Features and Occasionals

Seeds and sheep: finding solutions in the ways of the ancestors

By Greta Belanger deJong

If you live many dusty miles from a decent grocery store (and in the midst of a pandemic, in which your county has the second highest case rate in the state), you might find the notion of growing your own food a life-saver. That is, if you had access to the types of seeds that can thrive where summers are hot, temperatures extreme and rain sparse.

Protein would be welcome, too. And wool, for warm clothing and to sell. Maybe some sheep.

Welcome to Navajo Nation, an area overlapping parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico—roughly the size of West Virginia—where 157,000 Navajos call home. In the past 20 years, population has been declining as the unemployment rate creeps upward. The current median age is 28, with an unemployment rate of 56%.

The Seeds and Sheep program was created earlier this year by Utah Diné Bikéyah (pron. dee-nay-bi-KAY-ah), a nonprofit supporting Native Tribes working together to Protect Bears Ears. The organization’s Traditional Foods Project is helping Native farmers restore or maintain a self-sufficient food system in this time of crisis and beyond by distributing seeds from area sources, including the Traditional Native Amer­i­can Farmers Assn. They also plan to offer Navajo churro sheep, a hardy breed raised by Navajos since the 1600s (a breed nearly made extinct by the U.S. government in the late 1800s) as well as Rambouillet, a mainstay on western ranches. Both are known as dual breeds in that they are good for both meat and wool.

The program recently received a boost from the National Resilience Fund, a project of Slow Food USA, which granted 23 food-based initiatives around the country through local Slow Food chapters. “By injecting extra funds to local community initiatives that most need support now, we will help them survive the current crisis and build resilient economies and communities for the future, with good, clean and fair food front and center,” according to their press release.

Slow Food Utah, our state’s affiliate, submitted the request on Diné Bikéyah’s behalf; the program was awarded $2,000.

Slow Food Utah’s main project is providing micro-grants to local food producers, funded by proceeds from an annual dinner called The Feast of Five Senses. The motto of Slow Food International as well as its country, state and regional affiliates, is “good, clean, fair food for all.”

“Our spiritual leaders are also talking about the need to repair our relationship to the earth across all of humanity,” says Alastair Lee Bitsóí (Diné), communications director for UDB. “Our organization is supporting the elders who say, ‘It is time to plant corn, it’s time to pray for abundant food and wild game, and it is time to come together as a community to help each other.’ These are unprecedented times, and we are looking to the most knowledgeable land stewards in Utah to guide us forward.”

— Greta Belanger deJong

utahdinebikeyah.org; tel. 385.202.4954; Utah Diné Bikéyah, P.O. Box 554. Salt Lake City, Utah 84111



This article was originally published on June 2, 2020.