Sheep Is Life

Next week is the Navajo Nation Fair and I hear it's going to be massive.  Like many of the larger fairs on the reservation, it will have a rodeo, a pow wow, live country music, local art showcases, rug auctions, frybread up to your eyeballs, everything. But the thing I'm most excited about is the Miss Navajo contest, because at 8:00am, to a sizable crowd, all the contestants (beautiful young women) will engage in a tradition that's been passed down for generations; alone, they will butcher a sheep in under an hour.

If you’ve never done it, butchering an animal might sound like a horrific experience.  It’s violent, of course.  There's the blood.  And once it's dead, you have to skin it, deal with all the organs, clean the intestines, and cut the remaining carcass into bits.  That actually might sound so revolting that just imagining it may make you want to click your way to happier thoughts.  But be strong.  I’m here to tell you that I, a man who has identified as a vegetarian for most of the last five years, did it and I found it to be one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

It starts like this: the sheep is taken from its pen, its head is laid down on a block of wood, its throat is slit and the knife works through the rest of the head.  Now at this point, I’m completely mortified.  In fact, I’m ready to sign an exclusive contract with quinoa, beans, and lentils for my protein because at no point in their production do they look like that. In this moment, it’s impossible for me not to feel a deep sense of empathy – that if I were in this sheep’s wool, I’d be getting my head cut off and there would be nothing I could do about it.  Then there’s the time it takes for it to stop breathing.  Oh god. I think for newbies like me, there is such a thing as ‘butcher time,’ akin to ‘drug time’ where seconds seem like minutes and even after it’s head is off, I could swear it’s still breathing and kicking.  Soon though, reality sets in; the animal has passed.

It’s at this point that a wave of relief comes over me.  Suddenly, everything is so vivid.  I hold the animal’s legs as it is skinned.  I help remove the stomach and all that slimy stuff.  I clean out the intestines all the while making jokes with the family (chon jokes, shit jokes, jokes about the dog running away with the sheep’s head).  Spirits are high.  I’m reduced to the unspeakable sensation of just being alive.  I’m connected to the ancient tradition of the Navajo people, of my people, of your people, of everyone's people.

The experience made me realize that in our age of convenience, we deprive ourselves of the deeply meaningful experience of killing what we eat, as uncouth and brutal as it may seem.  We distance ourself from reality by buying hamburgers from cartoonish fast food joints and politely-packaged lunchmeat off the supermarket shelves.  Maybe that's why meat consumption is so high these days; the blood's off our hands and it's practically faceless. It's just a food group.

A deeply meaningful experience.  Thank you, Showa family.

A deeply meaningful experience.  Thank you, Showa family.

So did I sign that contract with the plant proteins I almost swore to? On the contrary. That day, I developed the most intense longing for meat that I can ever remember. Maybe the experience awakened something in me.  Sheep is mostly all the meat I eat out here, but I do so knowing now, in a very intimate way, what I am eating.  I suggest that if the opportunity ever arises for you to do the same, take it - especially if you’re a meat-eater.  You’ll be grateful you did, mostly grateful for the animal that gives its life to keep yours going.

So next week, when Miss Navajo sharpens her knife at 7:59am preparing to engage in practice as old as time itself, you know where to find me...

Alex Simon