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NMSU Tribal Extension agent Jesse Jim lives the life of her people

Date: 10/01/2014

CROWNPOINT, N.M. ? Navajo Jesse Jim is working to improve the lives of her people as they live the Diné culture and traditions.

Navajo woman standing in front of a flock of sheep.
NMSU Tribal Extension agent Jesse Jim lives on her grandfather?s remote ranch 25 miles north of Crownpoint, where she raises sheep, cattle, horses and chickens. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

As a life-long resident of the eastern Navajo Nation region, the New Mexico State University graduate and Tribal Extension agent deals personally each day with many of the same issues experienced by her neighbors.

She lives on her family?s 5,287-acre ranch 25 miles north of Crownpoint in the Standing Rock Chapter, the Navajo governance area equivalent to a county.

?My grandfather, Willie Jim, built the sandstone house that I live in,? Jim said of the three-room structure that is reached by a 5-mile dirt road. ?We have a typical rural Navajo homestead.?

In the 1970s when the Navajo Nation was making capital improvements to provide water, electricity and telephone lines to tribal members in remote areas, Jim said her grandfather only asked for electricity.

?I have to haul 500 to 600 gallons of water each week from Crownpoint to fill a cistern so I can have running water in the house,? she said. ?You really appreciate something when it?s limited. You learn to conserve it because you have to.?

While there are no telephone lines to her house, Jim is not out of touch because of modern technology ? a satellite dish on her roof. ?I have access to the Internet and cell phone service, so it?s not as remote as when my grandparents and parents lived out here.?

Like many Extension agents, Jim raises livestock and manages the rangeland in addition to her assignment with the university.

?My brothers, sister and I are continuing the ranching tradition of our elders, which includes raising sheep, cattle, horses and chickens,? she said. ?Unlike many of our neighbors who run their livestock on open range, we have fenced our land into 10 430-acre pastures. We move the cattle from pasture to pasture to protect the grass from over-grazing.?

As an NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences faculty member working through the Cooperative Extension Service, Jim?s duties include providing youth development, nutrition and agricultural programs for the people of the Navajo Nation?s eastern region.

?The Tribal Extension job is to find the balance between living in a Western society and traditional culture,? she said. ?There is a balance in everything. Coming from the Navajo culture, the only balance is agriculture. I?m demonstrating that we can teach the youth critical thinking through other projects, such as Lego robotics and rocketry.?

Besides providing STEM programs to the youth, Jim teaches many Navajo traditions, such as cooking, finger weaving and braiding.

She is also working with the tribal members to show them how they can have healthier diets by raising a garden using a low-pressure, gravity-driven drip irrigation system designed for well-less areas where water has to be hauled in.

?We?ve had a demonstration garden at the Office of Diné Youth Center in Crownpoint for several years,? she said of the Yeego Gardening project. ?Yeego? means ?go? in the Navajo language.

?A lot of people have stopped to see what we are doing and raising,? she said. ?I?ve seen more small gardens beside people?s houses since the project began.?

Agriculture, especially raising sheep, is the backbone of Navajo tradition.

?Traditionally, we used all of the sheep. We ate the meat and used the wool to protect ourselves from the cold with garments and blankets,? she said. ?Sheep are still part of our cultural activities.?

Through the years, the way the tribal members manage their sheep has changed.

?When I was a child, I helped herd my grandfather?s sheep in the summertime,? Jim said. ?We?d move them from the winter camp to the summer camp and back. In the evenings, grandfather would teach us aspects of our culture while speaking Navajo and limited English.?

It is from those lessons that Jim understands why the sheep growers lack understanding of the modern agricultural practices.

?When the sheep were herded from camp to camp, they grazed on the native plants, including those with medicinal properties,? she said. ?Our elders never gave vaccinations to their sheep. But now, many sheep herds do not graze the open range, but are kept in pens where they can contract diseases.?

Because vaccinations are not administered, annual shearing of the sheep is not practiced by many herdsmen.

?There are many reasons why people are not shearing their sheep,? she said. ?Two main reasons are that blanket weaving is becoming a lost art, and the money received for the wool at the trading posts does not equal the cost of hiring some to shear the sheep.?

Jim is working with Felix Nez, the agricultural agent at Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona, to improve the Navajo sheep herd. They host an annual conference in the spring at the Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint. During the conference, many topics related to the care of the sheep and marketing of the wool are covered to help inform the tribal members.

?People need to know there are information resources out here to help them,? she said. ?I want to provide the information on how to manage the livestock and rangeland to my community. I want to tell them, ?I?ve been there, and I?m here to help you. What you are doing is not wrong, but here is a better way to approach it to make it better.??

Written by Jane Moorman

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