The Navajo-Churro Shepherds

The Navajo-Churro Shepherds

By Heath Herring & Leney Breeden

The Navajo Nation lies at the heart of the American Southwest. It spans over 27,000 sqare miles across the Four Corners region. This land is the center of Diné culture and home to over 300,000 Navajo people whose heritage dates back countless generations. At the core of this culture is a sacred, traditional way of life: The Navajo shepherd and the Navajo-Churro sheep.

“Take care of the sheep and they will take care of you.” These words resonate across the Navajo Nation, cutting straight to the core of what it means to be a shepherd. They symbolize the relationship between the Navajo-Churro sheep and the Navajo people. These shepherds, along with their flocks, have all been affected by the drought that has plagued the Southwest in recent years. But despite the hardships, this way of life is filled with harmony, peace and beauty.

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Colby is a young shepherd outside of Sawmill, Arizona in an area called “Che’chiltah” meaning: “Among the Oak Trees.” He has a flock of Navajo-Churro that he raises with the help of his family.

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The Navajo-Churro is a rare, endangered breed of sheep commonly thought to be adapted from the Churra, which were carried to North America by the Spaniards over 400 years ago. Because of this adaption, the Navajo-Churro is incredibly acclimated to the desert conditions of the Southwest. It has the ability to thrive in conditions where other breeds would likely perish. It has a unique, two-part fleece, unlike other sheep breeds that only have one. The fibers are long, lustrous, low in lanolin and take natural dyes readily. The result is a strong, beautiful yarn that has been spun and woven into many traditional Navajo weavings for centuries.

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“The story is that the holy people took down the clouds for the sheep’s body, willow branches for the legs and crystals for their eyes. It was just a statue until they breathed life into it. Then it was alive. The sheep was quiet, so they put the thunder inside it and gave it a spirit and a voice. The sheep are sacred, that’s what I see when I look at Navajo-Churro. The Land is wild and they match it. They have a unique spirit. You can feel it. They put life back into the earth.“ — Colby Yazzie

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Drake Mace is a Shepherd who creates beautiful, traditional weavings and spends every day tending his Churro flock in Chaco Mesa, New Mexico.

“Churros are resilient and flighty. Which is good when they’re on the range because they’re alert and can flee from predators. They’re also excellent mothers. They take care of their lambs even when it’s raining or snowing. A lot of the fine wool breeds will just abandon their lambs or leave them to freeze in those conditions, but Churros won’t do that. They’re good sheep to have.” — Drake Mace

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“In Navajo, we say ‘Dibé be’ iiná’ which means ‘sheep is life’. We live off of the sheep. They provide us food, sustenance, wool— everything. A lot of shepherds live by that saying. The sheep are a big part of our history. I’m with my sheep every day. From morning til dusk. As Navajo, we talk about Hózhó, meaning harmony amongst everyone and balance between all living things. That’s what my life with my sheep brings me.” — Drake Mace

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Kelly Skacy is a shepherd in Northern Arizona. Her flock of Navajo-Churro has been with her family for generations. Kelly came to learn and love this way of life through everything she was taught by her father, Herbert, who still works alongside her to this day.

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“The sheep hold us to our land. They are the reason we remain close to it. Because of them we see every sunrise and we never miss a sunset. It is because of our sheep that we still hold on to our reservation. If we lose them we will lose our land.” — Kelly Skacy

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Eliseo Curley is a shepherd, weaver and educator in Shiprock, New Mexico who’s been raising his own Navajo-Churro for about six years. Every Spring he hikes 20 miles into the Carrizo Mountains, alongside other shepherds and their flocks, to take their Churro to a sheep camp for cooler weather and better grazing during the warmer seasons.

“What I like about this way of living is having the freedom to do what you want. You’re not being controlled by a 9 to 5 job and stuck in the same old routine. With this lifestyle you don’t always know what you’ll do in a day. You wake up, cook breakfast and then an hour later you’re out harvesting wild tea somewhere. Next you’re going to a ceremony, weaving, visiting the sheep camp, or maybe even teaching classes the next day. It’s spontaneous, and that’s what I like about it.” — Eliseo Curley

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Many shepherds speak of this life being handed down from their grandparents. It’s predominantly instilled by their grandmothers, as Diné (The Navajo people) are historically a matriarchal society.

