Of Wild Navajos, Wild Horses and Wild Marijuana

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May 10, 1995

There they were, a confluent, amorphous mass shimmering in the moonlight. The chiming of bells and the scurrying of hooves were the only sounds punctuating the night's stillness. These were the sheep and goats that I had waited for months to help move. I was going to accompany Ben, his wife Minnie, and their daughter Lula on their annual trek from the winter grazing site to the summer site, some 50 miles away.

Since arriving on the reservation 8 years ago to work as an Indian Health Service doc, I had read and heard stories about how the Navajo were historically nomadic and maintained two homes, which corresponded to the winter and summer grazing sites for their sheep and goats. I knew lots of people who took the animals out grazing every day, but was unaware of anyone besides this family who still made seasonal migrations.

When the Dine' (or "the people," as they call themselves) entered the Southwest in the 1500s, they were hunters and gathers. Spanish missionaries introduced sheep and goats in the mid 1600s. As the Spanish established colonies in the New World, they realized that their all-consuming goal C converting the indigenous population into obedient, God-fearing Christians C would fail unless it was built on solid economic footings. The mission needed to be recognized as a source of refuge during hard times in order to generate a devout following during good times. Sheep were the answer. As highly mobile capital, they allowed for the immediate exploitation of land resources so the Spanish endeavored to turn the native peoples into shepherds. The Navajo adapted quickly to a pastoral existence. However, it did not take long before the fast-breeding sheep outstripped the carrying capacity of the land adjacent to the missions, and the shepherds had to seek forage in ever-widening arcs around the Spanish enclaves. Also, in a climate characterized by seasonal and often intra-seasonal droughts, this practice of seasonally changing pasturage evolved as a way of keeping the flocks alive, a practice known as transhumance.

Two events combined to decrease the Navajo's sheep (and goats) herds, and to disrupt this practice of seasonal migrations. In 1864 the U.S. Cavalry, under the leadership of Kit Carson, began rounding up Navajos for internment at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In the process the army burned crops and slaughtered animals. Then in the 1930s the government initiated a stock reduction program as it was determined that the land was being overgrazed. With smaller numbers of animals available to deplete the land, there was less need to seek new pastures.

But for some, old habits die hard. For traditional Navajos, one's wealth is determined by the number of sheep and goats they possess. Ben still held this view. He told me he was very rich with over 500 head of sheep and goats. Later I'd learn he tends to exaggerate, but for now, as I looked upon the corralled animals by the light of the moon, I too saw him as a wealthy man.

Ben and I had begun the afternoon by hiking into Navajo Canyon. He led his surefooted pack horse down the steep, narrow trail. Despite our late start, we planned to reach the winter camp on Cumming's Mesa where Minnie and Lula were waiting by nightfall. Upon reaching the canyon floor, Ben unloaded some supplies from the horse and tied them, along with an extra saddle, into a pinyon tree. He said we would collect those items when we descended from the winter camp in a day or two. My thoughts were elsewhere. Though I had followed Ben's advice and jettisoned my stove, fuel, tent, dromedary and some clothes, my pack was still uncomfortably heavy. He had said, "Plan on living like we do for the next few days! You don't need all that stuff." Overjoyed with the newly created space on the horse's back, I asked if I could unload my pack there. Ben consented reluctantly since that would mean he would have to hike the 1000 feet up the mesa to the winter hogan. As I was about to begin making small talk, Ben hoisted himself over the gear and trotted away at a steady gait. For the next hour and a half I rarely saw him. Occasionally, from the switchback trail above me he'd shout into the descending darkness, "You okay?" "Yeah," I'd answer, thankful that there was a nearly full moon illuminating the trail. Whenever I yelled back "You okay?" he'd respond with a resounding "you bet!"

