Many Navajo producers didn’t raise animals as a commodity—rather, livestock served a subsistence role. At the sale barn, white buyers often took advantage of Navajo producers. A cow would fetch $500, hundreds of dollars below market rates.
Read: For Native Americans, land is more than just the ground beneath their feet
The New Lands sits in Apache County, one of the poorest in the U.S., with few job opportunities. Younger relocatees, who wanted to hold on to traditions but also to make money off the livestock, grew frustrated. The thinking, Yazzie says, was: “When will we ever be compatible with the bilagáana, the white man? Like, how do we create opportunity for our Native people?”
In 2009, ONHIR created the Padres Mesa Demonstration Ranch and hired Bill Inman to run it. The Ranch, pitched as an economic-development initiative, would teach relocatees to professionalize their operations and care for the land. Inman organized branding days, taught people to administer vaccines, and hired a handful of Navajo cowboys. He produced thick reports on forage health. The ranch also leased out good breeding bulls to refine herd genetics.
Livestock quality improved. But there was a problem: Producers were still selling to middlemen at rock-bottom prices.
Yazzie was working as an agriculture teacher at the time, often using the Ranch’s facilities for lessons. One day, while branding at the Ranch with her students, she ran into a man she didn’t know. He pointed to the animals grazing nearby; he said he wanted to buy and market the cattle as Navajo Beef, to consumers increasingly interested in where their food came from and how it was raised. “I was mean to him,” Yazzie recalls, laughing.
The herd the man had been eyeing belonged to the Ranch—in other words, to the federal government—not to Navajo producers. “So you can’t even call it Navajo Beef,” she told him. She argued that the label would appropriate the tribe’s identity without benefiting its members. “Kids there were like, ‘Ms. Yazzie, no more, just leave it, just leave it.’ And I was like, ‘No, you stand up for what you believe in; this is wrong,’” Yazzie remembers.
The man’s name, she later learned, was Al Silva; he was the CEO of a large, Texas-based food distributor called Labatt Food Service. That evening he invited Yazzie to join Labatt and start the label her way, with Navajo producers. Since 2012, Yazzie has been recruiting producers whose animals meet Labatt’s quality specifications.
To show what an eligible cow looks like, Yazzie joins Anderson White, one of Padres Mesa’s Navajo cowboys, on some errands. They drive by a neighbor’s pasture where cows of all colors graze on stubby fodder. “That’s where we came from,” Yazzie says, as White turns into a relatively lush ranch field. He stops at a scenic watering hole, where a group of almost all-black cows mosey. “They look like great mothers,” Yazzie swoons. She explains that she looks for livestock like this: vaccinated, square bodies, shiny coats, clear eyes, majority English breed (like Black Angus), of sufficient weight. For ranchers short of the mark, she designs individual plans and works with Inman to make sure they progress.