Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country

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Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country offers a fresh interpretation of the history of Navajo (Diné) pastoralism. The dramatic reduction of livestock on the Navajo Reservation in the 1930s — when hundreds of thousands of sheep, goats, and horses were killed — was an ambitious attempt by the federal government to eliminate overgrazing on an arid landscape and to better the lives of the people who lived there. Instead, the policy was a disaster, resulting in the loss of livelihood for Navajos — especially women, the primary owners and tenders of the animals — without significant improvement of the grazing lands.

Livestock on the reservation increased exponentially after the late 1860s as more and more people and animals, hemmed in on all sides by Anglo and Hispanic ranchers, tried to feed themselves on an increasingly barren landscape. At the beginning of the twentieth century, grazing lands were showing signs of distress. As soil conditions worsened, weeds unpalatable for livestock pushed out nutritious native grasses, until by the 1930s federal officials believed conditions had reached a critical point. Well-intentioned New Dealers made serious errors in anticipating the human and environmental consequences of removing or killing tens of thousands of animals.

Environmental historian Marsha Weisiger examines the factors that led to the poor condition of the range and explains how the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajos, and climate change contributed to it. Using archival sources and oral accounts, she describes the importance of land and stock animals in Navajo culture. By positioning women at the center of the story, she demonstrates the place they hold as significant actors in Native American and environmental history.

Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country is a compelling and important story that looks at the people and conditions that contributed to a botched policy whose legacy is still felt by the Navajos and their lands today.

University of Washington Press

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A nuanced analysis of archival documents, extant historiography, and cultural memory. . . . This is a first-rate history by one of our premier western and environmental historians."—Jeffrey P. Shepherd, The Journal of Arizona History, Summer 2011
The Journal of Arizona History - Jeffrey P. Shepherd
A nuanced analysis of archival documents, extant historiography, and cultural memory.... This is a first-rate history by one of our premier western and environmental historians.
New Mexico Historical Review
Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country joins a growing list of environmental histories that take the intersection of human culture and nonhuman imperatives seriously... What emerges is a compelling story, complicated in detail but clear in explication. The work is suited to both the uninitiated and knowledgeable reader, offering important insights on the cultural challenges of ecological restoration.
Western Historical Society
Weisiger's focus on Navajo women, in her examination into the overgrazing of tribal land and the reduction of livestock as a solution, is distinct from other literature.... Weisiger's analysis on the implementation of the conservation program is very insightful and also disheartening, particularly for Navajo women, who were completely ignored both by the Navajo tribal council at the time and by the federal government.... The information is eye-opening...
American Indian Quarterly
Dreaming of Sheep makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the American West. It effectively weaves together several neglected strands central to increasing our understanding of how climate change, periodic drought, land-use patterns, government interventions, and above all, the disregard of the importance of female husbandry intersected to create conditions that led to Collier's greatest failure during his tenure as commissioner of Indian Affairs (1933-45)…. With great sensitivity and insight, Weisiger evocatively demonstrates why stock reduction continues to be indelibly seared into Navajos' collective memory.
The Journal of American History
The history of Navajo livestock reduction in the 1930s is well known, yet Marsha L. Weisiger offers a sophisticated reevaluation that is satisfying in both its telling and its complexity.
Weisiger demonstrates that Navajo rangeland management needs both an ecosystem approach and a cultural understanding. Summing up: Recommended.
American Scientist
Marsha Weisiger recounts a past example of scientists predicting an environmental catastrophe to a skeptical audience. Although this episode played out on the remote Colorado Plateau in the 1930s and early 1940s, it remains relevant today…. Weisiger takes great pains to understand each side's point of view, and her account deftly joins the cultural and the ecological…. Weisiger's analysis of the conflict is the first to explain the interplay of gender and ecology…. Surely, there is a lesson here for the present day.
Spindle & Dyepot Shuttle
In reading this book, fiber artists will gain respect for the Navajo weavers in their efforts to weave and for their challenge in being forced to use wool that they felt was unsuitable for their work. Gardeners and botanists will surely recognize the references to plant life in the Southwestern desert, and the struggle in not allowing the pervasive plants to gain control. And those of us who love to examine history will recognize that this heartbreak could surely have been avoided through understanding, communication, and respect for nature and for the culture that thrives within it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780295988818
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 422
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Marsha L. Weisiger is associate professor of history at New Mexico State University.

University of Washington Press

Marsha L. Weisiger is associate professor of history at the University of Oregon.

University of Washington Press

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Table of Contents

FOREWORD: Sheep Are Good to Think With / William Cronon


PROLOGUE: A View from Sheep Springs

PART 1: FAULT LINES1. Counting Sheep2. Range Wars

PART 2: BEDROCK3. With Our Sheep We Were Created4. A Woman's Place

PART 3: TERRA FIRMA 5. Herding Sheep 6. Hoofed Locusts

PART 4: EROSION 7. Mourning Livestock 8. Drawing Lines on a Map9. Making Memories

EPILOGUE: A View from the Defiance Plateau

Notes Glossary PlantsBibliography Index

University of Washington Press

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