Environmental Science Helps Bring Navajo Horse Expert Back Home
Rudy Shebala Never Stopped Pursuing Knowledge
When Rudy Shebala left the Navajo Nation in 1983, he didn’t know it would take him 35 years to move back to his northern Arizona home. Oddly enough, it was his graduate studies at the University of Idaho that helped bring him back. The interdisciplinary nature of environmental science allowed Shebala to combine his interests in range management, animal science and the horse culture of his people.
“A Ph.D. can make tremendous change for the betterment of a people or situation.”Rudy Shebala ’09, M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’18
Now at 61, Shebala is a new Ph.D. holder and a leader in his tribe as a chapter manager, a position similar to a county manager, at the Navajo Nation that spans 27,000 square miles. He handles all kinds of issues for his tribe from flooding problems to veterans’ assistance to redevelopment plans. Recently he was nominated to the board of directors representing the Chinle Agency for the Navajo Agricultural Products Industries, a successful longtime Navajo Nation enterprise.
“As Dr. Rudy Shebala, people listen to me. I have a heck of a title,” he said. “A Ph.D. can make tremendous change for the betterment of a people or situation. If I don’t know something, I know how to find it through research.”
Shebla grew up in a small community on the reservation in Arizona. He recalls the deep red stone canyons, ponderosa pine forests and prairie grass lands of his youth—and he remembers always being around horses. “Anything to do with horses that’s what I did as a kid,” he said.
After high school, Shebala worked summers in forests in Oregon and Idaho and that’s when he first heard about University of Idaho. He was accepted at U of I in 1983. When he told his ailing grandfather that he intended to go to college, his grandfather replied in the Navajo language, “you will not fail.” But Shebala did not succeed right away. He dropped out of college after a few semesters.
He found different jobs in Idaho, fighting forest fires and manning heletack stations. One day while working at a local sawmill, he saw an advertisement for the Nez Perce Tribe’s horse program under a grant written by faculty at U of I. He applied and the Nez Perce Tribe hired him to lead the program. He helped revive the horse culture of the tribe, long known for its historic connection to the Appaloosa. Even after the grant ended, Shebala continued working on developing a new breed, the Nez Perce horse.
The job also reconnected Shebala with U of I, and he returned to school, attending alongside his oldest daughter. Shebala studied animal science and this time succeeded, graduating with a bachelor’s in 2009. After the position with the Nez Perce Tribe ended, Shebala went on to pursue graduate work, focusing on environmental science, which allowed him to broaden the scope of his studies. He earned a master’s degree in 2014 and then a doctorate in 2018. His dissertation focused on the history and science of the Navajo horse culture.
“As a child I was given a nickname that meant ‘He Reaches Up For It’ because when I was very little they’d put things out of my reach, and I’d stretch and stretch until I could get it down. That is what my life has been.”Rudy Shebala
“It’s kind of a unique Ph.D.,” he said. “It’s traditional Native American culture. It’s not folklore. It’s actually science: the flora, the fauna, the livestock, the range, the earth and the sky.”
Shebala’s educational journey has been a long one, but he never stopped learning. “It was a challenge, and I really wanted to learn new things,” he said. “As a child I was given a nickname that meant ‘He Reaches Up For It’ because when I was very little they’d put things out of my reach, and I’d stretch and stretch until I could get it down. That is what my life has been.”
Article by Sara Zaske, College of Natural Resources
Published in Winter 2018-19 Issue of Celebrating Natural Resources