“I’d always wanted to study anthropology,” she said. So she went back to her alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studied with Dr. Joe Ben Wheat, an expert on Navajo rugs and culture.
“He was my mentor the first three years ... He taught me everything I know about Navajo rugs. He was the world authority,” she said. “That got me started.”
Though Wheat pushed Cunningham toward becoming a textile expert, she ended up going her own direction.
“I didn’t find it that interesting,” she said of studying textiles. “The people were what I found interesting.”
Cunningham knew that hand-woven rugs were a main source of income for many Navajo families living on the reservation. She also knew that rugs made from the wool of Navajo-Churro sheep fetched a much higher price on the market. Cunningham began visiting the reservations and encouraging the people to raise their own Churro sheep.
“I saw an opportunity to maybe show people how some of the cultural stuff they’ve always done could at least supplement their income,” she said.
Cunningham found that many of the Navajo people were aware of the value of rugs made from Churro wool, but they couldn’t afford the hefty prices that many breeders ask for the heritage breed.
“A nice sheep can sell for $400,” Cunningham said.
However, after one of those talks, a Navajo man asked her how she could extol the virtues of raising Navajo-Churro sheep when she didn’t actually have any herself.
“He stated that people who don’t have sheep don’t understand the world,” Cunningham said.
Around that time, a friend was forced to sell her flock of Navajo-Churro sheep, and she encouraged Cunningham to buy them.
“I’d had horses and dogs before, but I didn’t know anything about sheep,” Cunningham said. But she didn’t let that scare her away. She bought the sheep and started her own flock. Today, raising Churro sheep has become a major part of Cunningham’s identity.
There are currently 40 sheep residing on Cunningham’s 3-acre property south of Moab. She uses an extensive network to identify women in the Navajo community who are excellent weavers and who would benefit from having a flock of their own. She then sells them the sheep at a much lower rate than she could get from selling the coveted breed to others.
“My focus is teaching people how to utilize these animals rather than just having them as pets in their backyard,” she said.
In addition to raising sheep, Cunningham has spent many years working in the health care field. She has also been heavily involved in politics and has worked for several political campaigns throughout the years. She served as a Grand County Commissioner for two years and has been a member of the League of Women Voters. She has also served on many local boards, including the Museum of Moab and the Grand County Special Service Recreation District board.
Although she has stepped back from an active role in politics, Cunningham said she tries to stay involved.
“I love politics,” she said. “All those things I’ve done have helped me understand the community.”
However, Cunningham said she decided it is important to focus her time.
“You can’t do it all, because you’ll do it badly,” she said.
Now, she focuses her time on her sheep and helping the people that she can. Two weeks ago when someone arrived in Moab with a van full of 50 pounds of food they wanted to donate, Moab residents knew to call Cunningham.
“This week I’m a food provider,” she said. “That’s why I love Moab, because you can make these connections.”