Navajo climate change weaving wool Indigenous knowledges

Begay’s parents had grown up raising livestock, and their dad had always wanted to raise sheep and cattle, but it was a hard way to make a living. In a family with seven children, Begay and their younger sisters were the ones who felt drawn to the sheep. And as a kid, Begay, who is non-binary and uses the pronoun they, always felt connected to their grandmother. While she worked, carding and spinning wool outdoors, Begay would play with Hot Wheels cars, carving little roads in the sand and clay.

It was a sentiment passed through the generations, one Begay says their great-grandmother had proven by winning the family’s first truck, a 1950’s Chevy, in a raffle as part of a local sheep shearing contest. By the time Begay was 13, they had gotten involved in local Future Farmers of America programs and started keeping a flock.

So Begay came home. It was quiet out here, not loud like in Tempe, making them feel more grounded. Upon returning, Begay learned that their grandmother had, in a Navajo custom, buried their umbilical cord in a sheep corral in the hopes that they would carry on the tradition and become a shepherd and a weaver.Now 34, Begay has 15 sheep. When it’s time for shearing, they tie their hooves into place and cut the wool by hand with a special pair of scissors.

Begay is determined to help stop that from happening. In 2020, they started Rainbow Fiber Co-Op, a wool co-op intended to protect ancestral flocks on Navajo Nation and to help other Diné (Navajo) shepherds get fair prices for their wool, especially wool from the Navajo-Churro breed prized by weavers around the world for their range of natural colors and quality of the fibers.

It also provides a window into the cultivating of wool for the purposes of weaving, which is a multi-step craft that requires lots of specialized knowledge. Some of the co-op’s wool is processed commercially, but Begay knows how to do every part by hand.

Next comes carding — brushing the wool out on a rotating drum to prepare it for making yarn — and sometimes dyeing, a task Begay often takes to California where their best friend has the garage space for it. And finally, there’s spinning, which Begay makes look easy — evenly feeding tufts of wool onto a roll that turns with the gentle up-and-down motion of a foot pedal.

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