The winter camp consisted of a small corral, a nearby stream and an old hogan (which Ben said he helped construct 30 years ago). A steady wisp of smoke spiraled heavenward from the hogan's chimney. Upon arriving, Ben unloaded the supplies from the horse and hobbled it by tying its front legs together. Minnie and Lula emerged from the old hogan. The family exchanged greetings in Navajo and we prepared to eat a supper of mutton stew, frybread and coffee prepared over an open fire. Satiated and tired, I retired to bed anxiously anticipating what tomorrow would bring.


May 11, 1995

I slept really well on the hogan floor last night. Though it was a little cool outside, inside it was warm thanks to Lula. She awoke several times during the night to tend the fire in the hogan stove. When I awoke at 6:30, she was already gone. She had left to find the horse that had wandered away, even though Ben had tied its front legs together. Over two hours later, a tired and tattered Lula returned to camp leading the rebellious horse. They both looked exhausted.

After a breakfast of porkchops, frybread and coffee, Lula released the sheep and goats from the corral. Without a word, Ben mounted his horse and departed in a different direction. I never saw Minnie leave and had no idea where she was. Uncertain of the plan for the day, I followed Lula and the animals.

We moved slowly past deep canyons and Anasazi ruins where the ground was littered with pottery shards. Five speechless hours after Lula and I started herding the animals we encountered Minnie. She had rounded up a group of lambs that had strayed away from the herd a few days ago.

It turned out this wasn't the day we were to begin the migration, or so I figured since no one had actually told me that. In fact, no one said much of anything to me since neither Lula (age 45 years), nor Minnie (age 73 years), spoke English and my Navajo is limited to performing a physical exam (a skill not needed at the time).

It occurred to me that we had walked nearly three miles from the winter camp in the midday heat. It was five hours since we ate breakfast, and neither Lula nor Minnie had food or water with them. Anticipating a long outing, I had packed granola bars, dried fruit and water. Accepting my offering, and we enjoyed a quiet, impromptu snack overlooking a canyon while the sheep and goats began to disperse like crooked spokes on a wobbly wheel.

We returned to the hogan, where I secured the sheep and goats in the corral by gingerly arranging the logs in the make shift gate. My chore completed, I collapsed exhausted. I was certain Lula was more tired than me, but she left to collect firewood in order to prepare dinner. I left for dreamland.

Dinner was waiting when I awoke. After I finished eating Minnie glanced out the hogan door then started making hand signals. I thought it odd she would entertain me with a performance of the itsy bitsy spider. Amused, I smiled and nodded. While waiting for her to begin singing the accompanying song in Navajo, I glanced out the hogan door and saw all the sheep and goats escaping from a breach in the corral gate. I bolted out the hogan. In no time Lula was with me, waving her arms and hissing the "Navajo love call," the same "shhh, shhh" sound that Navajo men make to women at social gatherings to get a dance, and maybe romance. Much like women, the sheep and goats would be distracted long enough by the sound to identify the person making this forlorn cry before returning to whatever they were doing. I positioned myself such that the animals were between me and the corral and then ran from side to side, waving my arms and making the hissing sound in imitation of Lula. The sheep and goats responded to all the excitement by moving towards the corral. Then I noticed I was the only one doing this. Lula had seated herself on rocks nearby and seemed to be removing something from her shoe, with only an occasional glance in my direction. The more time I spent running around trying to collect the animals, the longer it seemed to take her to remove whatever it was from her shoe. Undaunted, I got the animals to the corral gate, but no matter what I tried, they would not enter. Lula continued to fidget with her shoe.

The animals at the rear of the herd started wandering south from the corral, a direction of uncharted territory for me. I took off in pursuit of the southwardly straying animals. The further south I walked, the better the view became. Surrounded by the wide open, naked beauty of the canyons stretched before me, I realized that these same canyons had safely sheltered Ben and Minnie's not-so-distant relatives some 130 years ago when Kit Carson and company attempted to force march the Navajo to an internment camp at Fort Sumner, some 300 - 400 miles away. Many Navajo sought refuge and freedom here. Sheep played an integral role in the survival of the Navajo at that time since they could not grow crops while attempting to flee the cavalry. Sheep continue to be an inseparable part of life today.

