Growing up in the Navajo Nation, Cynthia Wilson learned the art of rug-weaving from her mother, which she in turn learned from her own mother beneath the towering buttes of Monument Valley — “Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii” in Navajo. Rug-weaving is rooted in Navajo creation narratives, from using the loom to hand-spinning the wool of Navajo-Churro sheep into yarn.
“Rug-weaving helps you be patient, because it gives you a vision ahead of time,” Wilson recalled. “For my mom, to continue that teaching is really important — it's something that we don't ever want to forget.”
Wilson is combining that passion for preserving Diné culture with a focus on nutrition, pioneering a traditional foods program after joining the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah in 2016.
After the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the Navajo Nation, Wilson and UDB quickly introduced the Seeds and Sheep Program, which provides drought-resistant seeds and Navajo-Churro sheep to families to promote traditional foodways.
“This program will help restore our self-sufficient food systems and economy and rebuild our relationships with the earth for overall health and wellness,” said Wilson.
Since the start of the pandemic, the members of Utah’s five major Native American tribes have been among the hardest-hit communities in the country—in May and early June, the Navajo Nation had a higher COVID-19 infection rate than New York City.
Additionally, approximately 40% of the Indigenous population in San Juan County has no running water or electricity, according to Wilson, making it more difficult to shelter in place. The United States Department of Agriculture has also classified the Navajo Nation as a food desert, with 44% of inhabitants living below the poverty line.
Wilson and her team sourced seeds from local Native American farmers, known within the community as seed keepers, and distributed 1,500 packets of drought-resistant melon, corn and squash seeds by mail to 100 families.
In addition to providing aid for residents of the Navajo Nation affected by COVID-19, the Seeds and Sheep Program seeks to reclaim cultural livestock traditions destroyed during the colonization of Native American land.
Originally introduced by Spanish conquistadors, sheep became central to spiritual life, art and the economy for the Navajo, Hopi and other Native American tribes in the Southwest.
“A lot of knowledge comes with raising sheep as far as how they graze, what medicines they need, and how to tend to their overall health — we have a relationship with the four-legged beings,” Wilson explained.
In the 1930s, the United States began Navajo Livestock Reduction, which enforced a ratio of six sheep per every acre of land. As a result of this federal policy, the government killed over 250,000 sheep — causing starvation in many Indigenous communities, as well as the near extinction of the sheep and further cultural erasure for the Southwestern tribes.
In July, UDB focused the program’s efforts on helping replenish the region’s traditional flocks of Navajo-Churro sheep.
“Our people miss their relationship with the Navajo-Churro sheep,” said Wilson. “There's been a disconnect —Western society has impacted our cultural lifestyles through the work economy, as opposed to our self-sufficient lifestyles, which includes maintaining our flocks of sheep and connecting to their teachings.”
The animals’ cultural importance made an impression on Wulf Barsch, who has been farming in Utah for over 40 years.
“When I heard about how important [Navajo-Churro sheep] are to tribes here in the Southwest, I started raising them.” Barsch recalled.
Driving a borrowed pickup truck one morning in July, Barsch loaded 21 sheep into a trailer and began the 240-mile drive from Boulder, Utah, to Wilson’s family corral in Monument Valley. Each local family in the program was able to select one ram and one ewe donated by Barsch to start their own flocks.
“We really wanted families who are passionate about raising a herd over the long term,” Wilson explained. “We assessed which families are able to provide for the sheep and have the knowledge to care for this particular breed.”
Barsch believes that he and Wilson’s cultures also share a heart-wrenching similarity: attempted eradication and continued reclamation. Barsch was born in Bohemia, which was absorbed into Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. Having also experienced cultural erasure firsthand, he feels a strong connection to preserving the Southwest’s Indigenous population.
“All of our culture was wiped out to prove that none of us ever lived there,” Barsch recalled. “There's few people who even know [Bohemia] used to exist.”
“It’s the same with the Navajo — before the government went in there, the Navajos had a culture.” he continued. “So when I found out that Navajos, the Diné, tried to start over again, I was happy to do whatever I could.”
Barsch will continue to donate Navajo-Churro sheep when he is able, committed to helping revive this Native American cultural tradition.
“The goal is to restore their flocks of sheep over the long term to maintain their subsistent lifeways, whether it’s wool processing, dying for rug weavers, or just strengthening that relationship back with their sheep,” said Wilson.
“Outsiders overlook how our cultural values and teachings are very much intact,” said Wilson. “They are just disrupted by Western and modern ways of life.”