Wool on the Reservation: How the Navajo Are Bringing Their Wool to the Global Market
Navajo activist Roberto Nutlouis has been asking big questions: Can the tribe transition away from a fossil fuel–based economy? How can members of the tribe maintain their pastoralism? If their traditional lifeways were built on a reverence for the environment and all living beings, how can they honor that reverence and still participate in the global economy? One possible answer is Navajo wool.
In 2012, Nutlouis, who serves as the restorative economy program coordinator for the environmental justice organization Black Mesa Water Coalition, invited Stanley Strode from Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association and Peter Hagerty of Peace Fleece to the Navajo Nation to buy wool. Nutlouis hoped that a wool-buy event would help Navajo wool ranchers understand what their yield might be worth beyond what the neighboring trading posts pay.
Organized quickly without much time for publicity, the first wool buy in Pinon, Arizona, resulted in the purchase of about 12,000 pounds of fiber between Mid-States and Peace Fleece for earnings of about $8,000 for native producers. That first year, Strode said, he only filled about half a truck with Navajo wool; Hagerty purchased barely 1,300 pounds for his yarn business, which is famous for blending the fibers of oppressed, disenfranchised, and conflicted peoples. (Peace Fleece is now owned by Harrisville Designs.) Modest as it was, the sale nonetheless proved the value of Navajo wool to the larger market.
“I got very dirty and I felt that I was doing, in some ways for the very first time, the Peace Fleece work I had always wanted to do: the laborious job of examining and grading fleece while toiling side by side with the growers,” wrote the larger-than-life Hagerty in his recent memoir, Out Watering Horses. Hagerty, a farmer himself, has purchased wool in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, and Romania as a way to build peace through trade. “In the end,” he wrote about the wool-buy event on the reservation, “these ranchers were paid what their wool was worth, a price ten times greater than what the trading posts were paying.”
Sheep Is Life
On the reservation, the subject of sheep is complicated. The Diné people have been raising Churra almost since Spanish Conquistadors brought them to the Western Hemisphere in the sixteenth century. The Navajo Churro, as the breed came to be called, is considered America’s oldest sheep breed. The sheep are handsome, refined-looking animals, hardy enough to survive in the desert while also producing lean meat and lustrous double-coated fleeces that Native and Hispanic artists have spun and woven into gorgeous textiles.
But the relationship between sheep and the Navajo predates the tribe’s connection to the Iberian Churra. Long before domesticated sheep began grazing the Southwest, Nutlouis’s ancestors honored the desert bighorn sheep as a source of sustenance, clothing, and tools. “Our relationship to sheep goes way back to when they were in their natural habitat,” Nutlouis explained. “They had a big role in our stories and influenced how we treat our domesticated sheep. There are petroglyphs of bighorn sheep all over our landscape.”
Irene Benally raises Churro sheep and mohair goats, and sells her mohair at the reservation wool buy.Twice, the Navajo’s Churros were almost eradicated. In the 1860s, Kit Carson and his men slaughtered much of the Navajo’s livestock as part of the forced march relocation known as the Long Walk of the Navajo. In the 1930s, the U.S. government conducted a stock reduction program, selling and slaughtering tens of thousands of sheep and goats ostensibly to prevent overgrazing—creating a livestock killing field that still looms large in Navajo memory.
Though Churro live more lightly on the land than many breeds, the U.S. government issued new sheep to the Navajo, including Merinos, Rambouillets, and Suffolks—breeds more congenial to the American wool and meat industries. But the Churro were deeply woven into the fabric of the land and people, and today, Navajo farmers continue to raise these sturdy animals (their population recovered through the careful breeding of sheep that survived government slaughters) along with Rambouillet and a lot of mixed breeds and crosses.
A Woolly Topic
The fiber on the reservation is literally a mixed bag. Churro grow complex, low-lanolin fleeces that include a soft undercoat, long guard hairs, and a third, coarse fiber type called kemp. The long staple, durability, and array of natural colors made Churro an ideal medium for rug weaving, but the tough guard hairs make it problematic for buyers like Mid-States and Peace Fleece, which don’t purchase Churro or Churro-cross fleeces. “Getting it scoured is problematic,” explains Michelle Makowiecki, Peace Fleece’s operations manager. “On our part, the footprint was too big to get it processed, and demand hasn’t been that high, though I hope that’s changing as more breed-specific yarns come out.”
Navajo growers, like other North American wool producers frustrated by the pittance they make on their wool, have often paid little attention to the quality of the fiber. They delivered it unsorted to trading posts, where they earned pennies per pound, often not enough to cover the cost of the gas to deliver it. “For a long time, I think they viewed the wool as an inconvenience,” said Makowiecki. “They would shear it, leave it, toss it, or burn it. It was too much effort for almost no return.”
Since the first wool buy, the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Navajo extension agents have been educating growers about improving the marketability of their wool and meat, conducting workshops on shearing and preparing fleeces. Over the last few years, Felix Nez, the extension agent at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, purchased 11 South African Meat Merino–cross rams to help growers improve both the wool and the meat, leasing them to farms where the genetics make sense and where sheep have been vaccinated and dewormed. “Sometimes, the grandmas will get mad at me when I say, ‘This is what you need to do,’ ” Nez says.
Navajo Wool Power
Coming up on its seventh year, the wool buy has grown exponentially since its inception, and it now includes a mohair buyer. To make delivery as easy as possible for sellers, the buy currently takes place at multiple collection sites across the reservation, making it possible for far-flung growers to sell fleeces without hot multi-hour drives to attend the June event. Wool quality, Strode observed, is also improving.
“I have to give Felix a lot of credit,” Strode said. “They’ve also improved the wool grading and management of the wool.”
In fact, the 2017 wool buy attracted some 400 sellers, resulting in the purchase of more than 123,000 pounds of wool and about 10,000 pounds of mohair for a payout of about $80,000, according to Nez. Over the course of seven years, the wool buy—excluding mohair purchases—has put about $265,000 into the Navajo economy.
Marie Begay’s family has raised sheep for at least 60 years, she said. Before the wool buy, the family sold its fleeces to the Navajo Shopping Center in Gallup, New Mexico. “There is a big price difference,” she said from her home in Gilbert, Arizona. “The Navajo Shopping Center price was very low. I don’t really know how low, but it was a lot lower than what Peter was paying per pound.”
“We have tried to highlight the cultural tradition of the pastoralist lifeway,” Nutlouis said. “We want to honor it and create a better market for it and boost morale that what they uphold is being recognized. Being compensated at a higher rate has had a positive impact on our producers.”
“It’s something good to see,” Nez agreed. “When you have the elders thanking you, it’s good to hear.”
LESLIE PETROVSKI is a freelance writer who lives in Denver with her husband and a cat. She writes regularly about how knitting connects people and places. Find her on Ravelry as nakeidknits. | All photos courtesy of Peter Hagerty. This story was originally published in Interweave Knits Fall 2018.