Annual Sheep is Life event celebrates sheep and wool
Bob Naegle, right of Bayfield, Colorado holds his yearling Churro ram at the sheep show during the Sheep is Life Celebration June 25, 2011 at Dine' College in Tsaile, Arizona and his ram won grand champion in the ram category (Navajo Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)
2011 Sheep is Life festival highlights culture, connection to sheep
By Noel Lyn Smith
Tsaile, Arizona, June 30, 2011
Sometimes judging a sheep show is a little like looking at an oil painting.
You stand at a distance then you move in for a closer inspection but when you move closer to a Navajo Churro sheep, there is no guarantee the critter won't baa or turn away.
On Saturday owners presented their sheep before a laid-back crowd of about 30 people during the annual Sheep is Life celebration at the Diné College rodeo arena. The competitors showed their animals to best advantage, cradling the chin up in one hand and steadying the head with the other hand, as judges looked them over.
Judges Lyle McNeal and Johnny Tom inspected each animal for its fleece quality, the condition of its teeth and gums, facial and body structure, the length of the tail dock, hoofs, and the animal's balance when walking.
The best-of-show winner among two dozen entries was an 8-week-old ewe lamb named Jan and cared for by Kirt Atakai of Rocky Ridge, Ariz.
"It feels good," he said about the win.
When Atakai was born 28 years ago, he said, his grandmother, the late Marie Sheppard of Rocky Ridge, gave him a sheep from her flock.
He said his grandmother was not one for conversation because she was as an "old time Navajo" but she showed her love by teaching him how to take care of the family's sheep.
"It was something quiet to do together," he said.
Atakai started attending Sheep is Life after his mother, Louise Sheppard, started participating in the early 2000s.
One year Sheppard won a four-horned Churro ram at the event.
That ram went on to sire some of the sheep the family brought to this year's event from their ranch, Nizhóní Heritage Farms in Rocky Ridge.
Nikyle Wes, of Ganado, Ariz., won first-place in two categories, colored ewe lambs and colored ewe yearlings.
Wes, 21, has been participating in Sheep is Life since 2004.
He said he was up until midnight, sorting through his flock to select contestants for the sheep show.
Kirt Atakai, right, and Robbin Robinson, of Grand Falls, Ariz., hold their lambs in the sheep show during the Sheep is Life Celebration June 25 at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz. Atakai and his lamb won best of show in the lamb category. (Navajo Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)
"You could say that I chose the best ones to come," Wes said.
With both blue ribbons wrapped around his wrists, he explained the names of his animals.
The lamb was named Panda for its facial markings while the yearling is called Paramore, named by Wes' sister, Tatum, for her favorite pop-rock band.
"My whole life, I've always been at the sheep corral at my nálís," Wes said.
Wes, like Atakai, learned from his grandparents the cultural ties that sheep have to the Diné. He was 13 when he started his own flock, and now owns 30 Navajo Churros, three Angora goats and a llama.
He started to raise Navajo Churro after being introduced to the breed at the school farm at Ganado High School, where Wes was a member of the Future Farmers of America.
The Navajo Churro ram that Bob and Jan Naegle of Bayfield, Colo., entered in the yearling white ram category won the blue ribbon.
With a spotted face and its right curly horn marked with one black streak following the curve, Jack the ram was a beauty.
Bob, who is originally from Ganado, said he was not surprised by the win since the Naegles' ranch is known for breeding high quality Navajo Churro.
"Reestablishing the breed, we're involved with that," Bob said as Jack stood nearby.
Robbin Robinson, of Grand Falls, Ariz., had the only entry in the aged white ewe competition.
Before awarding Robinson a ribbon, McNeal explained that since there was only one entry that does not mean the ewe automatically would place first. She was still judged just like any other contestant.
"This ewe has earned a blue," McNeal said, pointing to her winning attributes: good facial structure and ears, straight, easy walk, and udder and nipples positioned to make suckling easy for lambs.
"Won by excellent nipples," Robinson joked after receiving the blue ribbon.
Robinson, who says she attends the Sheep is Life celebration "because I get the validation from real Navajo weavers. I get their opinion on the quality of the wool because they use it," also won the top award at the wool show. (See separate story)
Besides hearing firsthand from the weavers, Robinson likes hearing from the judge and uses that feedback to help improve the Navajo Churro breeding program on her ranch, Robbin's Sheep Corral at Grand Falls.