“My grandparents always had sheep. When I was around 8 years old, I would help take care of them, shearing them when it was time to shear, then following as they herded the sheep. So a lot of this I learned at a young age.” — Eliseo Curley

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“My grandmother always said her sheep were her mother and her father because they were passed on from generation to generation. She would tell us ‘they’re your mother. They’re your father. So take care of them like they take care of you.’” — Drake Mace

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“I chose Churro sheep because my grandfather passed the herd onto my dad. So I look at it as holding onto what my grandparents had and continuing that legacy. My Dad says, ‘when you have livestock you have to work right beside them.’ I am a strong believer in working for what you have. I’m down here every morning, rain or shine. You have to do what you can, by all means necessary, to help them in whatever conditions you’re in.” — Kelly Skacy

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“I chose Churro because I love the versatility of the wool and how it’s variegated throughout my weaving. Red, brown, grey, black and white. I love the natural colors. There’s a lot of designs you can create with just four colors at the most. I used to use a lot of processed yarn until I fell in love with spinning my own wool.” — Drake Mace

These pieces are not only works of art, but handwoven stories of a people and way of life. They communicate strength, intention and endurance in a way that fully utilizes these multi-faceted sheep that hold so many gifts. These weavings are also a tangible representation of a slower, thoughtful lifestyle - a powerful message to an otherwise fast paced world.

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“Weaving is something I’m really passionate about. It’s an aspect of the sheep life that I love so much, and it ties me to my history.” — Drake Mace

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While many shepherds speak of peace and harmony with the land, the sheep and one another, most agree that this can be a hard way of life at times. Mother Nature calls the shots. Ongoing drought, remote locations, limited resources, and grazing conditions can be financially strenuous for shepherds on the reservation.

“It’s hard living on the reservation. We don’t have access to a lot of stores, and all the border towns are 50 plus miles away. We live completely isolated. So living on the Rez can make you a very strong individual. There’s rough patches in life but you just gotta stay strong and positive and persevere. Have goals. Stick to your guns. Be yourself. Live your life every day, and be grateful for what you have, instead of moping around about what you don’t have.” —Drake Mace

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“I wish more people had interest in preserving old ways. Those ways got us through so much. They got us through The Long Walk, through the livestock reductions and through hard times in general. Every single day that we go through, the animals get us through it. I think it needs to be stressed that it’s very important.“ — Colby Yazzie

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“Despite not always being financially stable, you will always be rich in your life with your livestock and in the things that you know.” — Eliseo Curley

A lot of the hardship on the reservation can be attributed to the drought that hinders plant growth on the rangelands for the livestock to survive on. The lack of plant life forces shepherds to purchase hay, the prices of which have been rising. The hay has to be shipped in from further and further away, because it’s unable to grow substantially near the reservation.

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“The drought has affected us in many ways. We used to run about three to four hundred head of sheep, but we had to cut back to about 120. We use hay and supply sheep with nutrients during these conditions. I think a lot of people lose their herds because of the drought. They can’t afford hay so when there’s no feed, grazing is all they depend on. It feels good to have some rain around here this Spring.” — Kelly Skacy

There was a small reprieve during the Spring, but there’s no telling how long it will last. Especially with the upcoming heat and summer wind which could cause everything to dry out again.

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“My main goal with the Navajo Churro is to help my family and others and help to supply them with resources.” -Colby Yazzie

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“My hope is to carry on the traditional knowledge and pass it on to younger people, or even people my age, who are out there wanting to learn. That’s what keeps me going - teaching other people what I know. Which can take me places to talk to others, not just on the reservation but across the country. This way of living doesn’t keep you in one spot. You’re helping people all over the place. That’s what I enjoy.” — Eliseo Curley

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“If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would buy a nice spread of land, and just do what I do because it’s what I love. I’m just happy to be amongst sheep. “ —Drake Mace

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“This is the way of life that I want to live. I love being a shepherd. You don’t get the same day twice. Doing this and being here makes me happy and there’s nothing else I would rather do. To me it’s carrying on a legacy. Not everyone sees the value of the wool, to me it’s everything.“ —Kelly Skacy

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This story is meant to be a small glimpse into the life of Navajo shepherds and pay respect to the sacred relationship between the Navajo people and their Churro sheep. It’s commonly said that one must be Navajo to truly understand the depth of this sacred bond and what it means among families, clans and on an individual level. For that reason and more, this story was told by the shepherds themselves.

In addition to this way of life, the Navajo-Churro sheep are also raised and protected by others who wish to see the breed flourish. Navajo, Hispanic and Anglo shepherds and producers alike all work hard, often together, to protect and help perpetuate the growth of this breed and increase awareness about it’s endangerment, cultural significance and invaluable qualities as a sustainable breed. The Churro are incredibly resilient, as are the shepherds who raise them, but nature isn’t cutting anyone any slack. There is currently a serious need to continue raising awareness about drought conditions in the Southwest and the impact it’s having on shepherds and all agricultural life throughout the region.