I looked back and saw Lula casually walking with the animals. Judging by her relaxed gait she wasn't too interested in getting them back into the corral. Maybe letting the animals wander was her way of sharing this awesome place with me, in which case the sheep and goats were innocent facilitators, leading us to compelling vistas. Maybe, I thought, migrating the sheep and goats over long distances is really for the benefit of the humans. The animals provide a motive for being outdoors every day, walking through some of the most blessed land on the planet, to be in the elements of nature. In this way one is reminded of what it means to be alive. It was sad to think that some citified Navajo kids from the eastern part of the reservation are in the habit of chiding their more rural counterparts from the western region by calling them "sheep herders."

Just as the sun was setting, I arrived at the hogan to find Minnie cutting potatoes for a stew. Ben returned riding a different horse from the one he had started out on. He said he had gone about 50 miles to an area where his brother grazes horses and had exchanged his first horse for a sturdier one. He also had picked up a mule. It had been a long day. Obviously saddle sore, he ambled gingerly outside to wash up before supper, talking to his horse in Navajo all the while.

Soon thereafter, Lula returned with the animals. Without hesitation the sheep and goats paraded straight into the corral as if following the Pied Piper. She closed the corral gate properly and began collecting firewood for supper.


May 12, 1995

After eating this morning, Ben mounted the mule and headed off with the animals toward the canyon floor. I surmised this was the day the migration was to begin. Minnie, Lula and I packed up supplies and loaded them onto the donkeys Those items to be left behind until the Fall, when the sheep and goats will be returned, were secured in old blankets and suspended from pinyon trees around the hogan. This keeps mice and ground squirrels out of the supplies and encourages them to stay out of the hogan.

As we were departing, Lula realized that nine lambs had gotten separated from the main group that Ben had taken earlier. I couldn't help but think these were the same renegade lambs Minnie had recovered the day before. We gathered them and headed off to catch up with Ben. Walking with these lambs to the rim of the canyon I appreciated how much more difficult it is to herd a smaller number of animals, especially young, spunky ones. Minnie and Lula were responsible for the lambs which kept cutting back and forth across the footpath, the women in their long skirts, velveteen blouses, sneakers and head scarves in hot pursuit. It was my job to lead the donkeys. Failing miserably at this task, Lula and Minnie also helped me.

When we finally reached the canyon rim the lambs refused to go down the trail. Though we tried for over 30 minutes to get them to enter the trail head, they would have no part of it. Not even Lula could get the lambs down the steep and narrow path.

Minnie stood at the canyon edge and spoke in Navajo as she pointed down the trail to where Ben and the sheep and goats appeared as tiny dots. She tried yelling down to him several times to no avail. Then Minnie turned to me. From her hand signs and the Navajo she spoke, I deciphered that I should go get Ben and have him come back to the top with all the sheep and goats so the lambs would follow the other animals down, herd mentality I thought.

When I reached Ben and gave him Minnie's urgent message, it reaffirmed for him, no doubt, that my comprehension of Navajo was poor.

"There's no way I can take these animals back up the trail. Its too hot and there's not enough water," he barked. He told me to stay put. Burying the heels of his boots in the mule's flanks he went up the steep, rocky path cursing the stubbornness of the mule all the way. "Giddy up God dammit; come on you ol' fool." The mule reluctantly obeyed. I remained with the 140 or so animals he had brought down the canyon and quickly learned that tossing rocks just beyond the lead animal's nose is an energy efficient way to keep a herd together. A little later he returned with the acrophobic lambs and we continued on our way. Minnie and Lula were left to bring up the rear.

By the time Ben and I arrived with the animals at the lunch spot the weather had become windy and overcast. Ben wanted to keep all the animals together while we prepared lunch. He mounted his mule to round them up, threw me three "strike anywhere" matches and told me to start a fire.

