Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Non-native Sheepherder at Big Mountain: Call to Herders

What is it about herding sheep on Black Mesa?
By Owen Johnson, Irish-American volunteer herder for Dine’

Cactus Valley, Black Mesa, February 2010 - Herding sheep and goats on Black Mesa makes a lot of sense. Enough sense that people have been tending herds of small livestock there forever. There’s room for them, and just enough water. But you have to make sure they drink, keep them eating the right plants, and help the dogs scare off the predators. It can get exhausting. Old people can do it, especially if they are used to the herd and its used to them. But even if they are able, they enjoy to have a break now and then. Many of these primary herders are also weavers and they can use time off to focus on their cultural art. It makes sense to keep the sheep and the lifeways on Black Mesa because they’ve been there forever, and they could very well last forever.

It’s been mostly Dine’, or Navajo people that have been herding sheep on Black Mesa forever. But other folks have come in and helped out. Some have been integrated on a more permanent basis: Mexicans, Apaches, and Hopis, for example. Euro-Americans, Europeans, and Japanese primarily have been coming to herd sheep and help out for about 40 years. This is mainly because of widespread invitation by traditional Dine’ matriarchs, who have traveled the world since the 70’s speaking of their struggle against relocation and the Peabody coal mine. Many are still living on Black Mesa and continue their interest to have “helpers” come and stay. Some get “adopted”, some marry in to families. But actually, in the last 40 years only a handful of non-navajos have made any long term connection with the community. And really, they have not done very much of the work that it takes to keep the struggle going or contributed the resources that sustain it. It is really the people living on the land and their extended blood relatives, many of whom have accepted relocation benefits and found a place in the ‘outside’ world.

So ‘support’ or ‘herding sheep’ is not really ‘all that’ but it is something, and it has potential. It needs to be done right; and then, more. A person does not need to come out to Black Mesa with judgements, or with a vision about how people out here could do what they do better (‘you know, if they would just be a vegetarian...”, or something). Two times in the ten years I have been around here I have heard of family members from the cities not wanting to come home to visit their elders because “sheepherder” is unpleasant to be around. This was a disgrace. I mention it as an example of the type of risks we face in attempting to “support”. We need to be vigilant and uncompromising with ourselves and each other in order to keep such scenarios from happening.

The pressures of what Danny Blackgoat calls “the dominant society” are increasing—even if the mine is forestalled for the moment. Entering the Navajo universe as a herder is a means of acknowledging the responsibilities of yourself and your relations in the acceleration of these pressures--and a significant step in counteracting the encroachments of white culture on this vital and still vibrant community of traditionals. If you are a non-native, this is an opportunity to accede to and integrate into your life the wished and interests of traditional native people as to what to do and what not to do with your time and energy—how to do it and how not to do it. Maybe this is what is called “decolonization”.

Many people in the counter-culture, being “resisters” themselves of some sort, “rebels”, or what have you, have come to admire the people of Black Mesa/Big Mountain for defying Washington and their tribal government's orders to leave their homeland, even to the point of arming themselves. As it should be. Let’s transform the admiration into day-to day, year-to-year support for their ongoing struggle—not only to avoid eviction, but to keep the homesite running smoothly, to stop impoundments and harassment, to keep the herd strong, and to co-exist well with each other. As Rena Babbitt Lane said to me last year, “the time has come for us to stop ignoring each other,” referring to traditional natives and the surrounding world. We all have much to gain from each other.

So sheepherders, I’m talking to you as a fellow (non-native) sheepherder. How can you set aside some more time? Can we support each other directly to do this? Are you in touch with other sheepherders when you are on and off the land? Lets build or re-build the collective consciousness about keeping the herd covered, or keeping Grandma soandso taken care of. Are you in touch with the family when you are not there herding? Do they know how and where to contact you? Are you keeping up on current events on the rez?

Don’t rely on BMIS for this—support BMIS on this!

There are strategic times to come out. First week of October, it was recently pointed out to me, has always been impoundment season. There’s times in the spring too. Let’s get to know these as our rythms. The impoundments at T’iisyaato last fall could well have been forestalled by the presence of supporters. Lets not let that happen again. Impoundments are a big financial burden for the family—to recover the animals costs hundreds of dollars, and it does permanent damage to the animals. They come back scarred and scared. The families did everything they could to stop it. Did you?

Right now, as we prepare to leave for our other camp on the east coast there are almost no ‘supporters’ here. We have pending requests from 9 of every 10 families that we work with for on-land, live-in support. That means you. So get healthy, get sober, pull your connections—get creative. There’s a lot at stake! We thank you in advance.

***The preceding sentiments do not represent Black Mesa Indigenous Support and the organization is not to be held accountable. Any concerns about the content should be addressed directly to owen at

[Moderator's Note: The article refers to supporting Dineh and other indigenous resisters against relocation policies and coal mining expansions. There are many forms of radical resistance, globally, but to support by physical action of herding sheep, may be new to you. This however this kind of action does help 'sustain' an ancient, land-base community. So yeah, "pull your connections together" and your outdoor gear. You'll never be so radically, enlightened. -SDNrocks]

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