My Journey to the Navajo Nation

Greetings from the Navajo Nation! I arrived in Shiprock, NM on Sunday, Aug. 10th, and have been blown away by the beauty of the landscape.

Shiprock, NM., Navajo Nation

I am out here for 10 weeks to learn from Arnold Clifford, a field botanist and geologist and associated editor for the Flora of the Four Corners, as well as the Bolack San Juan Basin Flora Project. He is a member of the Dine’ (Navajo) Tribe, a native of the community of Beclahbito, NM and the Carrizo Mountain Range. Arnold has lived and worked in this area his whole life and is an expert on the flora and it’s uses in Navajo culture. He is a knowledge bearer, ethnobotanist, traditional sheep shearer and is fluent in the Dine’ language. I was fortunate enough to meet him when I invited him to give a lecture at  Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. When I was presented with an amazing opportunity to learn from him as a type of internship on the Reservation, I jumped at the chance which is how I ended up out here in Navajo Country.

Chimney Rock, Navajo Nation
Chimney Rock. The site of many famous Western movies, Navajo Nation

It is so beautiful out here! The landscape is exquisite, and the sky is breathtaking. The clouds out here get to be all big and fluffy, and the sunsets are beautiful! No two are alike. The land is so wide open it’s almost startling how you can see everything unobstructed, for miles around. And then, all the sudden there are these giant landforms, colorful uplifts that create amazing forms as they weather over time.

Beautiful uplifts in the background, with the town of Durango, CO in the foreground

There are many different vegetation community types, including microhabitats that contribute to the overall plant diversity found on the Navajo Nation.

Landscape near the Beclahbito community, Navajo Nation. Hard to categorize this vegetation type because it includes influences from Juniper woodland, grassland swells, and alkali desert scrub

I’ve been here for a little over a week, and have already covered many topics. Arnold Clifford lectures throughout the day, as we travel to different areas on the Navajo Reservation. Lectures include subjects such as Navajo culture, botany of the four corners, ethnobotany of the Navajo, geology and more. It’s wonderful! We have made trips to many different areas including the Lukachukai mountain range and Chuskas mountains.

Northwestern foothills of the Lukachukai mountains, near the Cove community, Navajo nation. Ponderosa Pine forest community

Along with learning about the natural history of the Navajo Nation, I have also been learning about the culture. I was fortunate enough to witness traditional Navajo sheep searing! The Navajo have been raising and searing sheep to use the wool in weaving since the early 1600’s, when the Spanish introduced sheep into the area. Before this they used what Arnold Clifford refers to as “Navajo Cotton” which is a word used to incorporate a range of species which included the soft follicles of Asclepias species or the follicles of Typha species, etc.

Arnold uses specific shears to cut the wool; not electric ones.

Past shears used for cutting wool. Before metal shears, the Navajo most likely used stone knifes to cut the wool from the sheep.

He talks to the sheep in Navajo, speaking words of reassurance. He then ties the hind legs together with one of the front legs (not both incase the animal struggles,  it won’t hurt itself).

Arnold lets the sheep see and smell the sears, to get the sheep used to the blade and isn’t scared


Then begins the shearing, starting with the hind legs and working to the flank. After that is the head and neck region, being careful not to break the ‘ring’ of wool around the neck, this is considered good luck. Then flip the sheep on the other side and repeat. The total process took about 25 mins. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about this traditional practice.

Arnold Clifford: Botanist/Geologist/Traditional sheep shearer. Plant presses make nice seats for sheep shearing!

The Navajo Nation are in the middle of elections for president, and I was fortunate enough to attend a Dine’ Youth forum for the presidential candidates to address the concerns and needs of the Youth. I got to witness Native politics firsthand! It was inspiring to see so many youth interesting in their government.

Dinè Youth Forum, Shiprock Chapter House

There are many parallels to the politics of small government, the same dodging of questions, etc.  It was all very interesting.

It has been a busy week, I have learned a lot, but there is still so much more to learn! I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity to learn about the plant diversity as well as the culture of the Navajo Nation. I look forward to all the amazing places I will go and the people I will meet. I will keep you updated on what I learn by posting the highlights here on my blog. Stay tuned for more adventures! Until then, blue skies! 🙂

The author (Jessica Orozco) at the Four Corners National monument