Strategic Planning & Capacity Building Keep Sheep a Way of Life

The annual Sheep is Life Celebration teaches new generations about all forms of fiber arts, Navajo heritage, pastoralism and sustaining the Navajo-Churro Sheep breed. Here, Navajo children assist in preparing a Navajo-Churro lamb at the festival.

The annual Sheep is Life Celebration teaches new generations about all forms of fiber arts, Navajo heritage, pastoralism and sustaining the Navajo-Churro Sheep breed. Here, Navajo children assist in preparing a Navajo-Churro lamb at the festival.

In New Mexico, for many in the Navajo Nation, the Navajo-Churro sheep are at the center of their hearts. And finding ways to promote and sustain the health and revitalization of sheep is a core component of the work of Diné be’iiná, Inc. With support of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), and a focus on strategic planning and capacity building, this 28-year-old organization has achieved new levels in ensuring that the valued sheep continue to remain in their hearts, culture and lives.

A Way of Life

The mission of Diné be’iiná is to restore the balance between Navajo culture, life and land and to preserve, protect and promote the Navajo way of life. Diné be’iiná means “the way that we, the people, live,” and much of that heritage is derived from the Navajo-Churro sheep, says Diné be’iiná Director Aretta Begay.

“We feel everything is connected,” she says. “The sheep is our food, it’s what we eat, and what we wear. It’s part of our ritual, our healing and our survival.”

The mission of Diné Be’iiná, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization since 1991, is to restore the balance between Navajo culture, life and land and to preserve, protect and promote the Navajo way of life.

The mission of Diné be’iiná, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization since 1991, is to restore the balance between Navajo culture, life and land and to preserve, protect and promote the Navajo way of life.

Since its founding in 1991, Diné be’iiná has kept the spirit of sheep alive by working with Navajo shepherds, providing education to the community, and fostering an economy based on wool and meat. Key to this work has been the establishing of spin-off programs that introduce people to the culture and industry of sheep raising, connecting sheep producers, weavers, wool processors and fiber artists.

Diné be’iiná also has multiple core programs, including the Sheep is Life Celebration festival, Sheep to Loom weaving and fiber education classes, and a “Lamb Presidium,” which nurtures a market for wool and meat, creating a viable income for shepherds and weavers.

Funding comes from program fees, donations and grants, including from First Nations. In 2017, the organization received a grant from First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative for a Sheep to Table project, in which apprentices were identified and trained to gather, document and share their knowledge of wild, edible plants and shepherding practices. This knowledge was vanishing with every generation, jeopardizing the ability of Navajo families to understand the value of the sheep and its role in their survival and culture. According to Begay, this involves everything related to the sheep, including how the sheep are raised, where they are raised, and the spiritual connection to sheep before the meat even reaches the table.

Increasing Interest

With this type of funding, Diné be’iiná has been able to serve a large portion of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, which has over 300,000 tribal enrollees. The organization is the only Navajo or tribal group doing this type of work, as other groups will feature the sheep during specific celebrations or events, but not on a full-time basis.

Advisory Board Member Roy Kady seasonally hosts a “trailing of the sheep” hike for community members to understand the tradition of Navajo shepherding.

Advisory Board Member Roy Kady seasonally hosts a “trailing of the sheep” hike for community members to understand the tradition of Navajo shepherding.

At the same, time, Diné be’iiná has heard increasing interest from the community about sheep and even getting starter flocks. Yet Begay says, many people still don’t know the traditional ways about the tending of sheep or the wool or fiber. To achieve its mission of promoting and protecting the Navajo way of life, Diné be’iiná leaders knew more would have to be done to ensure knowledge was being adequately passed down from elders to new herders. This is where strategic planning and capacity building came into play.

Building Capacity

The organization sat down to figure out strategies to build on its history and advance its mission. It was already conducting the spin-off groups across the Navajo Nation, but to meet the increasing interest, they had to question: Could these groups have a greater impact?

Diné be’iiná realized that by strengthening the spin-off groups through education, training and mentoring, they could build the capacity of each group. Diné be’iiná would be able to deliver more programs, sponsor additional groups, and meet greater demands for outreach from schools and other community organizations.

The organization applied for and was granted funding through the First Nations Native Arts Initiative for a project it calls Sheep to Loom: Retaining and Promoting Traditional Navajo Fibers Arts. To maximize the effectiveness, and as part of the technical assistance made possible through the grant, Diné be’iiná engaged with an organization called Melvin Consulting to further define its strategic approach. The organization used a process that involved reviewing its history, documenting trends in operations, and determining the factors that precipitate growth periods. Eileen Egan, a partner at Melvin Consulting, worked with Diné be’iiná. “It was illuminating to see the many ‘ah-ha’ moments when everyone took a step back to review their journey starting with their launch in 1991,” she says.

