SEE Magazine recently began their series, “The Importance of Being Churro: The Sheep at the Heart of Navajo Culture.” The magazine was co-founded by previous contributor Emily Matyas, who provides photographs for the article. In part one, Colleen Oakes provides a broad introduction to the contemporary struggles facing Navajo traditions that starts with raising Churro sheep. The article is accompanied by powerful interviews and stunning photography.
You can check out Emily’s work for Superstition Review in Issue 14 here.
Recently I find myself wanting to discuss certain facts or ideas that are not widely known. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make connections between various things, places or people that, at first, do not appear to make sense. While researching information for a project I am doing, I have been introduced to several combinations of objects that may not seem related, but in fact they are, and they impact our world today.
The combinations that I’ve run into include, rattlesnakes and cell phones, cowboy hats and high-end resorts, rugs and diabetes, medicine and portraiture, merino sweaters and sustainable meat. Also, poetry and weaving, although those two do have commonality in being art forms.
The project is about the Navajo Churro Sheep and how its existence affects the lives of people living on the Reservation, and how that in turn affects the Southwest and beyond. My colleague and I will publish it in our online magazine, SEE. We’ve encountered myriad facts about the difficulties the native peoples face now and in the past, yet heard many stories about the beauty of traditional life. We’ve begun to understand that the connections between native and non-native communities are multiple and important. A highlight of my research so far was the traditional Navajo sheepherding trek that I participated in this summer.
The purpose of this journey was to teach and preserve the ancestral method of sheepherding. It also sought to highlight how this particular breed of sheep, the Churro, is central to certain parts of Navajo culture. Briefly, it is a variety of sheep that is much better adapted to the climate on the Reservation, than say, Merino sheep. It’s a long, complicated story, but much of the sheepherding traditions are dying out, especially among the younger generations. This demise is widespread. (Traditional sheepherding cultures are declining globally for reasons that are often similar to those impacting the Navajo Churro). Governmental practices have taken these sheep away from the Navajo at various times throughout history, and it continues to this day. Some tribal members are trying to pass along their ancestral customs, and looking for ways to integrate them into modern life. Hence, our group of mainly young Navajos, some of whom had never herded sheep before, set out on this traditional trek, to guide the sheep up to their summer grazing lands.
The hike took us 22 miles into the Carrizo mountain range on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona. Although normally this journey would be done in one day, we took two days – one evening, and all of the next day. Before we started out, we gathered in a circle to introduce ourselves, and, to my surprise, to douse our feet and legs with a mixture of osha root and water. I’d only known osha root as a cure for a sore throat. But apparently it has an odor that rattlesnakes don’t like.
Since we left so late in the evening, we ended up hiking for about an hour in the dark. Even with the osha root, we were concerned about encountering snakes, or other animals. So several of us pulled out our smart phones and used them as flashlights. Here we were, traipsing through desert sagebrush and piñon pines, along a centuries old path, following the ways of the elders with our electronic devices illuminating the way.
One of the hikers was a historian, a Navajo, and extremely knowledgeable about Native culture and the land. His outfit piqued my curiosity even before the trek started. He was wearing a white blanket draped around his torso, had leggings made from strips of cloth, he carried a wooden staff and had a plastic water jug slung over his shoulder on a rope. He was dressed in the conventional way of sheepherders from long ago – except for the Arrowhead gallon plastic jug, which at first seemed a bit out of context. But maybe it was a comment on the intersection of Native culture and modernity.
He talked a lot about the cultural and geological history of the area. According to him, the sagebrush and piñon are invasive trees. They have been choking out the natural plants over the last several decades. In fact, the name of the town Teec Nos Pos, where we started our journey, means “circle of trees.” Apparently many trees once grew in a circle at this site. Now they are mostly gone. At one point during the evening hike he called out, to whoever would listen, “And what happened in 1070?” Well, the sunset crater erupted. Ten feet of ash covered the area. It displaced the people. This story sounds familiar.
