Butchering a sheep is a family event. Relatives come from near and far to have a taste of mutton. Navajo’s have adopted sheep into their very way of life, and even use it in ceremonies. The sheep were brought over a couple of hundred years ago by Europeans. Either by way of trade or stealing the Navajo developed a taste for mutton.
My family butchers sheep mostly for celebrations like birthdays, or when someone has a desire for “Mutton Bone.” My niece Shannon refers to the ribs of the sheep as Mutton Bone, because that is her favorite. Navajo families vary in what is their favorite part or ways to prepare sheep. I’ve grown to love red chili stew with mutton meat made famous by my wife and her family who are Zuni.
Early in the morning me, a sibling or two, and nephews will drive to the sheep sellers house to pick up our sheep. The sellers choose the tribute, and have tied a piece of twine on their heel. The tribute must be caught, and youngsters are often charged with that task. Young ones seem to enjoy chasing the sheep more than catching it, and it is hilarious to watch. Once caught the tribute is further tied up with twine before it is transported in a pickup truck.
On the way we share gossip, tell stories, joke about things, and wait in expectation of mutton bone. We arrive to my mom’s house on the Navajo reservation. The surrounding landscape is encapsulated by mountains. I often feel lost and out of sorts when I am in a place where there are no mountains, like Florida.
My dad the executioner begins the process of butchering by cutting the neck to ensure a quick death. I like to say a quick prayer in my mind thanking Creator for the life of the sheep and how it will feed my family. Once dead my siblings, and nephews jump in with sharp knifes to skin the sheep and prepare the meat. It is a time of learning, laughs, and accidental stabs to human flesh.
Cutting up the sheep meat can be difficult, but cleaning the innards are more laborious then the butchering itself. I will not even attempt to describe the smell of cleaning out the intestines. That job is for the strongest person in the family, my mom. She will clean the intestines out, wrap them around the fat (aká in Navajo) to make a’chéé. A delicacy for the Navajo. It is a bit of an acquired taste. Drying the fat is reserved for the young ones or Chris, my nephew pictured below.
At the end of all our work is an amazing meal shared with family. We even let the ones who don’t like mutton bone to join us with their hotdogs. I think if they saw how hotdogs were made they’d gladly eat mutton bone.
Donnie Begay is on staff with Nations, a ministry that is about joining Native American college students, faculty, and their communities in their spiritual journey and walking in harmony with others and Creator.