A Short History on Navajo-Churro Sheep

November 3, 2015 By navajolifeway Off

22375867Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving.  Sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land.  Before they acquired domesticated sheep on this continent, Diné held the Idea of Sheep in their collective memory for thousands of years.  While wild mountain sheep provided meat and the Diné gathered wool from the shedding places, the species of sheep in North America do not have a herd behavior that permits domestication.  As a result, the Diné asked their Holy People to send them a sheep that would live with them and with care they would provide a sustainable living.

“Sheep in every essence an important part of our culture and traditions. It is important to celebrate our sheep traditions and our lifeways. Our Sheep Is Life Celebration re-centers us in the cosmos of our universe; it is our blessingway ceremony for our continuance here on earth, and for the next generations to come.”
Roy Kady, former President of DBI

In the early 1600s, Navajo acquisition of “la raza churra” sheep from the Spanish colonists inspired a radical lifestyle change to an agro-pastoralist way of life and expanded mobility.  In the high deserts and wooded mountains of Diné Bikéyah (Navajo Land) Diné pastoralists developed the Navajo-Churro breed, which thrived under the spiritual and pastoral care of their new companions and assumed a central role in the People’s psychology, creativity, and religious life.  With songs, prayers, and techniques taught to them by Spider Woman and looms first built by Spider Man, traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Navajo-Churro wool.

As the Navajo managed their flocks for over 350 years, they evolved the Navajo-Churro, a breed recognized by the American Sheep Industry.   They are hardy and have excellent mothering instincts and successfully lamb out on the range with little assistance. Smaller than many commercial breeds, they eat less and do well on forage alone. They do not need grain.  There legs, faces and bellies are free of wool so they do not pick up burrs.  They are tall, narrow in build with fine bones, making them sound, agile and fast out on the range.

Carpet-wool sheep have two lengths of fiber, an inner coat of fine wool with an outer coat of hair.  Navajo-Churro fleece is low in lanolin requiring little water for washing. It may be spun directly from the raw fleece without time-consuming carding.  The wool comes in natural colors and is very high in luster which are highly-prized by hand-spinners. Yarn spun from this type of wool is extremely strong and durable, making it excellent for the Navajo rugs, horse cinches, and belts. In addition the wool can be easily felted for a variety of uses including hats and outer garments; the distinctive long-haired pelts are highly valued.

Navajo-Churro Sheep are also excellent for milking. A range of dairy products is possible. Because Navajo-Churro store fat in their bellies, the meat is very lean in comparison to the meat of other contemporary breeds.  The lightly flavored meat is prized by Chefs and brings a premium price.

A series of Federal government actions led to the almost total eradication of the Navajo-Churro breed, disrupting the chain connecting Navajo culture, weaving, traditional lifestyle, and self-sufficiency.  In the early to mid-1900s, market forces, ignorance, and misguided attempts to “improve” Navajo wool, depressed the economic value of Navajo-Churro sheep and led to their almost complete extinction. During the 1930s, Navajos were forced by the United States to radically reduce their herds – the wellspring of their Good Life.

Government agents went from Hogan to Hogan, shooting a specified percentage of the sheep in front of their horrified owners, who love their sheep and regard them as family members.  First to be shot were the Churro, because the agents thought this hardy breed was “scruffy and unfit.”  Today, elders tearfully recall that time and can describe in detail each sheep that was killed and the exact location of the massacre.  At the same time, traditional summer grazing lands in the mountains were appropriated by the U.S. government and a system of allotments was instituted which disrupted the traditional way of family land management.  In the late 1930s and ‘40s, Federal agents discouraged raising the Navajo-Churro encouraged cross-breeding with other fine wool genotypes.  This practice has led to wool that is very undesirable for both the commodity market and the specialty wool market.

The shorter wool fibers of commercial breeds break easily when hand spun using traditional Navajo methods and do not take the native, natural dyes very well.  Navajo weavers became discouraged with trying to process this new wool by traditional means, and many began buying commercially produced and dyed yarns.  While beautiful weavings have been created with commercial yarns, their use has contributed to breaking the traditional tie between sheep, wool, land, and weaving.  Weavings made with commercial yarns are not as durable, and the texture and quality are not the same as those created with Navajo-Churro wool.  Among today’s informed collectors, weavings from Churro wool command premium prices.

By the 1970s, only about 450 of the old type Navajo-Churro existed on the entire Navajo Nation, and only a few specimens were preserved in other locations.  The conventional wisdom of the time was “the breed is not useful – let it die out,” an attitude often directed towards the traditional cultures, themselves.   The disappearance of the Churro has adversely affected the Navajos’ health, as well as economic opportunities for specialized niche markets for meat and wool.

In the mid-1970s, animal scientist Dr. Lyle McNeal, sheep industry expert with Utah State University, recognized the genetic and cultural significance of the Navajo-Churro.  He searched out enough remaining Navajo-Churro sheep to start a foundation flock. From this flock he has been able to re-introduce Navajo-Churro Sheep to the Navajo people. In 1977, Dr. and Mrs. McNeal founded the Navajo Sheep Project. The project has placed many breeding stock with Navajo families and helped form the nucleus of Ganados del Valle/Tierra Wools flocks in Los Ojos.

The Navajo-Churro Sheep Association was founded 25 years ago to maintain a breed registry and ensure quality.  Today, there are several thousand sheep of this breed from throughout the United States registered with the association.   Yet the numbers are too low for the breed to be safe and Navajo Churro Sheep continue to be listed by the Livestock Breeds Conservancy as “threatened by extinction”.

Diné be’ iiná, Inc. (The Navajo Lifeway) was founded by Navajos in 1991 to represent and assist Navajo Nation sheep and goat producers in their efforts to improve their

The Navajo-Churro Heritage Lamb Presidium was formed in 2007 with help of Slow Food International.  The Protocol Guidelines of the Navajo-Churro Lamb Presidium (NCLP) include breed registration requirements, care, feeding, slaughter, labeling, and marketing, and a Member Agreement is to be signed by all members signifying a considerable level of cooperation. The group has created its own brand and label. They utilize brokers to develop relationships with Chefs and others who purchase their lamb for a premium price.

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