We heard a lot about the displacement and abuse of Native Americans from the people we interviewed for the article. Problems often revolve around the Churro sheep and how this animal factors into the economics, politics, health, and culture of the reservation. In addition, each person we spoke with described how certain issues surrounding these sheep affect the rest of Arizona, the country and echo similar circumstances around the world. With this information, the aforementioned combinations of objects started to make sense.
Last spring, I interviewed a Utah State professor at the American Sheep Industry Conference, which was being held at a fancy Scottsdale resort. The professor is the founder of the Navajo Sheep Project, an organization that has been instrumental in re-introducing the Churro sheep to Navajo families since the 1970s. I had never met him in person, but thought I would recognize him from the pictures I had seen of him in his cowboy hat. When I walked into the resort, I looked for a man wearing a hat like his and found – dozens! Seems like that was the hat of choice at this convention.
The issue of rugs and diabetes came up when I visited two Navajo sisters who still embrace a sheepherding lifestyle. They showed me their looms with rugs in progress, demonstrated how they comb wool, and let me photograph their sheep. They also complained that the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project badgers them with information about how to avoid diabetes – when all they have to do is keep up their traditions – sheepherding, shearing and spinning wool, eating natural, grass-fed meat, and ostensibly, weaving rugs. Then, they said, they have no problems.
Medicine and portraiture are the hallmark of a very special doctor who lives on the Reservation. He pastes giant photographs of Native Americans on water towers, jewelry stalls and other structures that you see along highway 89 in northern Arizona. Although a non-native, he tirelessly dedicates himself to the welfare of the native population and produces artwork out of respect for his patients and their customs.
The current trend for merino sweaters can affect sustainable meat production. A former ASU grad student and fiber artist, explained that Merino wool outdoes Churro wool in the marketplace. Merino’s short fibers are easier to machine process than the longer fleece of the Churro sheep making it more desirable in our fast-paced, modern world. But if the Navajo cannot sell enough of their Churro wool, they have less reason to have as many Churro sheep. This tendency means less meat too – meat that is sustainably raised and sold as such to the consumer.
As for the combination of poetry and weaving, the Navajo Poet Laureate told us that she writes poems ‘from the bottom up’ literally starting at the bottom of the page. She explained that as a child, she used to hear her grandmother’s loom make rhythmic clacking sounds, which was very soothing, and inspired her to write poems that mimic Navajo weaving, which is done on a vertical loom instead of a horizontal one, starting at the bottom in order to connect the earth to the sky.
Doing this project about the Navajo Churro sheep, I have learned many things. Some are important details about native cultures. Others are historical facts. Some are elements of societal or environmental concern. But what I find most inspiring, are the bits of wisdom gleaned from other peoples’ experiences.
I learned about many during the sheepherding trek. We were all concerned about how many miles we had to go. But when one of the Navajo hikers suggested that we ‘look back at how far we had come,’ it made the journey more pleasant and a bit easier. The morning after the trek, we all gathered to witness a Navajo prayer ritual. We observed how an offering of turquoise is given before the prayer. One tree is chosen as the recipient and communicator to the spirits. Also, we were taught that the Navajo pray first for Mother Earth, for without her we would have no home. Next, they pray for the animals. After that, they acknowledge people they do not know, then their own family and lastly, themselves.
Other advice that I encountered from the people I interviewed includes the notion to ‘let people have their say before asking a question or making a comment.’ Also, that young and old people can work together on ideas so long as there is mutual respect. I’ve learned that the Navajo way of life considers balance and harmony to be two of the greatest goals in life. And, many times during my research for this project, I have heard ‘we are all connected.’
I agree with this statement. Our world is an interrelated ecosystem that suffers when a part of the whole dies. Traditional lifeways are in peril. Not just in Arizona, or the Southwest, and not only in America. Many of them are dying. And if they go, so too does their cultural heritage – the wisdom, the arts, knowledge of the earth, religion and language. This loss affects all peoples. A symbiotic relationship is what the connections are all about. I hope to start a conversation that reverberates around the world.
