recently, Navajo people traded sheep to the Pubeloan people for goods like agricultural produce and turquoise jewelry. Sheep was a form of currency and many types of goods were traded for livestock. Medicine men were often paid in sheep for their healing services. “Sheep is life” was the new reality among the Navajo.

Sheep was used as a healing animal. When one was sick, depressed, lonely, or upset, one form of healing was to spend time with the sheep in the pasture. Songs, prayers, and offerings were prepared for the sheep. That is why they are considered sacred animals from the Holy People. Ach’3, a term used for meat hunger, is cured by eating freshly butchered sheep. They say ach’3 can be life threatening, but sheep heal even that illness.


The horse was created before the sheep. In the house of J7 Ho- naa’47 (Sun Bearer), his child created the first horses for his father. The first horses were used by J7 Honaa’47 to carry the turquoise sun disk across the sky to light up our world. J7 Honaa’47 gave horses to Asdz33 N1dleeh4 as gifts of his affections. Thus, the horse came to be earthbound. The horse is material wealth to Navajo people.

According to one storyteller, early Din4 abused how we use the sacred horse and thus the horse was taken away from the people before they were returned to Asdz33 N1dleeh4. Additionally, the animals were procured through raiding Spanish Rancherias of the “new others” up and down the Rio Grande corridor. The horse allowed a higher degree of mobility for raiding and warfare. In Navajo Blessing Way, the horses songs tell of a partnership with the horse to obtain a good life and wealth. Navajo law stressed that horses could never be traded to enemy people, or in general, to anyone who was not Navajo. The appeal of competition and gaming made horse racing attractive to the Navajo. This gave rise to a thriving bush track system, loosely organized racing events throughout the region. Often, word-of-mouth was all that was necessary to gather dozens of people with their horses at a backyard race on a weekend. This was a place for racing, socializing, horse exchanges, card gambling, and betting on favorite horses on the side.


Sheep and goats in stone corral.


Navajo horseman aboard his race horse.