Teaching and sharing textile fiber arts is imperative in passing down the Navajo way of life. Pictured here is “Round Rug Weaving” by Antonio Chiquito, a Navajo weaver.

Teaching and sharing textile fiber arts is imperative in passing down the Navajo way of life. Pictured here is “Round Rug Weaving” by Antonio Chiquito, a Navajo weaver.

With a strategic plan in place, the Implementing Sheep to Loom moved forward with several objectives. To start, Diné be’iiná set out to bolster the leadership capacity of its board of directors, volunteers and staff. This set the backbone of the project by training all involved on board responsibilities, budgeting and fundraising.

The next objective was to identify three existing spin-off groups that were well-versed in Sheep to Loom activities related to fiber art, Navajo weaving and traditional wool processing. Each group was given technical assistance, leadership support, and capacity training to fine-tune and document these activities.

Each group then identified an apprentice to initiate the Sheep to Loom concept. The three apprentices joined with key individuals from each spin-off group to form a mentoring team consisting of the group host, a master fiber artist, at least one traditional shepherd, and a project director. The team approach was chosen to create a culture of leadership and mentorship that would stay intact after the project ended.

Spin-Off Highlights

Key to the training and capacity building of the spin-off groups were three highlights. Each team incorporated both youth and mentors, which Begay says was beneficial across the board. “The mentorships leveraged partnerships between two generations,” she says. “I’ve seen it grow consistently – how much hope you can see in the grandparents and how much energy you see in youth. They both want to be a part of it.”

Another important aspect was that much of the training for the apprentices – and the educational materials of the spin-off groups – was in the Navajo language. “Language is a part of our culture and what we’re passing down,” Begay says. “And learning the traditional practices also means picking up some of the vocabulary.”

The organization fosters an entrepreneurship economy for sheep producers, weavers, wool processors and fiber artists. Pictured is hand-spun Navajo Churro yarn, one of the Diné Be’iiná products.

The organization fosters an entrepreneurship economy for sheep producers, weavers, wool processors and fiber artists. Pictured is hand-spun Navajo Churro yarn, one of the Diné Be’iiná products.

Finally, through all of the training and mentoring, the Navajo way was upheld and fostered. “We recognize and acknowledge that Mother Earth provides for us and we have to live by that. We take care of the plants, the animals, and the language – we have to continue to talk about it and practice it,” says Begay.

The project has been critical to the sustainability of the sheep and the culture, she says. True to the purpose of the Native Arts Initiative funding, the Sheep to Loom project will add to the long-term perpetuation, proliferation and revitalization of traditional artistic and cultural assets. And, true to the mission of Diné be’iiná, it will promote and protect the Navajo way of life.

Advancing Art

In summarizing the project, Begay says she appreciates First Nations’ awareness of the variety and importance of Native art. “First Nations is able to acknowledge and recognize that every tribe is different, and every tribe has something sacred that they need to retain and keep alive,” she says. “For us, it’s textile art.”

For Diné be’iiná, this art has been fostered through strategic planning and capacity building, and the ability to better safeguard the Navajo-Churro sheep and invest in the Navajo textile artists. “We’re the middle person who can give artists the leverage they need to be successful entrepreneurs,” Begay says. “That’s good for the sheep, and it’s good for our way of life.”

By Amy Jakober

 

Muckleshoot “Rethink Your Drink” Effort Aims for a Healthy Tribe

Healthy beverage posters intended for display in classrooms and throughout tribal communities to promote ancestral beverage consumption.

Healthy beverage posters intended for display in classrooms and throughout tribal communities to promote ancestral beverage consumption.

In 2016, under one of its programs, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded 15 grants totaling $422,500. These grants were funded by the Seeds of Native Health campaign created by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) to improve the nutrition of Native Americans across the country. One of the grantees was the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe’s Traditional Foods and Medicines Program and its “Native Infusion: Rethink Your Drink Campaign.”

The project’s focus is to encourage tribal youth to incorporate and increase traditional, ancestral beverages, fruits and vegetables – healthy foods – into their diets. By focusing on traditional, ancestral beverages and foods, the tribe hopes to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and improve the health of the younger tribal members to combat diabetes, obesity and tooth decay later in life.

Valerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest is the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program manager, and a tribal member. Segrest says the implementation of the “Rethink Your Drink Campaign” is an important part of creating change in the eating habits of the tribe’s youth and their community.

“The discussion is focused on the facts and information … our communities have been disempowered for so long that we need to start with culture in the discussion. To let them (the community) be the driving force, so they feel more empowered to take their health into their own hands,” said Segrest.