Arizona-raised artist Marlena Robbins is known for her tactile, self-reflexive painting style and use of color and symbolism. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to ask her a few questions on her work, style and process.
Regan Henley: You’ve said you haven’t been painting for very long, but you seem to spend a lot of time dedicated to it. Is painting your primary medium? Why or why not?
Marlena Robbins: Yes, painting is my primary medium. I use it more so as a therapeutic expressive outlet. I think the brush strokes and colors help me feel my reality. The simple act of the brush strokes help settle my mind, focus and zone into my present. The colors are psychological; reds are passionate; blues and greens are calming; white is pure, black is powerful; etc. I started painting about 3 years ago; it evolved from there and became my own form of therapy. It became a way for me make sense of my reality, my experiences and what I was going through in order to bring me back to the present.
RH: You’ve collected a very interesting group of pieces. What would you say is the overarching theme in this body of work?
MR: I don’t know that there is a theme to it all; I think each piece that I do reflects what I am experiencing at that particular time in my life. If I’m learning something new. For example, a lot of my earlier pieces were political because I was taking an American Indian Studies course; so whatever I was taking in through my course was being reflected through my paintings. Other paintings were an extension of my feelings, thoughts and circumstances of the moment. What I am trying to understand about my reality. My paintings are growing right along with me; they are a reflection of me and the times that I am in right now.
RH: What is your process for creating these works? Do you begin with concepts or images?
MR: I have the concept first; for example when I say that I am painting what I am experiencing and what I am trying to understand about my life, that’s the concept. That’s me thinking about what I am going through right now in order to create. For instance, we recently had a lot of loss in our family and to try to make sense of that all the only way I could was to paint about it and try to bring closure in order to move forward.
Another important concept to me is balance: balancing myself spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and how I represent that in my art. Making sense of balance is a lifelong journey; to sustain, nurture and accept that it is a part of who we are as individuals, as human beings. It is very much a part of our purpose.
The concepts definitely do come first, but I take images from my surroundings, the environment and my creative environment. I am very blessed to know and work with amazing artists and have great mentors who put it all out there to be respected and to inspire the people to create.
Some paintings I do start out with a plan, I sketch it first. However, lately, I’ve been mostly experimenting with the mixtures of colors; being intuitive with it and going with the flow. Not really having a plan but giving the canvas my all and the paints their own direction and free will. It’s intimidating to not know what is going to happen or how it’s going to come out because I have this canvas in front of me and I don’t want to mess it up, but at the same time there’s beauty in the unknown. I believe that is parallel with life.
RH: You’ve mentioned that many people are drawn to the three-dimensional quality of your work. Do you ever work with collage or 3D materials when creating these paintings? Your paintings have a kind of texture and warmth that makes them read like textile and fiber arts. How are you influenced by textile arts when creating these pieces?
MR: My very first collage piece was done to pay homage to the women, grandmothers and mothers who came before us. It was pictures of Indigenous women and their children from the late 1800s to mid-1900s. It shows the love that we have for our children as mothers and how that is gifted from generation to generation; the connection we must maintain and nourish with our children. There is no perfect parent; we do our best with what we have.
When I was finished with it I felt as though something was missing. I saw the beads next to me and started beading the outfits in the pictures. My very first collage was my very first beaded painting. The beads add to it, they are unique, different, offer a new texture/effect and are beautiful because it’s like painting with beads. There are very few artists that I’ve seen who bead their paintings. I haven’t seen much on it or read much about it; I know that it is out there, it’s just very unique. I first started beading about 7 years ago; my auntie taught me a very simple stitch. I stopped beading for a long time and it came to back to me when it was supposed to.
RH: Many of these paintings reference spirituality in an abstract way, from the use of patterns, stained glass and geometry; they definitely evoke these thoughts to me, personally. Can you speak a little bit more to that (Are you directly interested in these ideas or are they themes that come up naturally? Are you a very spiritual person? Etc.)?