For more information about Navajo-Churro sheep visit: navajolifeway.org and navajosheepproject.org

Heath Herring: instagram.com/heath_herring Leney Breeden: instagram.com/agirlnamedleney Special thanks to Kody Dayish: instagram.com/kodydayish

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The Texas Poitou Donkeys

By Heath Herring

If there ever existed a perfect animal, I found it in Grandview, Texas. On my way home from Arizona in the summer of 2017, I received a message from a man named Patrick Archer. It was short. He introduced himself and said, “we raise French donkeys.” Sounded interesting, but what I didn’t know at the time was that this short message would lead to one of the the most rewarding, longest-running projects I’ve ever taken on with two of the raddest dudes I’ve ever met. After two years and more Texas road trips than I can remember, I’d like to introduce you to Patrick Archer, Christopher Jones and the Texas Poitou Donkeys.

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“Poitou. You say it like Pwah-too,” said Patrick as we looked out across a field of giant, dreadlocked, four legged creatures that looked, to me, like some beautiful cross between a donkey and a wooly mammoth. A few gnawed at the grass while others stood still as statues, like some wise, ancient beasts that drifted straight out of the middle ages onto a green Texas pasture. Ancient and wise? Yes. Beasts? Hardly. Turns out they’re giant Teddy bears with rabbit ears and shaggy hair.

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Patrick: The Poitou donkey is an ancient French breed. They look like wild, prehistoric animals. They’re huge! At least 14–15 hands (56–60") high at the withers and weigh 750–950 pounds. Long hair is their most striking feature. It hangs in cords from their entire body. Essentially Poitou donkeys are big, shaggy, lovable, social creatures who also happen to be very smart and very affectionate. They’re also extremely gentle and love attention.

Chris: The Poitou were exclusively to bred with Mulassiere mares (French draft horse). The foal was the finest of all work mules. After industrialization and two world wars in France, the donkey almost became extinct.

Patrick: Fewer than 80 Poitou Donkeys existed in 1980. Tractors came along, and the demand for mules collapsed. The breed’s limited geographic area in France also increased its vulnerability.

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Patrick: Chris and I are not farmers by trade but by choice. Before all this, I was a big box retail manager and Chris was a banker. Both careers were stressful so we purchased a small tract of land so we could escape and breathe. We both love the outdoors. It didn’t take long for me to want to populate the farm with livestock.

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Patrick: We started out small - literally. This all started with miniature donkeys. And of course ducks, geese and other barn animals. Now we have a small herd of cattle, fallow deer, goats, assorted barn yard animals, and we raise Poitou Donkeys.

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Patrick: One day while touring a friends exotic game ranch we drove past a huge, hairy donkey that was built like a tank. I immediately asked if this donkey was possibly a Poitou and if so, would they ever consider selling her?  The answer was yes and that started what is now Texas Poitou Donkeys.

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Patrick and Chris devote their lives every day to the Poitou herd and other animals, but it’s not for the money. In fact, everything they make from farming goes right back into the farm and the animals they’re working so hard to raise and protect. As random as it sounds, their day job is operating a yearly event called the Winter Park Ski-Music festival. They manage the entire operation from Texas and trek out to the Rockies every Spring to put it on. Officing from home makes it possible to manage the festival and the farm together.

Chris: Operating a farm as a secondary source of income is extremely rewarding, but still full of surprises.  Whether it’s animal health, mechanical breakdowns, or weather you never know what each day brings.  I enjoy being outside, doing whatever needs to be done, and improving the overall operation. Self-accomplishment is my fuel, and operating a farm fills my tank, even during more trying periods.  I just wish the yields of farming/ranching were more financially rewarding.

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Patrick: This is in my DNA. My mother’s parents were dust bowl survivors and scratched out a living on a farm in Kansas. It was a high point of our year to visit and shadow my grandfather as he worked the garden or tended to livestock. As a naïve kid, I thought it looked like the perfect life, free of worry.  My understanding of what it takes to be a farmer has changed, but my love of the land and all of its creatures has not. 

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Folk art, cowboy paintings, vintage hats and an array of beautifully curated oddities lead the way through Chris and Patrick’s home in Grandview, TX. “I’m glad to hear someone besides us likes it,” says Patrick. I don’t think we paid more than 10 or 20 dollars for a single thing hanging in here.”

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One of Patricks go-to hats is the Gus Crushable Outdoor . He stole it from me a couple of winters ago on my second visit to the farm.

