Navajo Livestock Reduction

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Navajo Livestock Reduction

The Navajo Livestock Reduction was imposed by the federal government upon the Navajo Nation in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.[1]


During the 1920s and into the 1930s, the Federal government decided that the land of the Navajo Nation could not support the increasingly large flocks of goats and sheep, and the herds of cattle and wild horses. Land erosion was observed in many parts of the Nation, and it was worried about damaging effects similar to the dust storms on the Great Plains. Many federal officials concluded that the only solution was to drastically reduce the livestock.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of what is now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Agreeing with bureau analysts, he decided that the Navajo owned far too many sheep, goats, cattle and horses for the carrying capacity of their arid reservation. The capacity for sheep was about 500,000 but the people owned 2 million in 1931; the sheep provided half the cash income for the individual Navajo.[2] Historians such as Lawrence A. Kuznar have noted that the analysis by Washington was quite thin, and dissent with its conclusions was suppressed.[3]

Collier acted aggressively to purchase and remove more than half of the livestock. Analysts did not understand the deep cultural ties the Navajo had to their livestock. Many women suffered economically, often losing their only source of income.[4] The program united the Navajo in opposition, but after Collier had opponents arrested, they were unable to stop it.[5] Historian Brian Dippie notes that the Indian Rights Association denounced Collier as a 'dictator' and accused him of a "near reign of terror" on the Navajo reservation. Dippie adds, "He became an object of 'burning hatred' among the very people whose problems so preoccupied him."[6] The long-term result was strong Navajo opposition to Collier's Indian New Deal, which he introduced to aid tribes in re-establishing their governments and ending allotment of communal lands.[7]

Navajo and sheep[edit]

The government established a quota for different types of livestock on specific areas of the reservation, claiming that areas had become overgrazed and risked erosion and damage. The government slaughtered a majority of the livestock it purchased in order to reach the quotas it established, without Navajo agreement. The livestock quota system is still being used today.

The Spanish explorers and colonists had brought sheep and horses to North America and the South West as part of the Columbian Exchange. By the 18th century, the Navajo had adapted to these new animals and developed their own flocks of sheep and herds of horses. Most of these were killed or taken by the US government as part of the events leading to the Long Walk. The United States government and Navajo signed a treaty that returned the Navajo people to their traditional lands. Among the provisions of the 1868 treaty was that each Navajo family was to be given two sheep, one male and one female.

The Navajo were good shepherds and increased their number of livestock dramatically over the next 60 years. The government also authorized increases in the size of their reservation, and stopped raiding and looting of the Navajo by outsiders. The Navajo marketed their wool both as a raw material and woven into Navajo rugs. The revenues gained were part of why they increased the number of sheep from 15,000 in the 1870s to 500,000 in the 1920s.

The Navajo's success with their livestock led to overgrazing. The federal government at first recommended that the numbers of livestock on the reservation be dramatically reduced. This went against many Navajo traditions, not to mention devastated their economy. For example, the Navajo considered their livestock sacred. The chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, Thomas Dodge, tried to present the government's arguments to the people. Because of the strong cultural and economic importance of the livestock, he was unable to sway most of the people.[8]

After ordering purchase of many animals, the federal government exterminated over 80% of the livestock on the reservation. To Navajos this became known as the Second Long Walk, because of the major negative effects it had on their way of life.


  1. ^ Peter Iverson, "Dine: A History of the Navajos", 2002, University of New Mexico Press, Chapter 5, "Our People Cried": 1923-1941.
  2. ^ Peter Iverson (2002). "For Our Navajo People": Diné Letters, Speeches & Petitions, 1900-1960. U of New Mexico Press. p. 250. 
  3. ^ Lawrence A. Kuznar (2008). Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology. AltaMira Press. p. 141. 
  4. ^ Marsha Weisiger, "Gendered Injustice: Navajo Livestock Reduction in the New Deal Era." Western Historical Quarterly (2007): 437-455. in JSTOR
  5. ^ Richard White, ch 13: "The Navajos become Dependent" (1988). The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 300ff. 
  6. ^ Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1991) pp 333-36, quote p. 335
  7. ^ Donald A. Grinde Jr, "Navajo Opposition to the Indian New Deal," Integrated Education, (1981) 19#3-6, pp: 79-87.
  8. ^ Peter Iverson, Dine: A History of the Navajos, 2002, University of New Mexico Press, pp. 147-151

Further reading[edit]

  • Bailey, Garrick and Roberta Bailey. A History of the Navajo: The Reservation Years (1986)
  • Kelly, Lawrence C. The Navajo Indians and Federal Indian Policy (University of Arizona Press, 1974)
  • McPherson, Robert S. The Northern Navajo Frontier 1860-1900 (1988);
  • Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Handbook of North American Indians vol. 10 (1983).
  • Roessel, Ruth, ed. (1974). Navajo Livestock Reduction: A National Disgrace. Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press. ISBN 0-912586-18-4. 
  • Spicer, E[dward] H. with John Collier. “Sheepmen and Technicians: A Program of Soil Conservation on the Navajo Indian Reservation,” in Human Problems in Technological Change: A Casebook edited by Edward H. Spicer. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1952. 185-207.
  • White, Richard. (1988) ch 13: "The Navajos become Dependent". The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. U of Nebraska Press. p. 300.