A trip home to butcher a sheep

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Andi Murphy/Las Cruces Sun-News

Plains Indians have the buffalo, mountain Indians have deer, coastal Indians have whales and fish. Navajos have the sheep. Actually we acquired them in the 17th century when the Spanish brought them close enough for Navajos to steal and trade for them. We quickly adopted them into our culture and way of life. Back then families had huge herds and they became a major commodity. They were eaten and their wool was used to make yarn and rugs. They’re still used this way, but on a much smaller scale and primarily for celebrations and special occasions. My family rarely butchers sheep. I have only seen part of it once, but never the whole thing. I said I was curious, so they recently got together and bought a sheep from a family friend. On my great-grandmother’s (Grace Tsosie, who is 85 years old) side, they butcher sheep all the time. We went to her house, about three miles west of Crownpoint, and butchered our first sheep together. It’s customary not to stress out the sheep, and the final deed is done quickly.

Andi Murphy

Andi Murphy

I am a foodie. I love to eat and try new things. I enjoy being in restaurants and in the kitchen. So it’s safe to say food is a hobby and a passion of mine. I’ve eaten Korean, Ethiopian, Indian, Belgian, South American, German, Czech, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Afghan and Japanese food. Middle Eastern and Mexican foods are my favorite.

But I’ve never really explored the food that comes from the Navajo reservation, where I’m from.

On a recent trip home I got to experience a sheep butchering for the first time.

Witnessing this with my family was a great experience. I didn’t take part, physically, because I was taking photos most of the time. Next time I’ll get in there.

Kudos to the Miss Navajo contestants. They butcher sheep by themselves in front of an audience and judges while wearing a full dress and jewelry.

Navajo food doesn’t only come from the sheep. Historically Navajos hunted rabbits, deer, prairie dogs and elk. Navajos also grew corn, squash and beans. Our neighbors had a huge influence on our food too. From the Mexicans and Spanish we have Navajo tacos, pesolé and chile stews. Oh, and tortillas – every Navajo woman must know how to make fry bread and tortillas. We also consider tamales to be a delicacy, just like the Mexicans do, and they’re only made for special occasions.

A lot of our Navajo words for foods are actually Spanish words too. Geeso is how we say “cheese;” queso is how it’s said in Spanish, and it sounds the same. Mandagi’a is Navajo for “butter,” which is mantaquella in Spanish.

There is a wider variety of traditional Navajo foods including blue corn mush; ground blue corn cooked in hot water and salted or served with sugar; Navajo tea, which, to me, tastes like you took a fall in the weeds and got some of it in your mouth; and Navajo cake, a mix of ground corn and other sweet things that is baked underground and comes out dense and kind of tough – for a cake.

But back to the sheep. Scroll through the photo gallery below to see photos of the butchering I experienced.

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