Carved over 27,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, the Navajo Nation bears the red rust color bands of the eastern Grand Canyon in its west, high desert and scattered forests, and a craggy wilderness fit for the greatest of nature gazing along the borders and corners of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. But such picturesque landscape belies the totality of the geography, including the lives on the reservation, whose hardships should not so easily be glazed over. And their toll on livelihoods has reaped additional consequences, and in particular, the large scale abandonment of pets and otherwise domesticated animals has resulted in an overpopulation of feral dogs and horses.
Underscoring the lack of animal control, care, and shelters, and the broad underfunding of resources and programs to help manage the animals is the question—to paraphrase journalist Kim Baca of New Mexico: What do you do with creatures that are an integral part of your culture, but also wreak havoc on land, water, and lives? How do you reconcile the culling of dogs that once helped the Navajo farmer with herding livestock but now—roving in packs, emaciated by hunger, and seized by mange and fleas—slaughter a family’s or community’s herds?
In 2017, Baca reported in High Country News that up to 40,000 wild horses wander the Navajo Nation. A Navajo official in 2011 estimated there were four to five dogs for each of the more than 89,000 households on the reservation, or as many as 445,000 dogs total. The mauling deaths of three-year-old Kayden Colter Begay in 2016, Jason White Hip in 2015, and eight-year-old Tomas Jay Henio in 2012 are just a few reported victims of dog attacks, many of which do not result in criminal charges.
Despite the traumas that those attacks leave on the community, dogs and horses can be seen as destructive, this photo series illustrate the testimonial of Tasheana Tom Libbo and the damages that dogs had on her grand grandma and family.
Tasheana Tom Libbo:
On the high plain near Red Mesa, you can see a few homes from the road. Tasheana’s masani (maternal grandmother) lives in one of them, and at 96-years-old, is a riot of blue--her cerulean blouse and azure with pink flower skirt make her a vibrant beacon against any background. Surrounded by grass-pocked terrain and abandoned uranium mines, the house is simple and cozy with a cast iron stove asserting itself in the room while Old Glory’s and photos of Army-uniform clad kin and others gaze back from grey and beige walls. Tasheana is carrying and touching her masani, sharing their story and what impact the rez dogs have on the family. In the summer of 2015, is when our herd of sheep was slaughtered by stray dogs. We were living with our great grandmother, 94 at the time, taking care of her and helping her with what she couldn’t do herself. One of those jobs was herding the sheep. The sheep coral was a good 15 yards from the house, having her walk down and back up to the house as well as being chased by a herd of sheep wasn’t exactly safe for her.
“Now through Navajos, traditionally the boys are supposed to tend to the sheep, which became my brother’s duty. He was the main one to tend to the sheep. We all worked with them but he did the most. He fed, watered, and herded them whenever they wandered too far. He was closer to them. In a year of living there he grew closer to the sheep than we did, he had a certain bond with them.
We watched him through the kitchen window running to the sheep coral and then running back even faster and visibly upset. We knew something was wrong from the way he looked running back to us. When he came inside he was crying. Immediately he told us that a lot of the sheep were dead. After explaining what he saw and calming down, he and my mom went down to the coral.
I continued making breakfast while watching from the window. My masani walked up to me and asked what was going on. I didn’t know how to answer her, mostly because I didn’t know how to say in my language that all her sheep were gone. She continued to ask me and each time I would tell her ‘I don’t know.’ She started getting really frustrated with me and yelled at me. I didn’t really understand what she was saying but I knew enough to know she thought I was hiding something from her. She was walking by to stove (fireplace) and sat back down mumbling I heard her say dibe (sheep) but other than that, I don’t know what she said.
My mom and brother came back and when my masani saw that they came back she got up and started asking my mom all of her questions. My mom explained to her what happened. My masani sat down for a while and then she got back up and started putting on her coat and shoes. My mom told me to go with her.
The walk down to the sheep coral was quiet and slow. I started to think about how my family had worked on keeping the lambs, that had been born that winter, warm. How Tristen and I had taken shifts feeding them through the night. The 2014 winter season was really harsh on all of the newborns. When we first moved in with my great-grandma she had roughly between 25-28 sheep, that was the Fall of 2013. It grew from there, during the spring of 2014 we had around 32 sheep, then Fall came and we had hit 40. The sheep had lambs up until mid-November and we had a total of 48 sheep. Then the slow decline hit, we lost a lot of our lambs one by one from then on, we had 4 lambs left of the 20 that were born.
When we reached the sheep coral all of the sheep were scattered, there was wool and blood everywhere both inside and outside of the sheep coral. The ones that were alive were on the left side of the entrance right next to the shed where we keep our hay and nursery, still looking frightened. When she saw the all of the sheep that were on the ground she told me to open the gate. I was hesitant because I thought all the sheep might run out as soon as I opened it and make her fall, so I told her no. She began to get irritated that I wasn’t letting her in and was hitting her cane on the gate. I did as I was told and I opened it. I had to hold the gate in place as she walked in and still scared they might run out and hit her but nothing. They stayed absolutely still and looked at her, following her. My masani looked around the coral and cried. She walked up to a sheep and it backed away from her. She held out her hand, one of the lambs came and brushed itself against her dress and put its nose to her hand. She cried even harder after that.
There is no phrase for “I’m sorry” in our language, as an alternative we pray. We bless them as well as ourselves; we acknowledge our wrongdoings and give offerings. I think that is what my masani did in that moment. She prayed and walked out and once we were back she told us to give them water and food. I don’t remember much of what happened after just that all of us were heartbroken and in disbelief.
From then on we were more focused on the all of sheep’s wellbeing. My grandpa and Tristen started making a new sheep coral with smaller and less gaps. We were making sure that they stayed closer to the house. But soon we couldn’t keep track of them anymore; we were hit again with losses. So we gave the sheep to relatives who could take care of them and wanted them. My grandma actually has one of the lambs that survived the attack.
Since that attack happened the surrounding families in that area have also suffered. The family cross from masani’s had a huge herd of sheep, with around 100 sheep and goats. They used to cross the street to eat the grass on our side. But now that flock has only grown smaller.
This problem is difficult to solve, traditionally dogs are protectors and a line to prosperity. You are not supposed to buy or sell them because you we gradually start to lose everything you have and become poor. You are not supposed to kill one either or you will have health problems in the future. The area we lived in was deeply traditional and we all respected our traditions, nobody wanted the consequences of what would happen if we got rid of the dogs, despite the hardships they gave us.”
Testimonial from Tasheana Tom Libbo.