Six healthy beverage posters were created by two Salish artists, Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha) and Joe Seymour (Sqauxin), who drew the images; and Annie Brule, who was the graphic designer. The posters will be displayed throughout the tribal community in the schools and community centers. A curriculum guide was created and made available to educators to increase the number of people who can teach the youth about traditional diets and how to make healthy beverage choices.

A tea bar display that includes several herbs highlighted in the curriculum and recipe book.

A tea bar display that includes several herbs highlighted in the curriculum and recipe book.

Segrest and her colleague, Elise Krohn, M.Ed., co-authored Native Infusion: Rethink Your Drink – A Guide to Ancestral Beverages, which is included in the toolkit. The guide is extensive and provides information on how to “Navigate the Beverage Aisle” to avoid the sugary drinks; information on the six posters and how the images connect to the ancestral drinks and cultural teachings; how to make infused waters, herbal teas, sodas, bone broths and smoothies; how to set up a beverage station; and where to find further information and resources.

The curriculum includes how to set up an interactive, traditional, healthy beverage station. It includes ingredients for participants to make their own blends as well as pre-made teas such as dandelion root lattes and Douglas fir tip infused water.

The curriculum includes how to set up an interactive, traditional, healthy beverage station. It includes ingredients for participants to make their own blends as well as pre-made teas such as dandelion root lattes and Douglas fir tip infused water.

The Muckleshoot Tribe offered a one-day nutrition education summit in mid-May 2017 with 40 educators, tribal community members and youth leaders trained on using the healthy beverage toolkit. Youth representatives, mostly middle-schoolers from the Muckleshoot Tribal School, attended, along with youth from the after-school program.

There were guest speakers who addressed the health impacts of sugary drinks, the healthy beverage movement in British Columbia, and how to set up beverage stations. The summit was more than handing out information. It strived to engage the attendees and to encourage dialog to reinforce that the return to creating and drinking traditional healthy beverages is an act of tribal sovereignty.

“We traded our ancestral drinks in for the sugar and energy drinks, which don’t have our health in mind. There is a rich cultural tradition in our healthy beverages,” said Segrest.

Dr. Rose James discusses the importance of evaluating the reach of the healthy beverage campaign.

Dr. Rose James discusses the importance of evaluating the reach of the healthy beverage campaign.

At the one-day nutrition education summit, Segrest and Krohn demonstrated how to make bone broth, and teas out of leaves and flowers versus bark, roots and hard berries. Attendees also learned how to harvest, dry and store the teas correctly. There were beverage stations set up so people could sample the various teas, which reinforced the accessibility and taste of the teas.

Infused waters were made with fruits and vegetables to encourage the drinking of water. One theme Segrest often hears is that water has no taste, so people avoid drinking it. The infused waters gives people options and encourages them to stay hydrated.

The participants went home with their toolkits made up of the six posters to display around their communities, along with the guide and a tribal recipe book, which included a section on beverages. The recipe book is another Muckleshoot project supported by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the Centers for Disease Control’s Good Health and Wellness in Indian Country (GHWIC) program. Segrest utilizes all available resources to maximize her program outreach and funding. She saw an opportunity to add beverage recipe cards to the existing popular recipe program that features foods specific to the area.

Presenters Fiona Deveraux (left) and Dr. Gary Ferguson (seated) listen intently as participants share their experiences teaching about healthy food traditions in tribal communities.

Presenters Fiona Deveraux (left) and Dr. Gary Ferguson (seated) listen intently as participants share their experiences teaching about healthy food traditions in tribal communities.

Segrest reminded the participants that “sovereignty isn’t an end goal, it’s something we do every day. Drinking ancestral beverages is a political act.”

Segrest and her colleagues will continue to provide trainings over the next several months and she is thankful to the Shakopee Seeds of Native Health campaign, the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program, and to First Nations for supporting her work as an activist for her community.

“The work wouldn’t be as prevalent or as strong without the support of First Nations, and it’s not just due to the funding, but to the relationships built with the folks within the organization. First Nations brings people together to feed off each other – to think, to partner. At First Nations’ gatherings you’re able to cross-pollinate with others, which reminds you that you’re not alone.”

The Seeds of Native Health effort encompasses efforts to improve awareness of Native nutrition problems, promote wider application of proven best practices, and encourage additional work related to food access, education and research. First Nations was one of SMSC’s strategic, inaugural partners in the effort. The campaign builds on localized efforts to solve the problems of Native American nutrition and hopes to raise awareness, spread knowledge, create capacity for change, and develop additional solutions on a broader scale.

By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer