KATIE HENIO, NAVAJO SHEEPHERDER
by Peggy Thomson
Photographs by Paul Conklin
In the Classroom
About the Book
She's a working Navajo great grandmother out on a New Mexico reservation, tending her sheep 10 months of the year, guiding the flock to water and fresh grass. When her animals rest, Katie Henio spins the wool with which she will weave her rugs. She gathers plants too for her medicines and her dyes. Katie Henio is happy to work outdoors in the company of her horse and her dogs, happy to cook over an open fire and sleep in a roll of blankets, happy, too, to have families living nearby to re-supply her with food and with helping children when she needs them.
Possible Discussion Topics
Katie Henio's story offers a chance to talk about: work, especially satisfying work, the outdoors, animals, plants, family; about self-sufficiency and dependence as well.
Her story is the chance to think about the skills involved in a seemingly simple life -- her need to interpret weather, to be prepared for storms or coyote attack, to read signs of sickness or stress in her animals. It takes special skills to keep horse and dogs alert and working well and to guide the sheep without losing them in woods or moving them too fast or neglecting to check that each animal drinks at the water hole. Katie's skills include tending newborn lambs, roping, springtime shearing, carding the wool, spinning it, washing, dyeing, setting up her loom, weaving. Understanding tools and understanding Navajo patterns are skills too. And what of living cheerfully with so little human company?
Katie Henio's story is a chance to think about the older people in our lives -- the work that pleases them, the skills we often take for granted, the tools they have a special affection for.
It's a chance to think about communication skills. Katie Henio never went to school. She speaks Navajo but not English (though she understands it). And she does not write Navajo.
She wishes now that she had had school. She and her husband saw to it that their own children were well educated. She knows she has missed a lot. She knows having two languages would be useful. As a child she followed her parents' wishes -- to hide, when the school officials visited the hogan, lest she be removed to the live-in schools for Indian youngsters and required to speak English only. As a grownup she has still chosen not to speak English, saying her throat has never learned to form the sounds.
Has she just been stubborn? Is holding out against the language her way of sending a message -- not to ignore or ever to forget the long and sometimes sad history of the Navajo people?
Even without English Katie Henio has communicated well -- within both cultures. She has done it by showing her skills over a long and devoted lifetime. Her example inspires the younger women in her weavers' association to take pride in their work and their way of life. She has taught weaving to college classes.
Katie Henio's way of passing on the Navajo language and culture to each small child in her large family is to take the youngster with her on her horse for days of tending the flock and -- as ever -- to speak to the child only in Navajo. It's a language the children hear spoken at home, by grownups, talking to each other. And they hear it some in school in class work. But most of the children are speaking English almost all of the time.
Young Dwayne, though, has lived with grandmother Katie for several years and speaks Navajo almost as freely as English. He has a chapter in the book all to himself, because he loves telling about his amazing grandmother and about his pleasure in the things she teaches him -- how to make kneel-down corn bread, how to dig plants respectfully, and the yells to yell with a snow shower on a winter run.
What would it be like, after all, to grow up in the company of a grandmother who speaks no English (except of course for her two emergency words "Be Quiet!" when children are out-of-control noisy)?
When Katie Henio was invited to create a sheep camp (complete with brush corral, shearing shed, and shade arbor) and to demonstrate her skills at a Folklife Festival on the green mall outside Washington DC's Smithsonian Institution, people flocked to watch her. She was surprised and felt honored by their interest. She roped sheep and sheared them and wove at her upright loom. People ran their fingers over the wool straight off the sheep--matted, with bits of seed and twigs and grass in it. They held the little piles of fluffy wool after it was combed with the carding boards, the coarse wool that had been spun once on her wood spindle, the finer wool after 2 and 3 spinnings. People saw the natural colors--white, gray, brown, black--and watched wool in cookpots turning colors with the vegetable dyes. Handling a woven blanket they felt the roughness that's typical of wool from the very long-haired sheep called Navajo Churros.
People were curious about the full skirt, too -- cotton, 8 yards of it or at least 6. The Navajo skirt, says Katie Henio, is perfect for horseback riding. Pants, she claims, are for men.
