TahNibaa Naataanii of the Navajo Nation lives on the land where her family has raised sheep as part of their traditional life and culture for hundreds of years. Just south of Shiprock, New Mexico, and the Four Corners area, about half an hour away, is Table Mesa. That’s where you’ll find Naataanii tending to her sheep. She takes pride in being able to raise her Navajo churro sheep and use the wool in both traditional and new ways to provide a living for her and her daughter, and to keep up the cultural traditions and obligations of her family.
For the past 13 years she has woven rugs, entered juried art shows, and has sold her weavings from the wool her sheep provide. Her Navajo weaving business and her sheep ranching have become a full-time business.
Naataanii made a good living and managed to weather and survive the recessions of 2008 and 2009, but as she says, her business began to feel a bit “topsy-turvy.” She knew she needed to diversify.
“I do use some wool for my weaving, but I started looking at other ways of bringing in revenue with my sheep by selling wool in its raw form and creating other products such as felt ponchos and scarves, and I hand spin the wool. Over a period of two to three years I’ve seen my business change and grow, and with that growth other responsibilities and opportunities came out.”
Business of Indian Agriculture Training
One opportunity that appeared was the chance to attend The Business of Indian Agriculture (BoIA) training offered by First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) as part of its Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative.
The Business of Indian Agriculture is designed to help farmers and ranchers succeed in managing their businesses. It covers useful topics like how to develop a business plan, how to set up bookkeeping systems, and marketing. It also covers important topics like risk management, personal financial management, and using credit wisely. The two-day training offers attendees the opportunity to expand their understanding and knowledge of agricultural businesses and the opportunity to network with other producers.
Naataanii took The Business of Indian Agriculture training in March 2016 at the WeKoPa Resort and Conference Center in Scottsdale/Fountain Hills, Arizona, a facility that is owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. The training curriculum has five modules that cover business, accounting, financial management, agribusiness economics and marketing, land use and management.
Jackie Francke (Navajo), First Nations’ Vice President of Programs and Administration, said the benefits of BoIA training are many. “Attendees might already be conducting business, but the training provides resources and strategies to take their business to the next level. It provides producers the opportunity to reflect on their business and identity subtle changes that could increase profit and provide much-needed motivation by networking with other Native ranchers, farmers or producers in attendance.”
John Phillips, Ph.D., First Nations consultant and BoIA training facilitator, provided insight and strategies about developing a business plan, unique considerations in agricultural business, and other tools to improve an agricultural enterprise.
Business Plan Question Hits Home
Phillips asked the participants how many had a business plan. Naataanii had been in business 13 years without a real (or finalized) business plan, and the question brought out some clarity for her.
“I had an ‘ah ha moment.’ I had to understand what was happening in my business. I was struggling to understand where and why I was struggling, what I was struggling at, and it [the training] helped me understand where I needed to make changes,” said Naataanii.
The training helped her to be a better business owner and take charge of her future. She had between 60 to 83 sheep – too many for her to handle.
“There were many components in the business plan that stood out to me,” she said. “It’s not just about working, being productive at work and happy about your products, but it’s about having a balance with family, too. Listening to the facilitators ask what are your priorities in your business statement, I realized my time is a commodity and my daughter is my priority and she needs my time and understanding. I am glad I took the training as I realized there were leaks in my business bucket.”
In order to repair those leaks, Naataanii learned how to look at how much time she was putting into each project or product she was creating. She learned to think about what her time was worth and to determine pricing strategies. She started keeping track of her time to determine the hourly wage for her work.
Naataanii not only had to consider how to value her time, but how the use of her time with her sheep connects back to her as a Navajo and her cultural values.
Back to a Desk Job?
Prior to taking the training, Naataanii was considering selling off the sheep and returning to “mainstream society” to take a desk job. It saddened her to think that she had to sell all the sheep and not carry on the tradition.
“Sheep are very special to the Navajo people. In our creation stories sheep came with us,” she said. “It’s a traditional agribusiness with my sheep. You have to love your business to be motivated, and all I can say is my sheep – they are my family, too. I had to look at the land, too, and the land can’t produce enough grass for 100 sheep. So I had to do the right thing – for the sheep – and they realized it, too.”
However, after attending the BoIA training in March 2016, Naataanii did not have to return to a desk job. But what she did do was reduce the flock or number of sheep gradually. Now she has a total of 16 sheep, and five baby lambs.
Naataanii said she works at her business plan on a regular basis. “I always revisit the big plan because things change. I understand that now and I am excited about that.”
By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer