Climate Hero: Nikyle Begay

Climate Hero: Nikyle Begay

Growing up, Nikyle Begay’s grandmother told them, “Always care for the sheep, and in return, they’ll care for you.” This message is at the heart of Begay’s work as a Diné shepherd and as the Director of the Rainbow Fiber Co-Op, producing sustainable Navajo-Churro wool.

Sheep is life

First Nations people began shepherding after trading with the Spanish in the 16th century. These sheep became known as T’áá Dibé, “the First Sheep.” Since then, the valued tradition of raising Navajo-Churro flocks has been passed down from generation to generation in Diné, or Navajo culture, starting at birth.

Raising their own sheep in the Navajo Nation, Begay understands that this practice is more than just feeding, shearing, and tending to the flock. It is an opportunity to deeply connect with nature. A relationship that teaches one responsibility, tenacity, a strong will, and that all creatures are linked. As the shepherds say, “Diné be’iiná,” sheep is life.

The pandemic hits home

Yet, when the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the world in 2020, this balance with nature was almost lost. The Navajo Nation led in cases per capita in the US early on, and many Diné people lost their lives, as well as many flocks lost their shepherds.

As helpless as Begay felt, they also were amazed at the various people and organizations that reached out to help Indigenous communities deal with the crisis. Through Instagram, one group of influential fiber artists contacted Begay to learn how they could help Diné shepherds and their sheep. Begay informed them that the once-famous wool used to create Diné blankets and rugs was labeled inferior and taken out of national and global markets.

By sharing this knowledge and feeling the impacts of Covid within their community, Begay decided to take action. Joining forces with a friend and fellow Navajo-Churro shepherd, Kelli Dunaj, they aimed to improve the financial sustainability of Diné shepherds. The Rainbow Fiber Co-Op was born.

Rainbows after the storm

The mission of the Rainbow Fiber Co-Op is to close the gap between rural Diné shepherds and an e-commerce marketplace for their wool. Partnering with Fibershed, a nonprofit organization that develops regional, land-regenerating natural fiber and dye systems, Rainbow Fiber Co-Op has grown into a full-on wool cooperative.

Through grants and private donations, the co-op pays a stipend to Diné shepherds for their shearing and a fair price for their raw wool. Funding also helps place a deposit on mill processing fees and pays legal and administrative costs to form a registered agricultural cooperative.

Furthermore, an online shop is open where anyone can purchase sustainable Navajo-Churro weaving yarns. Money generated from these sales is used to help fund the following year’s wool buy project.

Lambs to the rescue

In addition to creating green livelihoods for Indigenous communities and providing a space for the public to buy sustainable materials, support for the Rainbow Fiber Co-Op empowers the transition from conventional agriculture to a regenerative one. Along with protecting half of Earth’s lands and oceans and a transition to 100% renewable energy, regenerative agriculture is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5℃.

This approach of working with nature is simply that, putting back into the Earth as much as one takes. So, while they are perhaps the cutest form of regenerative agriculture, each new lamb in the flock is a step closer to a more sustainable world.

Begay’s work showcases how each person can connect with nature and let that relationship flourish into a catalyst for change. Indigenous-led climate solutions are a way to heal ourselves and the Earth. All they need is our backing.

Support the Navajo-Churro Wool Cooperative