Sacred symbols or 'rats'
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
Navajos grapple with feral horse problem
By Cindy Yurth
CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz., July 21, 2011
A bay and a brown nip at each other playfully, making for stunning photographs against the canyon's red walls.
They are a beautiful problem.
Four or five herds roam Canyon del Muerto, decimating the delicate native grasses and breaking fences to trample young orchards. Most of the ones we're seeing today have brands.
"They're owned," said Wilson Halwood II, whose family is trying to resurrect their small farm at the bottom of Twin Trails. "Whatever that means."
No one is breaking or riding the horses, according to Halwood. They're not being fed, except for what they can scrounge in the canyon, much less vaccinated or shod.
And they are the tiny tip of a giant iceberg.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates 60,000 feral horses roam the Navajo Nation. According to Alvin Whitehair, the BIA's resource officer in Chinle Agency, an adult horse eats about 26 pounds of grass a day. Multiply that by 60,000, and they're stripping 1.6 million pounds of vegetation from Diné Bikéyah daily.
Native to the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, horses don't need to drink as much as most livestock. But ask anyone who has a stock tank on their range, and they'll tell you they're draining the water supply too.
"Rats with hooves," spat one frustrated Western Agency rancher.
Almost as integral to Diné culture as sheep, horses were introduced by the Spanish in the 1620s. By the time Americans encountered the tribe in the 1800s, the Diné were expert horsemen who selectively bred their herds and used the animals for transportation, herding and raiding.
The horse had also been solidly incorporated into the Diné cosmology. Various parts of the horse's body were used to teach children traditional values. A traditional Diné would never cut his steed's mane and tail, as the rippling hair represented rain.
Perhaps that's why it's so hard for the Diné to come up with a course of action, although everyone seems to agree the horses have vastly overpopulated the range.
"Traditionally, we're supposed to take care of them," said Dorothy Lee, chapter manager for Gap-Bodaway Chapter. "The question is, how?"
The chapter recently passed a resolution asking the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources for a roundup, noting giant herds of 100 or more on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
But at the next meeting, there was a backlash.
"People felt we should leave them alone," Lee recalled. "It was mostly one woman. Finally somebody asked, 'Who's going to go out there are take of them? Are you willing to do that?'" The resolution stood.
To Halwood, it's a no-brainer.
"People say these animals are sacred," he said, looking at a herd of about 15 with three small foals. "What's sacred about letting them starve in the winter? What's sacred about letting them suffer from diseases? The land is sacred too, and we're letting them destroy it."
As he spoke, some of the horses were using their teeth to strip the bark off a Russian olive tree. It was a desperate measure, Halwood said. Without a salt lick at their disposal, the equines were willing to brave the bitter, slightly toxic bark to get at the salt the trees store in their wood.
In theory, Navajo Nation law has a way to deal with excess equines. For one thing, there shouldn't be any in the first place. Each grazing permittee is supposed to run only two horses on the range, but in the canyon we counted up to 15 with the same brand.
The grazing officials have a tough time enforcing the limits.
"They're elected officials," Halwood said. "And they're related to everybody in the chapter. That's how they get elected."
Many Farms Chapter's grazing official, Roland Tso, says most of the grazing officials in his district take their responsibilities seriously, but their hands are tied.
"When we have a roundup, we're supposed to give 10 days' notice," he said. "I use the example of the drunks in front of Basha's. If you told them, 'The police are going to come around at 3 o'clock and arrest all of you,' do you think any of them would be around at 3 o'clock?"
The day of a roundup, Tso rides around his district and sees "10-by-10 pens with eight horses in them."
Legally, there's nothing he can do. "We just look at them," he said.
While people often complain the Navajo rangers, or Resource Law Enforcement personnel, should do more, Chief Ranger Leonard Butler said their role is also constricted by tribal law.
"The chapter has to ask for the roundup," he said. "All we're supposed to do is inspect the brands and such."
Tso said he once got into an argument with a ranger who sold an impounded horse back to a chapter resident in Cottonwood, Ariz., but Butler said the chapter is legally charged with finding buyers for the animals.
Those who are sold back to chapter residents often end up right back out on the range, and for those that aren't claimed, the nation has fewer and fewer options.
Prior to 2006, the animals were sold in neighboring states for meat, but in September of that year, under pressure from animal rights groups, Congress barred the U.S. Department of Agriculture from spending any federal funds on inspecting the nation's three remaining horse slaughterhouses in Illinois and Texas - effectively shutting them down.
Now, most of the animals are taken across the border into Mexico, where slaughtering horses is still legal.
But many of the animals are in such poor shape, even the Mexicans don't want them.
"They recently made a rule that they won't take any horses under 700 pounds," said Whitehair, "which leaves out a lot of our Navajo horses."
Even if the Mexicans can be persuaded to take the unfortunate equines, it's a losing proposition for Navajo. Whitehair said it costs $75 apiece to perform the Coggins test for infectious anemia (required by law for transporting horses across state lines), and hundreds to drive them to the border. Once they get to Mexico, each specimen fetches about $20.
Looking to grassroots
Sometimes, said Tso, they'll encounter a group of animal rights activists at the border, trying to block the transport.
Charles Chee, the grazing official for Tsaile/Wheatfields Chapter, said he's attempted to talk to the anti-horse-killing contingent.
"These so-called animal lovers can't even tell you how much a horse eats," he said.
Tso thinks the Navajo Nation should set up its own horsemeat-packing business. "It would be a good test of our sovereignty," he said.
On the other hand, it might not be good business.
"Once we slaughtered all the feral horses on Navajo, then what would we do?" he mused. "Because of the way the law is, it would be hard to take horses from off the rez."
Most Diné elders remember when slaughtering horses was a family affair. Every year, one or two would be butchered and the meat hung in strips to dry for the winter. Whitehair thinks it could make a dent if the practice were revived. He himself remembers eating horse as a child.
"My grandmother said that in 1918, when the bubonic plague came, the only people who survived were the ones that ate horse meat," he said. "It was like medicine to us."
But, considering it's hard to get today's youngsters to eat anything that doesn't come from a drive-through window, it's unlikely horse stew will come back in style.
So what is the answer? Halwood thinks it needs to come from the grassroots.
"One thing about Navajos, you can't get us to do something just because you tell us to," he said. "It has to be our idea. Somehow, we have to get people to realize there's a problem and take some responsibility for reducing their livestock."
Tso thinks there needs to be more coordination among government agencies. His chapter recently convinced the Chinle Agency Council to pass a resolution urging the Navajo Nation president, speaker, Resource and Development Committee and BIA regional office to work together on solutions to the overgrazing issue, including feral animals.
Tso thinks funding could legitimately come from the tribe's Emergency Drought Mitigation coffers, since the animals have so severely damaged the range.
Meanwhile, Many Farms is going ahead with its own range study and reseeding pilot project, funded with a $138,000 grant from the BIA, that he hopes will serve as a model for others.
But it won't work unless neighboring chapters copy it, and soon.
The problem with the darned horses, says Tso, is that they don't respect chapter boundaries.
"Not long ago, I found one with an 'I' brand," he said. "That's all the way from Pi–on. It took me two weeks to track down the owner, and they were deceased. I'm sure there are Many Farms horses turning up in Round Rock and Rough Rock too."
Meanwhile, there's a bumper crop of cute feral foals. In the canyon, the tourists slow down to watch them buck and bolt in the rain. Unlike cattle, they are smart and beautiful and, whether or not you're a traditionalist, there's something magical about them.
They're not going to be easy to kill.