MR: Spirituality, to me, is an intricate and delicate thought process but very simple to appreciate. It’s not overruled by any written agenda or book. It’s not confined entirely to a religion. It’s how we cope with our reality, how we understand and see ourselves, see the people around us and the world we are in.
I grew up in Window Rock, AZ on the Navajo reservation. Our family didn’t lean towards any religion. There were a lot of traditional Navajo families and Catholic/Mormon families around us. Our mother chose not to excessively influence any one form of religion, she let us understand it for ourselves, and I really appreciated that because it was less confusing. I am not too traditional but I am not religious either. I understand both because I witnessed both. It’s hard for me to respect any Christian religion as a legitimate source of spirituality based on colonialism and the fact that it wasn’t a part of our Indigenous beliefs before colonization.
The flower of life painting, for example, is a reminder to mellow out. That while we strive for perfection, nothing is ever perfect, and while we try to control every situation in our lives, sometimes that choice is not ours to make. We may think that we are making it but in the grand scheme of things we are not; by going with the flow and letting it all evolve the way it’s supposed to, we let it unfold as we go. I can plan my life out 10 years from now but still need to be happy with who I am this very moment by taking care of myself before I go overanalyzing my future. Understanding my present and being grateful for it is a part of spirituality; forgiving my past, accepting my present for what it is and acknowledging my future for what it might become.
RH: What are your biggest influences right now, artistically or otherwise (Artists, movements, styles, book, philosophies, ideas, things you’ve seen or heard, etc.)?
MR: I’ve been very blessed to be able to surround myself with very artistic and influential people in the community and throughout the nation. My mentors Carmen and Zarco Guerrero, my sister Zarina Guerrero, my good friends and accomplished artists in their own mediums: Thosh Collins, Thomas Greyeyes, and Samuel La Fountain. These very genuine people are true to themselves, their art and the world we live in. They have been inspirations to everyone they meet. I draw from their work and ideas. It helps motivate me and drive myself.
RH: What have been the biggest challenges for you in making this work?
MR: Time is the biggest challenge for me. I am the mother to a very energetic three year old. I work for two incredible organizations. I am the Assistant Director of Cultural Coalition, Inc. and am the assistant to the COO and Directors of Community Bridges, Inc. I will be attending graduate school in the fall, pursuing my Master’s in American Indian Studies–Indigenous Rights and Social Justice. I am preparing for my upcoming solo-debut show “777” this May. I am building up my collection and portfolio for the Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe this August. I’m starting a therapeutic art program at Community Bridges for our clients. And most importantly, giving my son the attention he needs and deserves to make sure he is growing in a good way.
RH: I want to ask you about your art site name, “Mello out Mella.” What’s the story behind that?
MR: Mello out Mella is a reminder for me to “Mello Out.” My nickname growing up is Mella. At times I am a control freak, I want everything to go my way. I have assumptions and expectations of how I want things to play out it and if it doesn’t it can be almost shattering for me. I had to have everything in order, organized to the T, this is how it’s supposed to go, this is how it is going to go, if it doesn’t go this way then what was the point of it all? It took a very long time to let go of that control and understand that things are not always going to go the way I want them to and I have to go with the flow and let it evolve the way it’s supposed to. Mello Out Mella is a reminder for myself and every other control freak out there, that it is ok and there are worse things that could happen, but right now we are safe, strong, happy, healthy, living, breathing and are in the present, grateful for that breathe we are taking in.
RH: So I noticed you also screen print your pieces on shirts and the like, but you’re also showing your work in galleries. Some people would consider those things as conflicting, or even find it difficult to live in both those worlds (fine art and commercial), so to speak. What are your thoughts on this, as an artist doing both?
