You are Invited to Sheep Is Life

By / Photography By Gay Chanler | February 19, 2016
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Have you ever driven across the Navajo Nation—enjoying the big sky, the wide-open spaces, the beautiful rock formations and deep canyons—or visited the famous national parks and monuments in the Four Corners area, and wondered how you could experience something more of the lives of the people who live there?

If you are interested in delving deeper into Navajo culture and learning how the Diné, the Navajo name for their people, survived for centuries in this arid high desert, come to Sheep Is Life.

The annual Sheep Is Life gathering is held in June at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, in the uplands north of Canyon de Chelly. A combination arts festival and agricultural fair, traditional Navajo sheepherders come to celebrate their weaving culture and the original ancestral Navajo-Churro breed of sheep.

Every year brings different artists and workshops to the event, and this year promises to be especially exciting as 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of this unique festival, and the success in bringing the Navajo-Churro sheep back from the brink of extinction. Sheep Is life was started in 1996 to honor the Navajo-Churro sheep as a cultural icon of the American Southwest and Native people. This year’s celebration will give special recognition to the elders who have been stewards of the breed and who have kept alive the ancestral traditions so that they may continue for the benefit of future generations.

A celebration of Navajo food and weaving traditions, the songs and ceremonies associated with the pastoral life, it is the creation and signature event of the nonprofit organization Diné be´iiná (Navajo Lifeways). DBI leaders have connected with other herders around the globe, including Kenya, India and Ecuador. Roy Kady, master weaver, community leader, educator, DBI board member and sheepherder has traveled widely, sharing his weaving and traditional knowledge.

He says, “As pastoralists we want to celebrate sheep cultures around the world. Sheep Is Life serves to remind us of all the great traditions that once were prominent in the Southwest: the Basque herders, the Hispanic and Pueblo sheep ranches, as well as the Navajo. We want to invite all to gather and celebrate and share our ceremonies, stories, songs, fiber arts and our knowledge and connection to the earth.”

Open to the public, the week-long event focuses on sheep-to-loom fiber arts workshops on shearing, carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving. Each summer they draw fiber artists from around the US who can enjoy a unique opportunity to learn complex techniques such as diamond twill weaving from Navajo Master Weavers. Most years, classes on sheep butchering and cooking are also offered.

On Saturday, there are sheep shows and judging, films, round table discussions and presentations about traditional grazing practices, Navajo culture, flock management, sheep health, wool quality and issues important to modern-day Navajo life. Vendors offer jewelry, crafts, weavings and wool, and there are cooking demonstrations and tastings of traditional foods.

Wander among the exhibitor sheep corrals to see impressive four-horned rams, multi-colored ewes and adorable lambs, or try hand-felting or carding with wooden combs while enjoying the mountain air and wide-open pinyon juniper forest. One of my favorite things to watch is the junior sheep show, where young Navajo herders show their sheep in the judging ring. Proud to continue the traditions of their ancestors, their enthusiasm and their bond with their animals is heartwarming to see.

Visitors can see fiber artists dropspin, card and hand weave on a variety of looms, including the unusual triangle loom. Yarn displays highlight the myriad colors of vegetal dyes derived from native roots, bark, berries and leaves hand-gathered from the land.

It is a treat to taste savory mutton stew, smoky pit-roasted corn, refreshing Navajo tea or sumac lemonade, chili-laced blood sausage, sweet-tasting blue corn mush and other traditional foods that have sustained a healthy Navajo diet for centuries.

Diné College, the host of the event, has a museum in an architecturally unique hogan-shaped building. It is open on weekdays with rotating contemporary art exhibits and historic artifacts.

Sheep Is Life is fun, and it represents a remarkable wellspring of resilience and creativity, resulting in a vibrant community of Navajo, Anglo and other sheep herders around the world who are dedicated to cultural survival, self sufficiency, biological diversity and healthy, environmentally sustainable lives.

Don’t miss this opportunity—come and bring the family to this special Southwestern celebration in Tsaile. For more information about the event, workshops and lodging options, go to


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