Synopses & Reviews
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.
Marsha L. Weisiger is associate professor of history at New Mexico State University.
"I cannot think of any book that weaves a more compelling narrative from the collision of Indian, American, and scientific understandings of nature. Weisiger's painstaking reconstruction of the region's biotic communities and her careful attention to biologists' thinking and their meanings for historians places this book in a class by itself." -- Louis Warren, University of California, Davis
"An ambitious, masterful work that addresses fundamental issues about relationships of power between the state and the people it attempts to control, the relationship between nature and cultures, and conflicts between different ways of narrating stories." -- Sherry L. Smith, Southern Methodist University
"Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country ultimately presents a tragedy that could have been largely avoided. In this important book, Marsha Weisiger leaves us with an enhanced appreciation of victories and victims. She portrays resilient people who will do all they can to remain on the land and a persisting sadness nourished by dreams of a time gone by and a world to which sheep are unlikely to return." -- Peter Iverson, Regents Professor of History, Arizona State University
"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