MR: That never occurred to me. I love these paintings and wanted to share them because know I am not going to recreate them. I wanted to build a design out of it and share via t-shirts and posters. That way the design and painting stay alive. The shirts and posters help relay a message that was embedded in the painting. A lot of symbolism goes into my work; there are stories behind every painting which is a big part of my art. There is always meaning behind them, it’s never just a painting; they have feelings, energy, thoughts, prayers, etc. that go into it. I pray before, during and after I complete a painting. While these paintings are helping to heal me, after I am finished with them they are meant to heal the viewer as well. As the viewer, take in what it is offering. I hope my paintings/designs offer good energy, good thoughts, good words, good feelings and good health. They helped heal me and my intention is for them to help heal others.
RH: These pieces mark a significant period of work. Have you learned anything new about yourself during this period of time?
MR: Yes I have, painting has definitely helped me understand my reality for what it is. And accept and acknowledge parts of myself that I could never really grasp or deal with. Before I started creating, I went through a very difficult time in my life, and I am grateful for how it has helped me move forward. I see a lot of myself in what I paint and a lot of my intuition that goes into it.
RH: If you had to explain your art in 5 words or less what would you say?
The second reading of the semester took place as part of the Homecoming festivities on the lovely Polytechnic Campus. It was lovely, sunny, but a bit colder than the last few days, and quite blustery. The wind was blowing things around and making it more than a little difficult for all of the departments and organizations with tables set up about their programs.
We hosted our program (thankfully indoors) in the absolutely beautiful facility of the Black Box theater in the Applied Arts Pavilion. Due to a shifting situation on where we wanted/were permitted to hold the reading, the location had changed multiple times, resulting in a series of emails updating our readers. Probably confused me more than anyone else really. Even though I am the reading series coordinator, I had never spent much time on the Polytechnic campus, and did not really have much conception of where all the places were located, though I did eventually find my way to where we needed to be.
I started off by welcoming everyone to the reading and introduced Patricia Murphy, our managing editor and staff advisor. She then proceeded to explain the mission of SR and how we work, operate the magazine, and take submissions.
I then was able to introduce Laura Tohe, who was kind enough to drive out from the Tempe campus to share the written word with interested attendees out at our event at the Polytechnic campus. Laura read a variety of poems, including some beautiful poems from her most recent book, Tseyi, Deep in the Rock, which included poetry in both Navajo and English. She followed this with some assorted other poems, including assorted poems from a collection she is developing that she is calling her Bluebook collection, named because she started them in a blue notebook.
Laura finished the event by reading us a piece of a short story she wrote for Phoenix Noir, a recently published collection of noir mysteries all set in the Phoenix metro area. Mrs. Tohe laughed as she told us that she had never before written a mystery, but when she asked the editor how she should do it, drugs, sex, and murder were apparently the basic ingredients. I truly enjoyed the excerpts she read, and plan on buying the anthology to read the rest of the tale.
The reading will take place as part of the 2009 Homecoming celebration, featuring events such as a free concert by Arizona rock band Authority Zero and the Taste of the East Valley food fair. For more information on the Homecoming festivities, visit the ASU Polytechnic Homecoming Website.
Superstition Review is proud to announce Reading 2 of our Fall Reading Series, which will feature award winning author Laura Tohe as part of the 2009 Homecoming celebration at ASU’s Polytechnic Campus.
A current resident of Mesa, AZ, Tohe has received high acclaim for her book Tséyi’ / Deep in the Rock: Reflections on Canyon de Chelly, which received the 2007 Arizona Book Association’s Glyph Award for Best Poetry and Best Book and was named a Top Pick on the Southwest Books of the Year 2005 by the Tucson-Pima Public Library. She has also written a commissioned libretto, Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio, which made its world premiere as part of the Phoenix Symphony’s 60th Anniversary Season in February of 2008. She has also written essays, stories and children’s plays that have appeared in the U.S., Canada and throughout Europe.
Please click here for a video of Laura detailing her libretto Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio.
Raised by her family and relatives on the Navajo Indian reservation, Tohe grew up near the Chuska Mountains on the eastern border of the Diné homeland. She received her Bachelors degree from the University of New Mexico and her Masters and Doctorate degrees in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
For the event, she will read poems and an excerpt from her new short story in Phoenix Noir. Admission is free.