To the white man, sheep are a commodity to be bought and sold, fed and watered, and ultimately sent to the slaughterhouse for their economic value. To the Navajo, the animals mean so much more. It was because of this fundamental difference of views, and the general indifference of the powers that be, that the Navajo Livestock Reduction Program was ultimately allowed to decimate the food supply and income source for thousands of people on the reservation. At the same time, the U.S. government’s destruction of Navajo livestock had a devastating impact on the long-term health and well-being of the people along with their society, economy and way of life. The deep ties that existed between the Navajo people and their animals were forever fractured.


Livestock mean more than money

In a capitalist economy like that of the United States, money is what matters the most. To the people of the Navajo Nation, sheep and livestock matter more. Livestock plays an integral role in the culture. The Navajo have long measured their personal wealth and prestige through livestock, and the number of goats, sheep and horses an individual owns carries deep meaning. This was all lost on most Washington bureaucrats, of course, when they decided in the 1930s to establish a quota system for different types of livestock on designated parts of the reservation. Set in the backdrop of the Dust Bowl, the Navajo Livestock Reduction Program sought to decrease the number of sheep grazing on Navajo lands.  

According to a report by William Zeh, a forester with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the time, there were 1.3 million sheep and goats living on 12 million acres of Navajo land in 1930. The livestock generated about half of the income earned by Navajo people, but the ratio of nine sheep and goals per acre was about twice as many as recommended for desert grazing. As a result of this grazing pressure, erosion was a problem and the land was becoming more and more difficult to use. Zeh was an exception in that he understood how the herds were culturally significant to the Navajo. As a result, he recommended potential solutions that would address the problem without forcing the people to massively decrease their herds. 

First, Zeh made the recommendation that the reservation itself be expanded to accommodate large herds. Second, and despite not being included in his official report, Zeh urged the elimination of excess horses. Third, Zeh suggested improved breeds of sheep and goats. In this report, he recommended only a gradual reduction in goats. During the harsh winters of 1932 and 1933, thousands of animals died, and the number of sheep and goats dipped below one million. Throughout the 1930s, this is where the numbers remained. During this time, the U.S. government constructed the Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam) which created Lake Mead. The project provided for an improved irrigation system throughout the Southwest while also generating massive amounts of electricity. Within a few years, however, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that silt from two rivers flowing through the Navajo Reservation – the San Juan and the Little Colorado – would eventually clog up the dam thereby rendering it useless. 

Leonard McCombe, LIFE Images Collection

Promises broken. Communities destroyed.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, convinced officials in the Navajo Tribal Council to approve of and participate in the livestock reduction program. In exchange, Collier promised to expand the reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. While some lands were added in Arizona, no lands were ever provided in New Mexico after extensive and powerful anti-Navajo lobbying in the state. Furthermore, it was widely acknowledged by members of the Tribal Council that the U.S. government was likely to carry on with the reduction program whether the Tribe willingly approved it or not. 

At first, participation in the program was voluntary but soon became mandatory. Between the onset of the program in 1933 and its conclusion in 1946, the Navajo saw the size of their sheep herd cut in half, from 1,053,498 to 449,000. The U.S. government purchased over half of all the livestock slated for destruction, paying well below market value before sending the animals to market. Some were slaughtered right on the reservation, sometimes in view of the families who had raised them, leaving an indelible mark in the Navajo conciousness.

The ramifications of the Navajo Livestock Reduction Program were severe, both culturally and economically. In a cultural sense, management of the herds had always belonged to the women. Decision-making about reducing the herds and tribal participation in the reduction program typically landed with men. After succeeding economically for generations, the Navajo people were financially devastated by the reduction program as it destroyed their primary source of income. Women were particularly impacted. Compelled to rely on government welfare for survival, families were forced into extreme poverty that still plagues the region today.

The Navajo people were financially devastated by the livestock reduction.”