Just as children did at the festival, readers of Katie Henio's story may wish to sit on the ground as she does, Navajo style, with one foot under her, and possibly to flip up a pony tail for a Navajo hairstyle.
When Katie Henio was in Washington DC, she was invited to see old Navajo looms in the museum store-rooms of the Smithsonian Institution. She was sad to think that these looms -- so much like her own, straight up and down, with cedar posts -- had been taken from her Navajo ancestors. They were taken at the time of the Long Walk in the 1860s when Navajos were forced by the US Army to leave their hogans and their sheep and to relocate at Fort Sumner in mountains to the east. It was a time of terrible suffering. Looking at the looms and the weaving on them--unfinished -- Katie Henio wept. She felt proud, too, for she saw the evidence of good work. At one loom she saw from the colors that this long-ago weaver must have had many sheep. She surely had strong and skillful hands, too. The firm edges and strong corners of the blanket showed it. Katie Henio said she "felt deeply the kinship with her sheepherding and weaving ancestors."
Listening to her (with her daughter translating), I think that I, writing about this many-talented woman, understood what she means when she tells her young people to "know the past so that it will be part of you but never let the past embitter you."
Among the Navajo traditions, there's one that Katie Henio does not follow -- the one that calls for shunning contact with a son-in-law. "I treat my sons-in-laws like my sons," she says. "I want to show respect for how they treat my daughters and my grandchildren. I weave blankets for them."
Among the many Navajo traditions she does follow -- in designs on rugs, pottery, baskets -- is always to keep an open path. Don't let a decorative border encircle the neck of a pot completely or close off one area from another. Leave a small opening "for a way out."
The Ramah Navajo Weavers Association made up of 40 women weavers, including Katie Henio and her weaving neighbors and friends, is working to increase family self-reliance using the land and water resources at hand and the traditional Navajo skills of sheep raising, weaving, and sound land use. One project has been to bring back in good health and good numbers the breed of sheep known as the Navaja churros, a breed believed to be the ancestral sheep of the Navajo people. When this cooperative group was founded in l984, Navajo churro sheep numbered 500 worldwide. Now--with the successful breeding program -- there are more than 300 Navajo churro sheep in the flocks of Ramah Navajo weavers. Katie Henio has 16. The comeback of the churros is a special source of happiness, for these long-haired sheep are considered sacred and play a significant role in Navajo stories, songs, and prayers.
Katie Henio knows them to be extra-sturdy scramblers across the sharp rocks of her Western grazing lands. For further information to bring the Katie story to the classroom: contact Peggy Thomson, 23 Grafton Street, Chevy Chase, MD 20815
Navajo talk has many clicks in it and sudden stops (as when English-speakers say UH-oh!) Written, it uses apostrophes to mark the stops, curls beneath a letter to show it's said with a nasal twang, accent marks to show the high tones. Because so few people around the world have heard the language, the US armed forces in World War II were able to baffle the enemy. Navajo "code talkers" talked the top-secret messages to other Navajos at the front lines, and no enemy was able to break the code.
Navajo language has 32 consonants, 4 vowels--no r v f q, no u. A Navajo saying "river" would say something like ibba. Some of the extra consonants make sort of hl, gl, hs sounds, or a cl sound almost as in clock. Navajo is hard to learn to speak
Katie Henio says: "The Navajo language I was born with is a holy thing to have. It's the beauty way language, given to us pure and clean."
|shi cho||sheh TCHOCH||my grandma (a term of respect and affection, used by the family to Katie Henio, used by her to her horse, to her favorite dogs, to plants, to mother earth)|
|ya ateeh||YAH AHT AY||hello|
|ya ateeh shi k'is||YAH AHT AYshe k is||hello, my friend|
|ha goonee||ha GO nay||goodbye|
|atchini||yaziah CHINi yajjeh||little kids|
|ateed||ah TAY ed'||girl|
|ma ii||ma EE||coyote|
|tei chaa I||hlay CHAH eh||dog|
|tlizi||tl IZZ eh||goat|
|ha go shii||ha go SHEE||ok, it's ok|
|ahehee||AH HYEH theh||thanks|
If you're interested in reviewing children's and young adult books, then send a resume to email@example.com.