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Mixing Tradition and Science

Mixing Tradition and Science
February 03
08:28 2016

A fifth-generation rancher and graduate student at Northern Arizona University found that traditional Navajo ranchers are well aware of changes in nature.

Deon Ben heard about some customary grazing practices while working on his thesis paper.

Such beliefs included that to avoid the first frost Navajo herders moved their livestock to lower ground when aspen trees drop their leaves, while others watch the stars and the moon to gauge the timing of seasonal movements.

But with changing climate in the Southwest, nature’s signs have become less reliable.

For his thesis Ben asked how such “traditional ecological knowledge” could interact with western science, and how Native livestock owners might adapt.

He interviewed 10 ranchers from Round Rock, Arizona and Tohatchi, New Mexico, where his parents were from.

Though Ben didn’t specifically ask about climate change, the people he talked with were certainly aware of weather changes like drought and severe storms.

On Monday, for example, it was warmer in Rhode Island – a new state record 65 degrees – than it was in Phoenix.

They may not see those changes as long-term, but from their close observations of the land they are aware of them all the same.

A fifth-generation Navajo rancher, Ben appreciates the importance of livestock to his people. Sheep, cattle, and horses are wealth, and they figure importantly in religion and ceremony too. And he knows reducing herd size is a highly sensitive issue because of past stock reduction programs.

Along with sharing oral traditions, Ben also wants to suggest solutions – such as owning herds communally, practicing better range management and reinstilling spiritual connections.

To his mind, Navajo traditional knowledge “provides the order of how to live your life,” knowledge that could provide a valuable complement to what science teaches.

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