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Creator Heath Herring says project was about capturing honesty

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FARMINGTON — At this time a year ago, Heath Herring says, he had no idea what a Navajo-Churro sheep was.

"And now it's something that's very near and dear to me," said the Arkansas-based freelance photojournalist.

Herring and his creative partner, Leney Breeden, spent much of the past several months roaming around northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona chronicling the lifestyle of the Navajo shepherds who raise the distinctive Navajo-Churro sheep herds. Their work is featured on the Stetson Stories blog on the famed hatmaker's website, a platform that focuses on visual storytelling and spirited individuals who live iconic, outdoors-oriented lifestyles.

"We wanted to capture as much honesty as possible," Herring said of the project, which includes photos and video shot near such locales as Shiprock and Chaco Mesa in New Mexico, and Page and Sawmill, Arizona. "We just really wanted to see what a day in the life of a Navajo shepherd was like."

While the images and footage included in the blog entry undoubtedly are designed to promote Stetson products — the shepherds included in the piece are all outfitted in stylish company hats — the project also provides an inside look at a traditional, largely unknown lifestyle that continues to anchor many Navajo people to their land. Herring and Breeden allowed their subjects to tell their stories in their own words, and the images themselves reflect the close bond between the animals and those who care for them.

Herring was no stranger to the Southwest, having spent plenty of time here in the past working on projects that involved custom-built motorcycles and underground rodeos. But when he began researching the lifestyles of Navajo shepherds, he decided to drop everything else he was working on and devote himself solely to this project.

He and Breeden wound up spending approximately three months in New Mexico and Arizona. That kind of devotion to his subject is what convinced a skeptical Eliseo Curley, a shepherd, educator and weaver from Shiprock, to allow the photojournalists to shadow him and his herd.

Curley said he had been approached by journalists and documentary filmmakers before who were interested in learning about the realities of sheepherding, but he had never found their requests for his help very convincing. None of them seemed willing to spend enough time with Curley to really understand their subject, he said.

Curley found Herring different.

"He was willing to commit and be side by side with the shepherds," Curley said, explaining that Herring spent approximately a week and a half with him in early June as Curley drove his sheep to their summer pasture in the mountains outside Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.

He said that gave him and Herring a chance to develop a good relationship. Curley also appreciated the fact that Herring was interested in his weavings, which are made from the wool that he and others like him produce.

"It was a good way to portray the way we utilize the sheep," he said.

Herring said he found sheep herding to be a fascinating way of life, and his most valuable takeaway from the experience was the friendships he developed, not just with Curley but with the other shepherds he profiled, Kelly Skacy, Colby Yazzie and Drake Mace.

"It was meeting everyone and being accepted into the lives and homes of people who were so hospitable and so real and so honest natured and kind," he said, the words spilling out of him in rapid-fire fashion. "That's not something I experience much on a daily basis. I live in a small town, but there's still a slower pace to (life on the range). It's a nice sense of welcoming."

Herring and Breeden were aided in their project by local Navajo independent filmmaker Kody Dayish and his crew, who shot footage of Curley with his sheep. Herring took that and the footage he shot, and edited it into a four-minute video that accompanies the 27-shot photo gallery that anchors the piece.

"We were honored and humbled to have been a part of the article," Dayish said, explaining that he found the experience relevant because many Stetson products are derived from wool.

Curley said the blog entry seems to have attracted a sizable audience, as he has been contacted by people across the country who have seen it and reached out to him to express their support for him or inquire about his weavings.

He enjoyed the experience of working with Herring and said he looks forward to the fall, when Herring has plans to return to the area and chronicle Curley's work to bring his sheep down from their summer grazing territory.

Herring hopes to return to the Four Corners to work on other projects, including one on a horse trainer in the Gallup area and perhaps another related to the Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo in September.

But his experience on this project hasn't inspired him to consider a career change. Herring said he had his opportunities to put down his camera and do a little herding himself during his time here, but he decided to stick with what he knew best.

"You've got to stay on your feet with that sort of thing," he said, laughing. "You've got to leave that to the professionals."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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