Like the Spaghetti Incident, but with less screaming.
Diane, one of the aides at KHC, invited me to join her in early August at a sheep slaughter at her mother’s house, about 13 miles north out of Kayenta. The sheep was being slaughtered on a Saturday in preparation for a big birthday party on Sunday for her youngest son, who turned seven (I think).
This is a very traditional Navajo thing to do. Diane’s mother is traditional; speaks no English, has lived alone in a small cinderblock home since her husband died, and raises sheep. She used to shear them, spin the wool and weave, but now that her eyesight is going and her hands are stiff with arthritis, she no longer weaves. In fact, after I met her she joked that if I only spoke Navajo she would ask me to stay with her and help her. She talked quite a bit, and Diane said that she frequently bemoans the fact that none of her many grown children (I think Diane has five or six siblings) stay with her to help her. This is despite the fact that her youngest son, who was present that day, drives up from Phoenix every weekend (four hour drive) to see her.
But I digress. We slaughtered a sheep. And no, I did not pass out nor did I puke.
WARNING! Fairly graphic detail about the slaughter and some VERY graphic pictures. Please proceed at your own risk!
By the way, this all started about 7 a.m. I got up VERY early.
First, we picked out the sheep. We all headed down to the pen, and Diane’s brother waited until his mother had chosen a sheep, then roped it and tied its legs together.
Then, we popped it on the back of an ATV, drove it up closer to the house, got everything ready, and Diane slit its throat. The Navajo waste very, very little of the sheep. The blood is kept (which is why you see the blue bowl) and cooked…somehow. I didn’t get to eat any sheep blood.
Once the sheep was dead (and if you really want to know what something looks like as it dies, I’ll tell you, but it’s strange), we skinned it. You make a slit from neck to anus and essentially push and pull the skin away from the fascia. It comes off in one big piece. Here’s me helping — I held the body still while it was being skinned.
The house was surrounded by rez cats and dogs, all begging for scraps. This kitten was eventually given the spleen to eat, but at this moment she snuck a bit off the skin before being chased off.
Once the sheep was skinned, we tied it to a rope and hung it from a tree. This makes the subsequent evisceration and butchering way easier. Diane and her brother knew exactly how to cut out the specific cuts of meat from the sheep.
Evisceration. If you cut the innards at the right place, it all just comes out in one big…..lump? I lack the word for it. The white part you see is the omentum — big web o’ fat surrounding the innards. This was a fat sheep.
As I mentioned, very little is wasted. I’m watching in fascination as Diane methodically cleans out every last inch of the intestine. The intestine is later wrapped in the omentum and cooked — and considered one of the best parts of the sheep.
Cleaning intestine. The contents of the intestine are dumped in the desert, as is the spleen. As far as I remember, almost everything else is kept — including the stomach and the head. The head (which I did NOT include a picture of; you’re welcome) is cooked whole over the fire and eaten. Apparently sheep eyes are yummy.
As Diane cleaned intestine, the men (her brother and husband) continued to butcher and hang cuts of meat from the tree to dry a bit. When finished, we all carried bowls of various sheep parts back into the house for a post-slaughter snack.
And the snack. What you’re seeing on this plate is a tortilla I made myself (dry bread, not frybread), and a piece of heart, a piece of lungs, a piece of the neck (the “shepherd’s cut”), and a few other cuts of meat. We ate only the parts that would not keep until the following day. Most everything else went into the fridge until the party.
The meat was not bad, but very tough and chewy. The taste of the heart was incredibly strong (I took one bite and meekly gave it to Diane), and the texture of the lungs was a little too strange for me (I kept seeing my Anatomy textbook in my head, and the pictures of all the bronchioles). I did eat all of my square piece of bread (Diane laughed at my piss-poor bread-forming skills).
We all went home around 1 p.m., exhausted (slaughter is damn hard work); I slept for a few hours and woke up a vegetarian. Sortof. It’s not like I objected to the act of the slaughter, or the death of the sheep, or anything like that. I completely understood and appreciated why it was being done, and, to be honest, killing your own sheep gives you an incredible awareness of your food that you cannot get when you buy pre-packaged meat at the supermarket.
It was the smell. There’s something about the smell of the slaughter that, in retrospect, made me want to avoid meat, almost altogether. I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose.
Of course, a few days later Kerri and Gwen and I went to Pizza Edge and I ordered a meatball sub without even thinking about it. I was halfway through eating it (and thinking to myself, mmmmm, this is good!) when I realized exactly *what* I was eating. Oops. There goes my vegetarianism.
I actually think that that’s a pretty good analogy for the way our whole culture eats. We just EAT. We don’t *think* about what we eat, or I bet we’d be pretty appalled a lot of the time (have YOU ever read a Cheetos label?).
Still, I ended up making a huge pot of rice and beans and I stayed pretty vegetarian for the rest of my time in Kayenta. While I’m not super-strict here in Milwaukee (I had some great salmon the other night), I do think about meat before I choose to eat it. And, a lot of the time, I choose not to.