“In our Native way, food is our medicine,” Walter says. “We use the herbs in our ceremonies, we pray with them. Our food is art and it’s our prayer, too.”
The ultra-modern seven-story administration building at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz.—the tallest building on the Navajo Nation—is affectionately referred to as the “lug nut” building for its rounded six-sided shape and metallic reflective finishes. So it’s something of a pleasantly dissonant surprise to pull into its nearby parking lot and hear the sound of bleating sheep.
For the past 21 years, the annual three-day Sheep is Life celebration is held to honor and deepen the long and valued relationship between the Navajo people and the old-time Navajo sheep, or Churro. Sponsored by The Navajo Lifeways nonprofit, or Diné be’ iiná, Inc., the conference and celebration took place this year, and is contracted for the next several, at Diné College in Tsaile, “the place where the stream flows into the canyon.” Canyon de Chelly is about a 30-minute drive away and is the place in the Navajo creation stories where Navajo deity Spider Woman, who taught weaving to her people, lives on a spectacular 800-foot spire.
Held on the third Saturday of June, shepherds, weavers, scholars and those curious about deepening their understanding and appreciation for Navajo lore flock to the conference, which “is meant to be an opportunity for learning and sharing but with a ‘Sheep camp’ atmosphere,” festival coordinator and Diné be’ iiná, Inc. Director Aretta Begay says. As part of the lively offerings, programs about weaving designs, dyeing techniques and state-of-the-art animal husbandry practices are held outside under billowing white tents, or inside in air-conditioned lecture halls. This year’s festival included two fascinating food talks and demonstrations, underwritten by a generous grant from the First Nations Development Institute, Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative.
Under dappled shade provided by a handhewn arbor built from Gambel oak branches, while a light westerly breeze stirs the warm Tsaile air, and the occasional baaaa of the nearby lambs sweetly seasons the proceedings, an intergenerational crowd sits in rapt attention as Navajo Chef Walter Whitewater presents his “Sheep to Table” tasting menu.
Chef Walter—who lives and works at Red Mesa Cuisine in Santa Fe and was raised in nearby Piñon, Ariz.—is fluent in the Diné language, and is clearly in his element. He’s traveled the world cooking and lecturing, and he currently devotes his life to advancing what he sees as the health benefits of Native cuisine.
“Once you learn to cook everything, it came to me, what is there to learn now? I went back to my traditional food, which is organic food without sugar and chemicals, real corn, not GMO—that’s the way I see it,” Walter says. His menu of contemporary Native food was devised in contrast to a traditional Navajo meal prepared at the celebration the prior day by Ron Garnanez, featuring mutton stew, blue corn mush, sumac pudding and Navajo tea. Walter calls his own colorful lunch “another way of doing things.”
“Our animals have one bad day, and that’s the day they’re butchered,” he tells the crowd. “The sheep that we butchered yesterday was raised in the Red Valley area. He ate sage in the summertime, and fed and grazed on the sacred and medicinal plants up on the mountain. He roamed the landscape, he enjoyed the life.”
Walter’s participation in Sheep is Life is “all about concern” for the preservation of Navajo lifeways and his people’s optimum health, he says. He speaks honestly about what he sees as damage to the tribe’s collective health, from the commodity foods—the rations of white flour and lard they were given at Fort Sumner—to the contemporary wave of fast food. “The commodity foods wiped out a lot of our people,” Walter says. “It was all through that Long Walk, and when we came back from Fort Sumner, they gave us army rations.”
The Churro sheep are central to this history. In 1864, flocks were decimated by Kit Carson and the Union Army at Canyon de Chelly as part of the scorched-earth warfare practiced in those terrible late campaigns of the Indian Wars. After a period of fierce resistance, 8,000 or so Navajo were deported from eastern Arizona and forced to walk 300 miles to western New Mexico as part of the Long Walk of the Navajo. When their imprisonment at Fort Sumner in the Bosque de Redondo came to an end four years later, the Navajo had returned, once again by foot, to Fort Wingate, Ariz. , where they were granted 3,500,000 acres of land between the four sacred mountains, and each family received two Churro sheep, a male and female, to start new flocks.
