Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Written by Jennifer Douglass
Photo Credit McKinsey Flynn
The drought has been intensifying quickly which makes it difficult to keep up with the potential catastrophe. The Navajo Nation has been the hardest hit and we have been focusing our efforts on finding the Navajo-Churro shepherds in most need. Because of intense dry conditions and high wind, there are some areas, especially northeast Arizona, where shifting sand dunes are blocking roads. It is becoming very difficult to deliver water and feed to the many Navajo families that live in these areas. It seems that all the herds we have encountered are in poor shape from malnutrition. Likewise, all of us with herds in the Southwest deserts are having a difficult time feeding our sheep.
On June 14, we had our first semi truck of alfalfa delivered to the Black Mesa area for 40 shepherds that have approximately 1000 Navajo-Churro sheep. The truck was welcomed by all and was donated by Tara and her father Maurice Roche out of Utah. Even though it only supplied enough hay to supplement each shepherd for a few weeks, the momentum of giving something so positive has encouraged shepherds to sign up and for us to get donations. At present we have put requests in for assistance with the large hay producers in Arizona and New Mexico. We are hopeful they will contact us very soon with discounts as well as in kind donations. We are also picking up momentum on donations but need so much more money considering each truck costs approximately $7000 for hay and shipping to get to the reservation.
The initial idea we had at the beginning of the project of shepherds helping shepherds has been a success because we now have a chain of Navajo shepherds finding the most isolated families in areas we would never have access or know about without them. Interestingly, 98% of the traditional shepherds we have found are women. We have been soliciting other women shepherds to join in the search as well as create a dialogue among all of us participating. The solidarity among women shepherds is empowering. It is very humbling and overwhelming to experience this knowing that all of us are in a tenuous state because of the lack of feed for our animals in the southwest. This tenuous state and feeling of helplessness is intensifying rapidly. But the strength and perseverance of these women creates a feeling of unity that we as a group can pull through this.
Over the past weekend I talked to five shepherds all needing feed immediately. They gave me photos of their sheep which are extremely thin. What makes it more complicated in the southwest is there is no feed out on the range. Because their sheep are malnourished and most are now in desperate situations, the sheep are turned out to find anything edible, which destroys plants left for future feed and compounds the problem of desertification of rangeland. To compound their plight further, they have to feed 100% hay until the range replenishes itself through summer monsoons. Hay prices are rising and have almost doubled or even tripled in areas. Most shepherds are on a fixed income and cannot afford the high prices. This consequently creates an impossible situation. Their normal supply of feed for their sheep is the summer range. Without range feed the shepherds are forced to buy feed. Without the extra income to supply feed, the shepherds are forced to watch their animals go hungry and in some cases the sheep are becoming too weak to maintain.
The consensus among all shepherds I have talked to is, "We are the forgotten people, how did you find us? Thank you for finding us but please now do not forget us."
It takes shepherds like all of us working and volunteering in this drought relief to understand the complexities of the traditional shepherds lives. These Navajo-Churro sheep are not just livestock to most, easily replaced when they die of starvation. I have realized some of these women especially the elder, will lose much more. Like most pastoralist cultures around the world, their identity and history of who they are and their ancestors are in their sheep herds. Their connection to their culture and place in this world is with these individual sheep. If their sheep starve, this alone can easily push them over the edge. To be empathetic to this consideration is crucial in assisting. I have found working on this is much more than just feeding the sheep. The crux is to offer hope and understanding that as a community, we can pull through this together.
On a positive note, this is an opportunity for all of us on many levels. The most important opportunity in this crisis is first and foremost to assist to keep the flocks alive. This in turn brings hope to people with little hope in such a hard situation. With hope comes solidarity that they are not alone. This solidarity creates a lifeline of shepherds and folks helping each other through the crisis.
But most importantly is the hope that none of us are alone. If we all can weather through this, then the aftermath can be trust and friendship and a coalition of like-minded individuals trying to make a difference in this world. In that friendship is the beginning of solidifying the role of Navajo-Churro sheep as the viable and crucial livestock amongst the pastoralists of the Southwest deserts.
We have realized in the past four months this is not just about assisting with emergency aid, but it has become a race to save an endangered breed, an endangered culture and is becoming a humanitarian effort to save a group of people and their disappearing lifestyle. A lifestyle that has some answers of how to survive in this drying climate.
There is such little time.
Former Project Director -- Investments in Resilience