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Indigenous Voices of the Colorado Plateau

Navajo Livestock Reduction

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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, livestock became a form of economic prosperity for the Navajos. The average Navajo family owned 100 head of horses, 300 head of sheep, and 100 head of cattle. The huge amount of livestock led to overgrazing and soil erosion. This prompted the United States Government to step in and make changes, and so the Livestock Reduction plan was implemented and enforced. From the Navajo viewpoint, these changes were seen as harsh. Earlier United States government intervention had robbed the Navajo of much of their land, affecting Navajo life and culture, and now it appeared that the government was going to take away their prosperity as well.

The first step toward controlling the size of Navajo livestock was presented at the 1928 Navajo Tribal Council meeting. The government informed the council of livestock taxation standards on other Native American reservations. Council delegates were informed of the excessive grazing fees levied on owners of livestock whose flocks totaled more than 500 heads. Navajos were levied a tax of fifteen cents per head on flocks of over 1,000 sheep. This calculation failed because there were flocks that contained over 1,000 head of sheep that did not belong to one person. Each member of the family claimed ownership to a few hundred sheep.

The government agents went to each family and determined how much livestock each family could have. These government agents drove thousands of animals into side canyons and exterminated large portions of individual flocks.

In one instance, the family of Eli Gorman was told to bring their herd of horses to a trading post at Chinle, Arizona. The herd, totaling 180 head, was then transferred to the trading post corral. The Gorman family received $2.50 apiece for only 80 of the horses. This type of compensation was a reoccurring event all over the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.

These events led to the present day grazing permit laws. This permit law allows the holder to possess a set number of livestock. Only permit holders are allowed to engage in discussions of livestock and land use. A present day livestock reduction still exists. At the community level, unbranded/unclaimed horses are rounded up and taken to a border town auction. Proceeds from the sale allow the local grazing committee members to purchase subsidized purchases of vaccine for tribal members. Each year a livestock tally is conducted. Individuals are expected to abide and keep livestock to the set number stated in their grazing permit.

The Navajo Indians and Federal Indian Policy. by Lawrence C. Kelly. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1974: p. 112.
Navajo Livestock Reduction: A National Disgrace. Navajo Community College, 1974: p. 24.

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