“If you reestablish [sheep herding] the land does get healthier . . . [I]f the grass [doesn’t] get chewed . . . it doesn’t grow. And the older plants, if they don’t get stomped in, you know, . . .[they] just [go] dormant . . . . So the sheep and you as a sheep herder, that’s what you’re doing [: restoring the health of the land].”
Roy Kady’s explanation of the reciprocal relationships connecting sheep with the health of plants and the land is one example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), defined as a cumulative body of knowledge regarding relationships between humans, animals, and the environment, which Indigenous communities maintain and pass down through generations of knowledge holders. The acquired knowledge derives from longstanding systematic observations of and interactions with local ecosystems. In general, this knowledge decenters humans, focusing instead on the importance of reciprocal and kincentric relations, of which a human is just one of many equal participants. The category of TEK describes Diné (Navajo) people’s knowledge about dye plants, including where certain plants grow, how to identify them, when they can be gathered, their potential medicinal qualities, and the proper way to harvest them in order to ensure continued vegetation for other animals and future weavers. As indicated in Kady’s statement, TEK also guides understanding of how the sheep affect and are affected by the landscape and vegetation, as well as how to best provide for one’s sheep through medicinal practices, ceremonies, and herding activities.
In the late nineteenth century, ethnologist and archaeologist George H. Pepper collected wool, hide, dye samples, and plant specimens to demonstrate Navajo wool processing and dyeing practices for an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Pepper collected the wool and natural dye samples from Diné weavers in New Mexico, which are now preserved in the AMNH’s Anthropology collections. They show the processing stages that transform raw wool into a dyed skein of yarn using the flowering tops of a subspecies of Ericameria nauseosa (rabbitbrush), which Pepper identifies in Navajo as “Key-el-soey.” In a 1903 article on Navajo dyes, Pepper wrote that the weaver’s
dyes were beautiful and lasting, and his dye-work an industry to be admired. Laboriously and skillfully, worked the old Navajo chemist, and no pains were spared to obtain the proper materials. No toil too great in tempting the secret combinations from the earths and herbs that were to enhance the beauty of future textiles.
Pepper’s writing indicates his own subjective interpretations of the perceived degeneration of Indigenous arts due to contact with Westerners and the need to “salvage” older materials and practices before they disappeared, ideas popular among anthropologists at the time. His detailed descriptions of dyeing practices, however, highlight his appreciation of Diné people’s vast knowledge of plants, their properties, and dye-processing techniques.