Three matches later there was no fire, despite my building a wind block out of slabs of sandstone, constructing a mini tipi of small twigs (a feat which would have made any scout master proud), and using paper to ignite the fire. The first thing Ben said when I told him there was no fire because it was too windy was, "How old are you?"
"Thirty eight," I replied.

"Thirty eight?! I'm 74 and I'm still a cowboy!," said Ben.

"Hasn't your Navajo girlfriend taught you anything?," he asked as he ripped bark from a juniper tree, twisted it a few times, threw it on the ground, lit one match and nonchalantly tossed it onto the juniper bark. Together we watched the flame dance in the wind.

Before we ate a lunch of dumplings, mutton stew, frybread and coffee, Minnie prayed in Navajo. Several times she said in English "Thank you Lord for our blessings." A gentle, female rain fell as we ate.

After the meal Ben asked me to retrieve the saddle and supplies we had hung in the pinyon tree the day we hiked to the winter camp. "Which canyon was that tree in anyway Ben?," I asked.

If disgust had a face, it was Ben's at that moment. Before I could think of another excuse he said "Aw never mind, Lula will go get the stuff." It was at that moment I became endeared to Lula. An hour later she returned with the saddle. The gentle rain had stopped.

May 13, 1995

This proved to be a splendid day. It began for me by sleeping late. I didn't wake up until 6:45 am. The others were already about performing their chores, impervious to the chill in the morning air. After breakfast Ben headed out first with the sheep and goats. He attempted to carry the newborns on his mule, but more than once he dropped them. Minnie, Lula and I packed up with a paucity of conversation. From time to time Lula and Minnie conversed in Navajo then flashed wide grins. I smiled too. While loading gear on the mules Lula unwrapped a small package she carried in her shirt pocket. She seemed not to want Minnie to see what it was. In her palm were three perfectly formed arrowheads she had found in her years of walking these canyons. Before I could touch them, she returned them to her pocket and resumed packing. Despite the language barrier and my feebleness at sheep herding, our rapport was developing. We proceeded with the pack animals to the lunch spot for the day at a relaxed pace.

During the lunch break Minnie bathed in a stream and put on new clothes. She and Lula both applied copious amounts of Noxzema skin cream to their faces. Lula's application left streaks on the side of her face which faded gradually over the course of the afternoon. Sheltered beneath a baseball hat which she secured with a scarf beneath her chin, she reminded me of a jockey. The day before Lula and Ben had put on new clothes and tossed the old ones into the fire. Minnie chose to hold on to her old clothes, however. Shortly after changing clothes, she stopped me along the trail and said, Atake picture here.@ Minnie posed beside Lula for a portrait at a spot that held special meaning for them. I never learned why that spot was magical and it was the only time Minnie asked to have a photo taken.

Today's route was blessed with a passage through deep, red, sandstone canyons. The going was slow because of the soft sand on the canyon floor. The tedium of our effort was relieved intermittently by the sheep dogs who would jump at imaginary objects, then roll over in the sand, particularly the dog that looks like its always smiling. Fortunately there was heavy cloud cover so the canyon walls didn't bake us. At one point we moved lazily through an area covered with wild mint. One doesn't find this often in the desert. On previous days I was thrilled by the aroma released whenever the animals browsed on sage. But when the smell of wild mint momentarily saturated the air, it was such an other worldly sensation that I stopped transfixed. Minnie smelled it too. She and I turned to one another and smiled in mutual recognition of the transient gift we had just received. Again, the animals were innocent facilitators. Again, I gave thanks.

Lula and Ben have been traveling by horse and mule while Minnie and I walk. Consequently, Minnie and I have become partners of sorts. Occasionally as we're walking along she tells me in Navajo sprinkled with English of events that happened at various points along the trail over the years. I nod my head and smile. At one location I learned that she and Lula, while sheepherding in stormy weather, had sought refuge under an overhang for two days because of severe weather. A little further Minnie related that many years ago, when the nearest hospital was a two to three day covered wagon ride away, a Piute Indian suffered a bad wound to his leg. Because of the nature of the injury he died, and the canyon in which he perished bears his name to this day. The space between these anecdotes is filled with of sound of sheepherding. The "shhh, shhh" of the humans is accompanied by the clanging of bells and the clatter of hooves.

