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America’s First Sheep Breed

Lost Treasure Regained

(Part One)

By Alan Harman

Lyle McNeal, now a professor of animal science, and sheep and wool specialist at Utah State University, was on a field trip in California’s Salinas Valley in 1972 with his students at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo when he stopped to visit the Neagle Ranch and saw some strange-looking sheep.

“At that stop is where I really first saw a living Churro,” he says. “I’d read about them before, but I had never seen one up close.”

He researched the sheep and discovered only 435 existed, counted in a 1972 census conducted by then Navajo Nation chief veterinarian.

Navajo-Churro Origins

The first of these sheep had been brought into what is now the United States’ southwest, by Mexican-born conquistador Juan de Oñate, in 1598. He brought a few thousand head of sheep of the “raza churra” (Spanish for “Churro breed”).

Though less lucrative at the time than Spain’s more famous “raza merina” (Merino breed), an ancient Iberian Churro breed is known for its remarkable hardiness, adaptability, fecundity, ability to milk on meager diets, and delicious meat. [Churro or “crispy,” is from the archaic Spanish verb churrasquear,—-still common in the U.S. Southwest—”to barbecue.” Merino similarly means either wool or breed.—Ed.]

Juan de Oñate’s father Cristóbal, a silver magnate with sheep ranches near Zacatecas, Mexico, had imported the original stock from his native land (northern Spain).

At least one authority, William J. Clarke, of The American Sheep Breeder magazine, writing in 1907 claimed that Churros were first brought to New Mexico in 1540 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and that Oñate brought Merinos.

The Churro thrived in the Southwest, and nomadic Navajos acquired some of them from the Spanish settlers and the Pueblo Indians.

The breed grew slowly for nearly 150 years and Navajo flock size and numbers increased. By the 1800s, herding had assumed a major place in Navajo lives.

Navajo tradition says Churros were placed on Earth by the gods so the people would never go hungry, providing meat, milk, hide, horns and wool for weaving blankets and clothes.

Talking gods created a sheep by bringing clouds down and shaping them into the body of the sheep, picking and inserting willow branches for legs. A rainbow was made into hooves and horns.

The sheep’s face was made of the dawn, with rock crystals for the eyes and tobacco placed in the head for the ears. Then the breath of life was blown into it.

Navajo-Churro Traits

Navajo-Churro sheep are used for their wool and meat and as dairy animals. With their long staple of protective outer coat and finer wool undercoat, they’re well-suited to extremes of climate.

Both polled and horned rams are common and an occasional ram has four fully developed horns, a trait shared by few other breeds. It’s also not uncommon to have a ewe with horns.

The breed is highly resistant to foot rot and internal parasites and although it responds to individual attention, it needs no pampering to survive and prosper.

Historically deemed an “unimproved” breed, they are frequently long-legged with narrower bodies than modern meat-type breeds and produce a lean carcass.

The sheep have sound legs and a straight topline, which tends to slope to the dock in more primitive individuals. They have a little wool on the poll and none on the cheeks, around or below the eyes or on the nose. The belly has little or no wool and there is no wool on the front or back legs. The fleece is high-yielding with low grease content.

The ewes lamb easily and are fiercely protective. They are outstanding dams with a strong mothering instinct. Twins and triplets are common.

The meat is surprisingly low in fat.

Navajo-Churros lack the blocky conformation of most of the “improved” breeds. They are upstanding and fine boned. They have a variety of color patterns and although most are solid white, some have brown and black spots on the ears and face and around the eyes. Colored feet and legs are also common. There are solid color variations of black, brown or gray.

The sheep are relatively small when compared to common meat-type breeds and are long tailed with a double coat of wool (80%) and hair (20%). The locks are long, tapered and open. Rams weigh about 120 to 175 lbs. and ewes 90 to 120 lbs.

They have strong flocking instincts and are very intelligent. Bred once yearly, ewes average 160 percent lambing. Most Navajo-Churros are aseasonal breeders, maturing early. Two lamb crops a year are likely if rams are left with ewes year-round.

Ewes seldom require assistance of any kind at lambing. Both ewe and lamb usually bond quickly. Generally, lambs suckle within five to 15 minutes, ready to travel alongside the mother.

Fleeces weigh from four to eight pounds. Hair can range from six to twelve inches long; the undercoat wool is three to six inches. Many breeders shear twice a year to avoid overly long fibers if they intend to commercially process the wool or market to hand spinners and weavers.

Genotyping has not been done on large numbers of Navajo-Churro, but available data indicate a higher percentage of RR types at codon171 than for commercial breeds. The RR genotype is considered scrapie resistant.

Navajo-Churro wool remains the ideal fiber for traditional Navajo rug and blanket weaving.

Importance Of The Breed

Churro sheep are central to Navajo life and spirituality, but were almost exterminated by a federal government that deemed them an inferior breed in the 1860s and then again in the 1930s and 1940s.

Now, on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah, northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, the breed is being shepherded back to healthy numbers by the Navajos.

The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia, and at last count was made up of 175,000 people. Most live in small clusters in both modern prefab houses and hogans (the multisided traditional homes of the Navajo). There often are corrals with small flocks of sheep grazing nearby.