Patrick: Since moving to the farm full time, we have amassed a collection of hats for just about every situation and season. We definitely have our favorites. I’m always going to reach for the well-worn felt and Chris is definitely a straw hat guy.  We have been collecting vintage cowboy hats for years. There’s something about a well worn/beat up cowboy hat that speaks to me…much like a great pair of broken in boots or leather gloves. From our work on this farm, I can appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that go into managing land and livestock. When I have one of these old hats on, I try to do it justice. 

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Patrick: Once we educated ourselves on just how precarious the Poitou population was, we felt it was a natural step to play an active part in saving the breed.

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Patrick: We take our commitment to the Poitou very seriously and want them to be ambassadors for not only Poitou worldwide but all heritage breeds that unfortunately are diminishing in numbers.”

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Patrick: Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be lucky enough to own a Poitou, let alone 30.

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The first image was taken in February of 2018. The second was in May of 2019.

Patrick: If they’re left ungroomed, many Poitou form a heavy, dreadlocked coat, called cadanettes, which hang in cords. In some, the cords can reach the ground. While instantly recognizable and amazing to see, we groom our Poitou due to the Texas climate and for the overall health of the herd.  

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Patrick: Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be lucky enough to own a Poitou, let alone 30.  One of our next goals is to establish a genetic database for all US Poitou so that we will know what Poitou are in the states and who they are related to. It will be a starting place for pulling all US Poitou owners together.

Chris: Right now, few know most of the background and ancestry of the Poitou in the US. As time goes on, several of these persons have already passed.  Hopefully, the US Poitou population will increase. A source for animal lineage will be needed. The goal is compiling as much information about each Poitou as possible. 

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The first image is of Chris in July of 2017. Again in May of 2019.

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Patrick: It has taken us 10 years to acquire/build the herd we have today. We drove to Canada to buy the only breeding pair in that country. So far, we have purchased Poitou from WA, GA, KS, CA and TX.  

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Patrick: We strive to be a source of information for folks interested in the breed. My favorite thing is to educate anyone who will listen about the Poitou.

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This handsome devil’s name is Heath. As the Poitou registry goes, foal names begin with a particular letter according to the year they were born. It just so happened that I arrived at the farm for the first time in 2017, which was the year for the letter H. After striking an instant friendship with these guys, Patrick said, “I think we should name the next boy Heath.” I can tell you one thing for sure, I didn’t argue! It’s one thing to tell a story, but there’s something incredibly special about becoming a part of it. This little guy is my namesake. Humbling, to say the least.

Patrick: We also strive to produce the best example of the breed by careful breeding practices that result in a strong, healthy foal. We’ve had great success and hope to be a genetic resource for Poitou worldwide. 

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Patrick: We continue to meet amazing folks from all over the world that share our passion in saving this incredible breed. We have so many goals with the Poitou. Most importantly, we are trying to save a breed from extinction through education, awareness and careful breeding. Here’s the thing about Poitou donkeys…once you have been around one, you never forget how majestic, soulful and gentle they are. At times the responsibility seems overwhelming but the journey has been incredible.

To learn more about the Texas Poitou Donkyes visit: https://m.facebook.com/TexasPoitouDonkeys/

To see more of Heath’s work visit: HeathHerring.com or Instagram.com/Heath_Herring

Grace Askew


Nobody goes looking for home in a place like Cline’s Corners. It’s not there. People crossing paths in a place like this are coming, going or running away from something nobody’s talking about way out here on the fringe. It’s nobody’s home and they’re not hanging around long enough to watch the dust settle. 

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So what the Hell am I doing out here at the desolate, dustbowl junction of Route 66 and the road to Santa Fe? I’ve been here more times than I can remember. I’ve slept in this parking lot enough to call it a summer home. Somewhere between hobo and #VanLife, you find folks like me - the ones who roll in with the dust and roll out before it hits the ground. Some people hit the road as often as possible for the freedom and creative fuel you find in places like this. That’s us. I drive around the country doing my best to capture stories of all the interesting people and places I find along the way. As a matter of face, this is a story about my friend Grace.

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She’s a fellow traveler who frequents a favorite route through the Southwest, taking curiosity and creativity out on the road. I don’t meet a lot of people out here doing what I do. I’m sure you can imagine how excited I was to find out Grace’s summer tour overlapped with my travel plans out here in New Mexico. I was even more stoked when Grace agreed to meet up for a day of traveling around the desert, taking pictures and sharing stories. Can you guess where our paths crossed in New Mexico? You nailed it. The eternal dust haven of neon glory. 66’s electric red beacon in the night. Cline’s Corners. And as far as I’m concerned, Gateway of The West.

