Shearing at Blue Gap

May-June, 2012

Navajo youth bringing in the sheep for shearing

       Last September the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), a group of Navajos in Northeast Arizona invited me to visit native sheep ranchers with whom they work. This spring we formed a partnership called the Black Mesa Wool Project. Our goal is to support these ranchers’ traditional pastoral way of life by working with them to improve their soils and grazing patterns and receive a better price for their wool.

White Faced Rambuiollet Cross Ewes in Holding Pen

       "Ya'at'eeh!" said a smiling ageless woman in a bright blue sweatshirt and a purple skirt. Roberto asked permission in Navajo if we could enter her sheep camp and look at some of her fleeces. A shearing crew had been at work during the morning and was now at lunch break.

       It was early May and we had returned to the Black Mesa community of Blue Gap looking for Navajo ranchers that would be willing to join our effort. Today we first visited Ester Haskie's flock and when she agreed to become part of the project we began shearing and skirting her fleeces. Students and staff from the Dine College Land Grant Project quickly set up skirting tables and joined in the work. The mothers and daughters of the Navajo Nation own all the livestock. They make all management decisions while the men and boys tend to the chores and the daily grazing routine.

       Then in late May and early June we returned to Blue Gap to continue skirting, grading and bagging this shorn wool for its journey east. Duffie Westheimer, a long time Peace Fleece customer from Flagstaff, joined us for the skirting and bagging of the wool.

Building the Skirting Tables

Lassoing the Sheep for Shearing

Laying down the shearing floor

Tieing the Feet

Shearing while Larry keeps the boards clean

Finishing the backside

Working at the skirting tables

Dine College Staff getting points from a master

       Memorial Day found me entering the reservation near Gallup and heading northeast towards the Black Mesa. I picked up a young hitch hiker traveling to his grandmother's cattle operation. She owned a large herd of Black Angus and his job on the weekends was to ride out and check on them. He was also a bull rider at the local rodeos but worked on a roofing crew in Albuquerque to support his young wife and two girls. There seemed to be ample folks of all ages by the side of the road looking for rides and it made the time fly to hear their stories.

       I called Roberto when I crossed the Arizona line and he said he would drive down from Pinon and meet me at Blue Gap to check on the ranchers and their wool clip. But when we met at Esther's and began checking in, we were alarmed to hear that some of the folks had gone and sold their wool at the trading post, getting only half the price we were offering. We had wool towers set up to bag, skirting tables at the ready and volunteers coming the next day from as far as Flagstaff. Now it looked as if we might not have any wool. I had been hoping to buy at least 1400 lbs for Peace Fleece. Most of this news arrived in the Navajo language and I knew something was wrong by the expression on Roberto's face.

       "Let's not give up yet" he advised. "You never know what tomorrow will bring".

       I checked into the Holiday Inn in Chinle, heated up some tea and sat down on the porch and watched the sun set. All this work and coming all this way for no wool, I began feeling very sorry for myself. I sensed a pair of eyes watching and turned to see a small Terrier type dog checking me out from the parking lot.

       I stood up and walked out to meet her, scratched her hairy head and found it covered with thistle burrs, the same species that contaminated much of the Navajo fleece. I gave her a soft scratch and invited her back to my porch.

        My new friend whom I named Thistle apparently knew the Holiday Inn dog rules, refusing my invitation and standing her ground. I began cooking dinner and offered her some steamed summer squash with a light garnish of sausage and brown rice. When I presented it to her in a small bowel, she waited patiently and politely until I had returned to my porch before she devoured her supper.

       The previous week during my annual physical back in Maine my doctor had told me about Navajo reservation dogs. He had found one outside his tent while camping in a park not one mile from my room and after a week of hiking together he took her home, named her Chinle and she became the best dog he has ever had.


       As I sat there dining with Thistle I missed my family and my home and I felt like in some way I had made a huge mistake or misjudgement. How could I have been so naive as to think that these people would trust their wool to a stranger from a culture that had abused their race for so many years. As I rose to call my wife Marty I again found Thistle staring at me and it was not for want of more food. Her head was cocked to the side and her body was rigid. Even as an arriving guest drove close by, not a muscle moved. Then I heard a voice in my head, maybe her voice, and it said,

       "Peter, there are no mistakes, just lessons. Today was Lesson One and tommorow will be Lesson Two. No matter what happens tomorrow, it will be a waste only if you fail to learn from it." Then Thistle stood up and walked away.

The Bagging Crew at the Cross Bred Tower

       Well of course the next day turned out to be one of the best in my life. Only a portion of the wool had actually been sold and the rest turned up by early morning to be skirted and bagged. Ranchers were paid, I got very dirty and I felt that in some ways for the first time I was really doing the work I had always wanted to do with Peace Fleece, the laborious job of examining and grading the fleece while working side by side with the folks who grew the wool.

       Our volunteers never stopped pulling thistle burrs and dung tags from out of the fleece, even when their finger tips were raw. And the next day everyone turned up again. Ranchers came back to help cleanup their neighbors wool and when all was said and done I was just 90 lbs short of our initial goal. Every morning Thistle was there to send me off and every night she ate brocolli and carrots as she heard me describe the lessons of my day. I told her how Peace Fleece will take this wool back to Maine and spin Peace Fleece Navajo yarn. And with every skein we would tell the story of these reverent and hard working people of Blue Gap. And that if all goes as planned I would knit her a wool blanket to warm her during the Arizona winter.

Buzzard and Stephanie skirting with Roberto passing wool to Germanson on the Tower.

Evening of the last day, the crew sitting on the nine wool bags of Peace Fleece Navajo.