As we approached camp for the evening we were witness to a mesmerizing sunset. Lulled into thinking nature had presented to us her best effort, we were awed even more by the moonrise that followed. The moon was finally full. Ben and I collected firewood as Minnie and Lula began to cook. Not far away a sheep was crying. Ben commented, before taking a nap, that the sheep's cry indicated she was about to give birth. I left to take advantage of the stream nearby to bathe before supper. It was my first real bath in four days. Ben was awakening from his nap as I returned to camp. He asked me his favorite question, "Pretty good, alright?" "Incredible," I responded, immediately wishing I had answered him with his favorite response, "You bet!" Nearby the ewe was licking her newborn lamb. In the distance his horse was frolicking with wild horses from the area.


May 14, 1995

The first thing I did this morning was wish Minnie a Happy Mother's Day. She smiled and seemed to appreciate the gesture. Ben on the other hand declared I had my Sundays mixed up, that Mother's Day was next Sunday. We debated the date until Minnie quietly nodded her head to confirm that this was indeed Mother's Day. I think Ben felt bad that he had forgotten it was Mother's Day.

As we prepared to leave camp, Ben and I checked the newborn lamb. He said "You gon' carry him, alright?" My first thought was "No, I don't want to carry it. Then I can't take pictures." But hoping to recover some lost ground from the humbling experiences of a couple days before, I said "You bet!" instead.

During lunch a baby goat was born. Minnie decided it was time to do something more definitive about carrying the newborn animals since they kept falling from Ben's perch on the mule. She made a carrying pouch constructed from an old blanket stitched together with yucca leaves. Each animal had its own compartment in the pouch which Lula was able to sling over her saddle.

While walking I reflected on the conversation I'd had with Ben last evening around the campfire. He had identified for me the names of the people on whose land we were camped. In referring to them he said "They wild Navajos."

Hearing this, I laughed. "Wild Navajos, huh? What do you mean by that?" I asked. "Them people never went to school. They still live the old, traditional way with no running water, no electricity. They don't go to town much and still grow crops in these fields. They wild," he said, also laughing. Later he confessed that he too is a wild Navajo and wouldn't have it any other way.

Though we have been moving the sheep and goats for only three days, we have settled into a routine. Each morning Ben, Minnie and Lula get up before sunrise to round up the animals. The horse, mule and donkeys are never corralled overnight since there has been no corral for them. Instead, Ben, Minnie and Lula hobble the horse, mule and one of the donkeys so the animals can graze during the night and hopefully not wander too far. (The rationale for tying the front legs of only one of the donkey's is that the other two supposedly will do whatever the hobbled one is doing. More often than not though, the restrained donkey strays away with the other two). The sheep and goats generally don't wander too far as the dogs keep them close to the camp.

After breakfast Ben saddles up his mule, talking to it all the while, "Giddy up god dammit; where'd you go last night anyway? Come on you little shitty," he says to the sheep and goats, and off they go.

After packing up camp, Minnie, Lula and I load the donkeys for the first of several times that day. As the donkeys walk the load shifts, and we have to stop to correct the imbalance. With the animals Minnie and Lula are very confident; they employ an economy of motion, as sudden movements startle the animals. If the donkeys, mule and horse run away from Lula, she emits a hushed, throaty, protracted "heeeey, heeeey" to them. Invariably they stop and await her approach. Whenever I try it however, they continue to flee. Minnie and Lula enjoy watching me around the animals. While holding the donkey's bridle as the women secured the load this afternoon, I forgot to be subtle and swatted a fly on my face. Off went the donkey with the half loaded gear trailing behind. Minnie and Lula looked at one another and laughed. I smiled.