The Navajo prospered by weaving Chief’s blankets, lighter and superior to buffalo hide and very much in demand, and by the 1930s, the Churros’ numbers had swelled to two million head. But with the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and a drought in the Southwest, the Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted the Navajo Livestock Reduction Program, and at least half of the Churro were shipped wholesale to meat packing plants in Chicago, Ill., or gunned down in the canyons and atop the mesas where they grazed. But the bond between the Navajo and the Churro would not be broken. Since the 1970s, those old-time sheep have been reintegrated into the Navajo flocks, lifeways and diet.
“We used to eat sacred food,” Walter tells the Sheep is Life crowd. “Now, it’s Taco Bell, Burger King, and they cause a lot of health problems, too.” Ever mindful of diet-related diseases, this concept of sacred foods guides the chef’s use of ingredients. For sweetening the slaw dressing, for instance, he uses a raspberry puree, and for the bean in his Three Sisters Sauté, he chooses tepary beans, which are high in protein and contain soluble fiber, which is helpful in controlling cholesterol and diabetes.
“In our Native way, food is our medicine,” Walter says. “We use the herbs in our ceremonies, we pray with them. Our food is art and it’s our prayer, too.” This is communicated in Walter’s plating aesthetics, which borrow from motifs found on Native pottery, rugs and jewelry. “I used to do a lot of drawing with sauce—a lightning bolt, or circle of life on my corn soup, or the four directions,” he says.
Ron Garnanez, who is the president of Diné Be’Iina, Inc., views animals and humans as being entangled in a reciprocal relationship of care and protection. “We view the sheep as sacred, they are our protectors, we belong to them,” he says. This feeling of reciprocity among beings informs how the animals are killed—ritually, with prayers of thanks. “How much stress you put on the sheep while butchering will affect the taste of the meat,” Ron says. “You can correct that by the type of wood you cook it with; we use a lot of oak, grease wood, it grows in the desert and is a very hard wood.” The meat is seasoned with wild chives, wild parsley and corn silk. “The silk gives a flavor like you cooked your meat with young corn, and it provides some roughage,” he says. “I used salt rock from Salt River canyon, an Apache chef gave me the salt; we traded for it.”
For this year’s Sheep is Life, Ron also prepared a mush made with cedar ash and roasted ground blue corn, which he says is medicinal. “After you’ve eaten some fatty mutton, you can feel tired,” he says. “The mush takes that sluggish feeling away; the more ash you put in, the better for digestion; it absorbs the acid.”
For dessert, Ron made a sumac berry three-leaf pudding. “We grind the sumac into a powder and add boiling water, corn meal (white, yellow or blue), and sugar or honey,” he says. “It’s especially good for loss of appetite.” Walter also speaks of sumac. “We make Navajo tea with sumac berries,” he says. “It’s tart, almost sour, so you can put that in the stew to bring out the flavor [like vinegar].” Walter says it’s his “dream to write a Navajo vegan cookbook. I’d like to do that in partnership with Ron. I learned so much from him.”
Sheep to Table Tasting Menu
Healthy 3-Color Coleslaw Salad featuring fresh shredded red and green cabbage, fresh garden kale, organic carrots and toasted pumpkin seeds
The Three Sisters Sauté and Navajo Churro Sheep Tacos, featuring organic sweet corn kernels, Tohono O’odham tepary beans, fresh green zucchini summer squash, sweet local onions, fresh tomatoes, and local New Mexico Chile powder, served with a Guajillo Chile Sauce and handmade white and blue corn tortillas
The 2018 Sheep is Life celebration will be held at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz. For more information, visit navajolifeway.org/sheep-is-life.