Perfectly placed in the center of a green field filled with scattered sage bushes, stands an octagonal, traditional Navajo hogan. The remnants of a night’s fire slowly puff smoke from the chimney, filling the surrounding air with the scent of campfire dust. Prairie dogs call out to each other in cute chattering barks as they peek out of their desert holes. Stepping through the entrance that faces east, I walk outside of the hogan and am greeted by a herd of sheep, baaaing in harmony with their clanking bells and glowing by the sunlight that illuminates from behind them. The texture of their wool flows with the pom poms of sage bushes like an abstract painting. At this point, my whole group gathers outside of the hogan, appreciating the sweet scene of this sheep herd. After a few moments, we realized that one of the sheep we were admiring was going to be the sheep that we would slaughter with our Navajo host family. We all looked at each other with sad frowns and took a deep breath of preparation before loading up into the van.
I have never seen an animal slaughtered before, much less witnessed seeing an animal that I would eat a couple hours after it had passed. I have chosen to eat meat more than half of my life for the nutrients that it brings to my diet. Regardless of this choice, I have been disconnected to the process of how the meat that I eat is produced, from start to finish. I think the reason for this is that it has been easier for me to avoid thinking about the body of an animal full of life being the source of my meal. I have always had a great love for all beings and would never want them to feel any harm. When Richard told us that we would have the opportunity to witness and participate in a sheep butchering, I decided it was time for me to experience the step in the food process that I have been so far removed from my entire life.
My expectation for this experience was that there would be a designated moment in the process where we would all appreciate the sheep’s life that we were about to take for our nutritional benefits. Instead, within the first ten minutes of us arriving, the sheep was brought over in a truck bed and its neck was slit. It felt almost awkward for me to interact with the sheep in the short amount of time that we had with it before we took its life. I kneeled down next to the sheep and placed my hand on its forehead. All I wanted to do was make the sheep’s final moments more peaceful.
I am very grateful that our Navajo hosts were welcoming to share this experience with us and teach us their traditional way of preparing their meat, which is one of the most humane ways of raising and caring for livestock. They knew exactly how to perform each step efficiently, and encouraged us to participate in the process. The way that this family prepares their meat is a great lesson for me to bring back into my community in how important it is to be self-sufficient and responsible in the choices that I make in my life.
The involvement of the experience of slaughtering an animal for meat has allowed me to challenge myself to really reflect on my choices as a consumer of meat. It is such a normality in western culture to only see your meat after it has been prepared and is placed on a plate to be eaten. This has pushed me to ask myself many questions: How do I want the animals that I choose to eat to be raised and treated from birth to death? How can I be more connected to where my meat comes from? How do I unveil the boundary between me, as a consumer, and the animal that I am eating without feeling an overwhelming discomfort, and instead, feeling gratitude and respect for the animal that is providing me life with their life?
We began this section with a reading called Dancing with Systems by Donella Meadows, which helped to set ourselves up for openness and humble curiosity while learning from different cultures. One lesson that this piece includes is to “Expand thought horizons.” Meadows states that in order for different perspectives to learn the systems of others, “they will have to go into learning mode, to admit ignorance and be willing to be taught, by each other and the system.” I think that this statement relates to how we strived to learn during our experiences on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. It can be challenging to begin to understand the systems and values in a new culture, but there always seems to be life lessons applicable to share with others.
This past month has taught me many lessons about just how far I can go to push myself during challenging experiences. This past section in the front country presented many challenges which bloomed into opportunities to go outside of my comfort zone and learn through first-hand experience. As one of my fellow classmates, Lucia, reflected during a discussion, instead of flying far away from home to explore a new country, our group chose to attend the Wild Rockies Field Institute to look inward by exploring new communities and landscapes inside our own borders. This not only allows us to learn about other places and communities in our own country, but also allows us to bring home new perspectives that we have gained from people who live so differently from us yet in the same nation borders.