About midday we catch up with Ben and the sheep and goats. We can tell when we're getting close because young sheep and goats that are straggling behind begin to appear as sentinels, indicating that Ben and the herd are just ahead. At the lunch spot we unload the cast iron skillet, cooking pot, plates, lard, potatoes, peppers, sometimes spam, sometimes mutton, salt, pepper, salsa and the coffee. Firewood is gathered, and water is collected, which often involves walking quite a distance. We eat sitting on the ground. Minnie prays before each meal. After eating, I wash the dishes. Before I've finished, Ben and the sheep and goats have begun the trek to the next campsite. Because of the weight of the supplies, it is my job to lift the saddle bags onto the donkeys. Then I assist the women in tying the loads to the animals. I take pleasure in having found a niche for myself. Minnie and Lula gather up the newborns and stragglers and our journey resumes. Without modern conveniences, I daydream that we are a band of gypsies living one hundred and fifty years ago. Traveling with Native Americans, I imagine myself to be an escaped slave who has found refuge here, happy and secure with wild Navajos, uncertain of where the daydream ends and reality begins. We walk until more sentinels appear, occasionally stopping for water from remote sandstone water holes Minnie remembers along the route. Its makes for a full day.

Today while running to chase straying goats, Minnie tripped and took a hard fall. Stunned, she lay on the ground for a moment. After I helped her to her feet, she found a walking stick for support and limped another mile or so to the campsite. At age 73 and with her frame listing, she has walked, run and jumped with the sheep and goats the entire way. Back in the winter when I first asked her if I could accompany the family on the migration, she said something in Navajo which made her daughter laugh. Later, the daughter told me that Minnie had said I could go if I thought I could keep up. Now I knew what she meant.

In the evening we arrived at an old wood, rock and mud hogan with an earthen floor that was to be our home for the night. It was located in a canyon very close to Ben and Minnie's summer camp. For the last mile or so coming into camp I carried a week old baby goat. While walking with him I noticed the no see 'ums were especially bad in this canyon. Then I realized the little kid was covered with fleas, but by that time it was too late; I too was covered and spent a restless night scratching.

May 15, 1995

I awoke this morning to the sound of Minnie washing her hair in a small basin in the hogan. It was 6 a.m. Ben said he thought it would be possible to go all the way home today, but when he walked outside he realized there was a problem. He returned to the hogan talking to no one in particular and said, "I told them yesterday I was going to tie them up and not to go anywhere because we were going to leave early this morning. I even prayed for them and told everybody to tie up the animals." He continued his purging in Navajo.

Minnie, drying her hair, smiled and said, "They don't understand you".

"Yeah Ben," I said "you talk to them in Navajo and English."

"Sometimes in Spanish too," Ben added.

"See! Maybe they get confused," I said.

"No," said Ben. "I'll tell you what the problem is. That horse don't listen because likes to eat wild marijuana. That's the problem. He wanders off, then the other animals follow him. Did you see him yesterday with them other wild horses? He was romping around like he's a wild horse too. Ol' silly, fool horse."

"He is," Minnie reminded him.

Two hours later Lula returned with the missing animals. While she was away I asked Ben about her. I wondered whether she was ever married or had any children.

Ben told me she was married once and has two children. He remembered the ex-husband's last name but couldn't remember his first name. I suggested to Ben that he must not have liked him very much.

"Naw, he was no good", he said. "Wouldn't haul water, chop wood or take care of the sheep, goats, cows and horses. He was useless. Not a very good son-in-law". I didn't bother asking him whether he thought I would make a very good son-in-law.

We broke camp and began the long, hot journey up the canyon to their summer home. This time we left together and enjoyed the company of one another on our last day of the migration. Daydreams of wild Navajos and wild horses on wild marijuana danced in my head. Ben chastised his mule for wandering away last night.

c. thomas
June 10, 1995
revised may 25, 1996