Navajo Nation's unsung hero - the sheepdog - featured at Mother Earth Gathering

Photo/S.W. Benally<br>
Darcy Peshlakai of Dine’ Inc. spreads out a freshly clipped fleece.

Photo/S.W. Benally<br> Darcy Peshlakai of Dine’ Inc. spreads out a freshly clipped fleece.

CAMERON, Ariz. - The Fourth Annual Mother Earth Gathering opened with a Beauty Way Prayer and Sunrise Run with Adair Kloppenstein and Bucky Preston. This year's gathering featured sheep, goats and a tribute to the Navajo sheepdog - and the grounds of Dzil Libei Elementary School was full of activities surrounding these animals throughout the day of May 7.

Jamescita Peshlakai, the Lead Coordinator of the Navajo Nation Traditional Agricultural Outreach Program of DIN..., Inc. (Developing Innovations in Navajo Education, Inc.), spoke about the work her group - one of the primary sponsors of the event - and others are doing across the Navajo Nation in the fields of agricultural and livestock.

"It is important to our tradition to develop a food policy on the Nation," Peshlakai said. "Don't turn up your nose at traditional foods."

Peshlakai went on to describe some of the work involving best practices on the Navajo Nation, including a crop yield assessment study of 75 farmers undertaken by DIN..., Inc.

"Navajo corn has different value than ordinary sweet corn," Peshlakai said. "A farmer can make $13,000 per acre with Navajo corn."

The study revealed that farmers could get $10 to $20 for a gallon of seed corn and $25 a gallon for blue corn.

Attendees filed out to the front of the school to watch both electric and traditional tin-shear shearings as well as tail bobbing and castration demonstrations.

Harold Blacksheep of Ganado manned the electric shears, masterfully twirling his four-legged clients without tying. As Blacksheep whirled his first ewe before him, rancher, storyteller and recording artist James Peshlakai praised the churro.

"These are tough sheep," Peshlakai boasted. "During the Long Walk, these sheep traveled 100 miles a night. The birth rate of ordinary sheep is 75 percent survival - the survival rate of the churro is about 99.9 - they pop out running."

Blacksheep pointed out the features of the electric shear including the cutter and comb, and then waded into a line-up of shaggy ewes.

Marie and Charley Salt, who traveled from Kayenta to watch the event, hoped to bring back information for their students.

Marie is a Parent Involvement Cultural Specialist with Kayenta Unified, her husband Charley is a traditional practitioner. He, too, is involved with students there.

"We sponsored 4-H when our children were small," Marie explained. "It's a real positive outlet. We took 12 to 15 young people to the county fair. We saw the flyer and came to see what we can do for our own community."

Back in the gymnasium, the group Sheep is Life (Diné bí' íína') demonstrated wool spinning and carding, and spoke further about the importance of the churro sheep to the Navajo.

Co-directors Pati Martinson and Terrie Bad Hand of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation talked about the TCDEC Taos Food Center's Mobile Slaughter Unit, and touched on the concept of added value food marketing.

"We started the organization to develop the tools and resources to hold on to land, water and lifeways," Bad Hand explained.

Martinson described the commercial kitchen where community members who depend upon food to make a living are able to prepare safe food for marketing. She went on to describe some of the classes held at the center and invited all in attendance to attend upcoming free Diabetes Cooking Classes held at the center monthly through December. Marsha Monestersky, representing the Forgotten People, gave a slideshow featuring the Navajo sheepdog along with words by Navajo elder Pauline Whitesinger, and hosted an art contest among children of all ages.

Thomas Walker Jr. of Birdsprings, who serves as the Special Projects Coordinator for Diné Inc., explained that organization's interest in working with the Peshlakai Cultural Foundation to put on the conference.

"This is part of an effort to restore agriculture in western Navajo," Walker said. "Diné Inc aims to be the initiator of ideas, the connecting piece between community and sustainability. This is an important part of food security and sovereignty. At the same time, we seek to be full users of the land as we once were as Navajo people. That requires manual labor, sweat and hard work- today we want to be users of the land

Andy Bessler with the Sierra Club was honored to have children Noah and Ruby assist in handing out the Peshlakai Cultural Foundation's Mother Earth Gathering gifts of appreciation "to those who continue to work with true dedication to protect Mother Earth and their communities," Bessler said in retrospect. "Each contributes their unique and diverse skills and talents to do their part for everyone's Mother -Mother Earth. It was a wonderful way to celebrate Mother's Day by thanking those who are doing amazing work."

Awardees were given gift bags provided by Winter Sun Trading Company.

Artist Shonto Begay displayed his own original work honoring the sheepdog.

Anna Rondon and Claudia Jackson of the Green Economy Coalition praised the groups associated with the event for their work.

"Communities like this (Cameron), with families working together, are the key to creating a green economy," Rondon said. "They bring out hope for the future of our Navajo people. These types of gathering create a culture of compassion, cultivated in a sacred manner."

The event was catered by the Peshlakai Family Catering Company; other sponsors included the Cameron Veterans, Hank's Trading Post, Quality Inn of Tuba City, Anasazi Inn, Simpson's Market and the Hopi Legacy Inn.

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