Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: A Sheepherder's Breakfast

Aug 20, 2019

Commentator Scott Thybony was in northern Canada in 1972 when he realized he’d had enough of the freezing-cold and wanted to come home to the Southwest. Upon his return, he and his brother decided to live on the Navajo Nation with an elderly medicine man and his wife who needed some help tending their land. But not sharing a similar language, the adventure led to a funny miscommunication about food. Scott tells us the story in his latest Canyon Commentary.

Scott Thybony, Navajo Nation, 1972
Credit Scott Thybony


On my first morning as a sheepherder I woke to someone pounding on the door of our hogan, a traditional Navajo home.  One of the grandchildren had been sent to get us moving.  “Eat!” the young boy shouted.  “My grandmother says, ‘Eat!’”  My brother and I were about to begin a season far different than anything we had known before. 

Wanting to learn more about the people and landscapes of the Southwest had brought me to the high desert of Northern Arizona.  When I heard about an elderly Navajo couple needing help with their herd to get through the winter, I signed on.  My brother joined me, having decided he could use a few quiet months after having flown heavy combat missions as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  The Navajo medicine man and his wife couldn’t pay us, but they would supply all the frybread we could eat.  The two of us slept on the floor next to a potbellied stove and took our meals with them.  They didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Navajo.

John and I pulled on our boots and headed over to the main house.  As we sat down, the grandmother grabbed a lamb from a cardboard box next to the woodstove and began feeding it from a bottle.  Her hair was pulled back, showing silver earrings, and she wore a full skirt cut from satin.  Alice, we soon learned, not only ruled the roost but owned it.  Being a matriarchal society, the home and sheep belonged to her. 

Scott Thybony's older brother, John, Navajo Nation, 1972
Credit Scott Thybony

She had cooked a full breakfast for us.  A stack of fry bread sat next to two bowls of cornmeal mush with a couple of fried eggs on the side.  We had been told to eat everything placed before us, or she would consider it an insult.  So the two of us dutifully set to work on breakfast, barely managing to finish.

We soon eased into a routine.  Each morning we woke up to what had become a daily ritual – “Eat!  My grandmother says, ‘Eat!’”  And each morning the table held even more food than the day before.  We began to dread having to face another breakfast.  The Navajo woman kept serving so much food it had to have been a burden on them.  They didn’t have much to begin with, living without electricity and riding horseback to the trading post on the rare occasion they needed something.

By the fourth morning, the situation had reached a breaking point.  The two of us sat down at the table before six pieces of fry bread, a can of butter, a bowl of mush, half a dozen eggs, and a pot of coffee.  Still half-full from yesterday, we couldn't do it.  We wanted to be polite and follow their customs, but we just couldn’t eat everything in front of us.  So we decided to take only the food we needed and leave the rest untouched. 

That night came the expected knock on the hogan door.  Whenever a problem occurred, a relative who could speak English showed up to straighten things out.  I figured we had seriously insulted the grandmother and would be asked to leave.  But her son-in-law looked puzzled when I apologized for having left food on the plate.  Suddenly he began to laugh, realizing what had been happening.  “No,” he said, “don’t feel bad.”

His wife, having worked in a cafeteria, had warned Alice that the Bilagáana had big appetites so she better give us plenty to eat.  The first morning she served what she thought were generous portions.  But when we ate everything, she was afraid she wasn’t feeding us enough.  So she gave us more the next morning, and more the next.  She was amazed at our immense appetites.  The more we ate, the more she kept wondering, “Where do those guys put all that food?”