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Grace Askew

Traveler - Songwriter - Creativity Activist

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What brings you way out here?

“This is the tour route I've come to know like a familiar face. I-40 West, brother. Freckling my hands for the past 10 years.” 

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Why life on the road, and why the Southwest?

“I grew up hearing the distant humming of the highway at night - a lullaby of sorts. I’d fall asleep to dreams of all the places I'd get to travel to one day. Touring feeds this part of my soul, for sure, and New Mexico is my favorite route to take. I’m out here at least twice a year.”

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I know you mostly travel solo. Don’t you get lonely out on the road?

“When I'm out there, for weeks at a time, totally alone...I'm never truly lonely because those purple mountains and that red dirt feel like home. The re-birth and renewal that comes from waking up in a new town with new faces, every single day, truly revives me as an artist and teaches me the sanctity of creativity.” 

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I dig your hat. What’s the story on that thing?

“This route we’re talking about, right on the Oklahoma-Arkansas line is actually where I found my first Stetson. I saved up all my money from a tour when I was 22. On my way home, I walked into Tip Top Western Wear in Fort Smith, AR and there it was. The Catera, Gun Club edition. I still wear it on nearly every trek out, because it reminds me of the hard work I’ve put myself through to get to where I want to be today.”

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“This hat has been with me from the national spotlight of NBC's The Voice, to the throes of a rainy truck-stop-night outside of Denver, Colorado after a late dive bar gig. It’s seen it all. My Stetson represent empowerment and independence. It represents the importance of never forgetting who I truly am.”

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Grace tours across the country alone in her Ford F350 diesel truck, Wanda. Wanda is a beast.

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“Constantly traveling fuels my creativity, and the storytelling in my songs tends to reflects that.”

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“This has been my process for years, but in late 2017 I felt the need for change. I wanted something more - something bigger than myself. A way to take things to next level. So began the 365 Songwriting Challenge.”

What is the 365 Songwriting Challenge?

“The 365 Songwriting Challenge is a self-prescribed, self-created DAILY songwriting challenge that I began on January 1, 2018 and haven't stopped doing since,...that includes a daily LIVE performance of the song of the day on both my Instagram and Facebook pages. Once I reached day 365, I decided to keep going and I pushed the goal to 500 songs in 500 days. As of today, I'm in year 2 of a daily song performance - day 412.” 

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“I feel so lucky to be an artist in this day and age with the advent of platforms like Instagram and live streaming. With the help of deeply trusted friends, family and fans, a completely unique success can be carved out on my own terms. No middle man.”

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“Gone are the days of having to be in the hubs of society like NYC, LA, Nashville, ALT in order to ‘level-up’ your life’s work. Show up consistently for your craft.”


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“As a result of my creating a new song every single day, even while on tour, other artists began reaching out and wanting to tap into their creativity more. I began to realize what a deep need there is, in all walks of life, for the wisdom to know how to tap into self-expression and the courage to put it out into the world.”

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“I wanted to foster a safe place, a haven for my fellow creatives to come and be heard and share what they too were working on - thusly forming the 365 Tribe, or as we put it on Instagram #365Tribe.” 

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What’s the 365 Tribe?

“We are a group of creatives who CHOOSE to show up for our creativity, every single day, NO MATTER WHAT. Because we love to do it. It is a safe place, a community, for creatives of ALL mediums to be heard and seen and to express their dreams, fears, and struggles with their peers.” 

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You’ve coined the term Creativity Activist. Could you elaborate on that?

“A creativity activist is someone who understands that in order to nourish and feed the seed of all creative endeavors, you MUST SHOW UP for it, every single day. No matter what. Art is never frivolous. Art is never a burden.”

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“Human expression is a necessary part of the human experience because it unites and elevates our stories, and we are all storytellers. We all have something to say that needs to be heard.” 

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You’re sitting on hundreds of new songs. Where do you take it from here?

“I am in the process of cutting "Volume 1" of a four-part album series. It’s all being recorded at my home studio, Tumbleweed Ranch, in Eads, TN. I'm sifting through the best songs of each of the 4 seasons of the 365 challenge and releasing each album alongside photo books of images from my travels and the lyrics that were inspired by all the miles. Next step is the Tumbleweed Retreat - a fully-immersive songwriter’s retreat at Tumbleweed Ranch. I want to help other emerging artist find their creative focus, courage, and clarity and give them tools to continue on their journey in an authentic way.”