Nita’s Sheep


Nita Blackwing dragged her bleating one-year-old sheep across the corral. “You’re going to get your first shearing,” she told him. “But don’t be afraid—it won’t hurt.”

Mother and Granny were shearing the whole flock that spring day. Some of the sheep belonged to Nita’s older brothers and sisters. This was Nita’s first sheep. With a pair of big hand shears Granny expertly sheared the wool from Nita’s sheep in one whole piece.

“How skinny he looks!” Nita declared. “Poor thing!” She wished she could wrap his woolly coat around him and make him a baby lamb again.

Feeling a bit sad, Nita walked home with Granny as the glowing sunset turned the earth and rocks of the Navajo reservation red.

Running ahead of the older woman, Nita shouted, “The cactuses are in bloom, Granny!” Nita kept a safe distance from the spiny pads of the prickly pear cactuses as she stroked the dark pink petals of a colorful blossom. They were big and as shiny as wax. “I wish I could take one home,” she said.

“A cactus flower lives only a short while,” Granny cautioned. “Let it turn into a fruit that we can use.”

The Blackwing hogan was a round house made of logs and bark, plastered with mud the same color as the rocks around it. The boys helped their father with the horses and ponies and the crops of corn and squash. The girls herded the sheep and helped prepare the wool for weaving. Mother wove good blankets and rugs, but Granny was known far and wide as one of the best weavers among the Navajos.

Nita and her sisters spent the hot summer days in front of the hogan, beating the wool with sticks to make the burrs and dirt fly out. Then they carded it into strands by combing it with metal-toothed paddles. Nita carded her own sheep’s fleece especially well so that Granny would want to use it in her rug.

Every night Nita watched Granny spin the wool into yarn on a spinning stick. “Why do you whirl it around so many times?” she asked.

“The more you spin, the finer the yarn,” Granny explained. “The finer the yarn, the better the rug.”

Mother, who liked new ways and bright colors, bought the dye for her yarn in paper packages at the trading post. One night when they were all snuggled down under their sheepskins, the children chose the colors they wanted for their wool.

“Turquoise!” said Maria. “Like the sky.”

“Yellow!” said Jolie. “Like the sun.”

“Red—bright red!” Ben shouted.

Those three colors would go into Mother’s rug.

“My sheep is black, so I don’t have to choose,” said Ramon.

“I want mine to stay white,” said Johnny. “And my wool will be twisted with Ramon’s to make gray.”

Both Mother and Granny used the three natural colors—black, white, and gray. But Granny wouldn’t use dyes from the trader. She made her own by boiling roots, bark, fruit, and leaves from plants.

“I guess you’ll have to choose brown, Nita,” said Maria. “That’s about the only color Granny ever makes.”

But brown was dull, and Nita liked bright colors too.

One day Nita went with Granny to the nearby mountains to find plants for making dye. The trees and shrubs were turning red and yellow in the frosty air.

“What a pretty tree,” said Nita as they dug up roots of a mountain mahogany with reddish bark and leaves. “Does this make red dye, Granny?” She hoped it did.

But Granny replied, “No. Brown.”

On the way home they came to the prickly pear cactus, now bearing dark red fruit. “We’ll pick some of these to make rose-colored dye,” said Granny.

“You’ve never woven a rose-colored rug before!” Nita said excitedly.

“I mix it with brown to make a good Indian color—the color of the earth that takes care of us.”

Nita looked toward the hogan framed against the rocks. It was a kind of rosy brown in the setting sun. “Like that?” she asked, pointing.

“Yes, I see a design in my head that has many squares of the Indian earth color at sunset.”

“Then I want that for the color of my sheep’s wool,” Nita declared.

When the snow came and the coyotes howled, Nita sat in front of the loom and watched Granny weave her rug. It had a gray background and a black border and a design in squares and rectangles of white and black and the rosy Indian earth color.

When the frozen ground thawed and the snowstorms were replaced by dust storms, Granny took the rug off the loom and laid it on the floor. Nita touched the rosy brown squares.

“There is my sheep’s wool,” she said. “And there are the colors from the prickly pear flower and the mahogany tree.”

Granny began to roll up the rug. “Now I must take it to the trading post. We need flour, sugar, and canned food, and some cloth for blouses and skirts.”

Tears came into Nita’s eyes as she thought about the beautiful rug that must be traded for supplies.

“Come,” said Granny. “Your father will drive us to the trading post in his truck. The trader will give you a peppermint stick.”

Nita smiled. “It’s almost time for the ewes to have new lambs, isn’t it? Will I get to choose another one to be mine?”

“Of course,” said Granny. “You will have a new lamb, and your old sheep will have new wool. The cactus will bloom again, and we will go again to the mountains for our plant dyes. That is how the earth takes care of us.”

“And I will learn to weave rugs full of beautiful things like yours,” said Nita.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mike Rogan