In the beginning, Navajos say, the Holy People gave them the priceless gift of Churro sheep.
Now, some say the worst drought to hit the Southwest in a century, scorching millions of acres of sheep-grazing land, may be a sign they have erred by forsaking traditional Navajo culture.
The drought has devastated life's tenacious hold on the 16 million-acre Navajo reservation, which lies mostly in Arizona and extends into western New Mexico and southern Utah. In a good year, the area might get 8 inches of rain.
There were no spring rains this year, and water is so scarce that Navajos must drive many miles to load water in barrels in pickup trucks.
In Ganado, Ariz., about 250 miles northeast of Phoenix and in the heart of the reservation, a wizened 53-year-old farmer known as Grandfather Terrell disconsolately surveys his parched land.
"In all the long years, I have never seen the suffering this extended drought has caused the Navajo nation," he says. "Our animals - sheep, goats, cows and horses - are eating the blowing sand. The wind blows every day, piling the Navajo nation into great sand dunes."
The Navajos are the country's largest and poorest Indian tribe. Many of its youth now speak English instead of Navajo; others have adopted white man's religions. The tribe has given over vast tracts of the reservation to coal mining, which reputedly has angered their gods.
Meteorologists interpret the dryness as the "Hale cycle," four years of drought in a 22-year cycle.
Thus, a palpable desperation has settled on the reservation's 212,000 far-flung inhabitants, half of whom are shepherds and 20,000 of whom are weavers who depend on a cheap supply of local wool, says Lyle McNeal, professor of animal husbandry at Utah State University in Logan. He spent 10 days on the reservation in late June.
"I saw so many dead cows and a few dead sheep," he said, "and lots of gaunt horses. The cows are so thin, there's no way nutritionally they can be brought into condition to have a calf or foal. Their reproduction is eliminated for this year.
"A lot of these families are selling off their cattle first because they cannot afford to feed them," he added. "The feed is worth more than the cattle."
"It's scary to see the animals so thin, hungry and thirsty," said Sharon Begay, 40, of Jeddito, Ariz. "I have never seen so much red sand blowing out here since I was born," referring to the iron-rich dirt that covers the reservation.
Very little help is on the way. Although the Navajo tribal government, based in Window Rock, Ariz., recently passed measures freeing up tribal funds for emergency feed and grain, Navajo President Albert Hale vetoed the measures twice for political reasons, said Martin Avery, director of the Navajo nation's Washington office.
Legislation moving through the U.S. House and the Senate would allow the Agriculture Department to provide up to $18 million for extra feed. Mr. McNeal, recently named Conservation Breeder of the Year for 1996 by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, says he was especially steamed at how some white feed merchants are profiting from the Navajos' misfortune.
"I saw them selling hay from the back of trailers and trucks charging from $7.50 to $10 a bale," he said. "In the harvest season, bales should not be more than $1.75 to $2."
Albuquerque novelist Tony Hillerman, nationally known for his portrayals of Navajo life, says the drought is worse than his years growing up in the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said, adding that because Indians lack enough grass for their livestock, they are slaughtering them en masse, including many pregnant heifers.
"The people feel even their own [tribal] government has been unaware of their serious needs," Mr. …