“In our culture, we still do that practice when the umbilical cord of a newborn dries and falls off. Most of the time it’s kept at home so when the child grows up, their mind will always be at home. In my case, my grandmother placed it in the heart of her sheep corral. So my mind, my soul, everything I want to do in life would be there.”

In This Episode
Juliana Fagua-Arias speaks with Nikyle Begay about shepherding, the science of breeding for natural colors, and the sacred relationship between the Navajo people and churro sheep.

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Download transcript here.

Nikyle Begay (they/them/their), Diné shepherd and fiber artist based in Ganado, Arizona. You can find Nikyle on Instagram @navajoshepherd.

“Sheep Is Life” is the culture of my people. As children we are eager to help tend our grandmother’s flocks of sheep. We attribute this to when we were newborns, our umbilical cords dried and detached from our belly buttons and our grandmothers took them to the heart of their sheep corral and placed them there with a prayer. They pray for goodness as we grow. We’re taught that when we care for the sheep, they’ll care for us, providing sustenance, warmth, and life lessons.

I am a shepherd and I am a weaver. As a child, spring meant new born lambs and shearing. Summer was full of processing wool into yarn. The end of summer and beginning of fall meant collecting plants to dye the yarn and marketing the grown lambs. Although weaving was done year round, most of it was done next to the cozy fireplace during the winter. It was during those formative years, I became my paternal grandmother’s tail. I’d observe how she worked the sheep, how she’d stretch the carded wool as she spun, how she made intricate designs in her weavings. She never sat me down and gave me instruction, she just encouraged me to continue my observations. At 13, I started my own flock of Navajo-Churro Sheep. By 16, I took weaving seriously. I am still tending the sheep and I am still weaving. I’ve just begun sharing my culture and weaving with the world.

Juliana Fagua-Arias
received her MA from Bard Graduate Center in 2021, where her research focused on the material culture of colonial Latin America and the transpacific trade. She is currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University.