The Navajo-Churro’s long, wavy lustrous fleece is valued by Navajo weavers like Roy Kady, president of the local Navajo Nation community near Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. For him, this flock is part of something larger, something he calls Diné bé iiná.

Diné is the preferred name of the Navajo and means Children of God, while bé iiná means “life-way.”

“The sheep is our backbone,” Kady says. “It’s our survival. It’s our lifeline.”

For three centuries, the Navajo-Churro was all these things, providing the Navajo people needs for survival in the stark desert—meat for food, wool for weaving clothing and blankets and sinew for thread.

Navajo-Churro sheep and people wove a life together in nature’s balance.

Navajo-Churros have fine bones and stand high on straight feet. Note also how different its fleece is than the dark Cormo behind it.

Wiped Out For “Greater Good”

Then in the 1860s, America’s westward expansion collided with Navajo resistance. The legendary Colonel Kit Carson and his 700 troops were ordered to relocate the tribe and destroy their livestock.

“The eradication of this particular sheep breed, because we are connected to it with songs and prayers and ceremonies, when it was taken from us, that part of our life was also destroyed,” Kady says.

After four years of exile, the Navajo in 1868 were allowed to return to their ancestral lands and were given more than 15,000 sheep, most of them Churros, at Fort Defiance, in the then Arizona Territory.

“This traumatic event to the Navajo is known historically as ‘The Long Walk’ and is a sad period of time in the history of the Diné,” says professor McNeal.

The Navajo people were resilient and such good weavers and shepherds that their mixed flocks grew to more than 1.3 million sheep by l930.

What happened next was an American tragedy, with the Roosevelt USDA’s great “stock reduction”—from 1934 to the late 1940s—leaving the Navajo-Churro a rare breed numbering only a little more than 800 head.

It was during that time that USDA agents came with orders to eliminate the Navajo-Churro. This time the reason given was to reduce the amount of overgrazing that the government felt led to high levels of soil erosion and sedimentation in the Colorado River watershed.

This was not true as the erosion and sedimentation took place higher in the river system in central Colorado where the river has its origins.

The program was carried out so enthusiastically that the Navajo-Churro, considered an “unimproved” breed, edged close to extinction as entire flocks were gunned down. Federal agents had the flocks taken to certain locations on the pretext of “health care actions” where the agents massacred the animals.

“The U.S. government thought they had too many sheep—and the wrong sheep,” McNeal says of the Navajos.

The “New Deal” government believed the sheep could cause premature siltation of an innovative new dam being built on the Colorado River in the early 1930s. It was later named the Hoover Dam.

“The U.S. government felt the runoff and the overgrazing would make that dam worthless in a few years,” McNeal says.

The stock reduction sent the Navajo economy into a tailspin. Realizing the tribe could not survive without its family flocks, the government introduced “standard”—so-called “improved” and “modern” sheep—breeds whose meat and wool were more in line with conventional market demand.

Mr. Lyle McNeal stands beside a remote Navajo hogan (1977).

Breed Revival

For decades, most people thought the Navajo-Churro—the original old-type Navajo sheep—was extinct. McNeal, recognizing the genetic and cultural significance of the Navajo-Churro, set out on a near 40-year mission to bring the breed back.

He began with the formal establishment of the Navajo Sheep Project (NSP) in 1977, dedicated to protecting the breed from extinction and creating a systematic program to return the animals to the Navajo people.

NSP team members scoured hidden canyons, mesa tops and remote areas on the reservation for surviving Navajo-Churros. They eventually found enough animals to begin the NSP nucleus flock in 1978 and start a breeding program.

Six ewes and two four horned rams were obtained from the Salinas ranch of Buster Neagle and other seedstock for the project flock were found in Navajo Mountain, Black Mesa, Tsegi Canyon, Piute Mesa, Oljato, Monument Valley and generally the remote areas of the northern and eastern regions of the Navajo reservation.

All searches were conducted with traditional families living in the most isolated areas of the Navajo reservation. This went on for many years. McNeal’s students, who spoke Navajo and were majoring in animal science, helped with translations and the search.

“The NSP never used non-Navajo reservation Navajo-Churros for its nucleus flock breeding program other than eight donated animals from the Neagle Ranch, and they came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fort Wingate Sheep Breeding Laboratory but were originally from the reservation,” McNeal says.

The nucleus NSP flock and its operation had to build facilities and relocate to 13 different sites in four states in its first 25 years of existence.

Seed stock to replenish flocks was developed by trading and placing sheep with Navajo, Hispanic and Mexican Indian producers. This also helped to revive the Navajo and Rio Grande weaving traditions.

The flock had grown to a number large enough by 1982 to allow McNeal and his students at Utah State University to start donating some of the sheep to the Navajo people.

“When I had sheep in the truck and we were making deliveries down there, and I’d stop to get some gas, some of the elders would be attracted to the truck,” McNeal says. “They would say, ‘These are the real sheep. Where did you get them?’

“That’s when I started getting the signal that these are more than just a sheep to the Navajo people; so it added a dimension to the NSP effort that I hadn’t expected.”

“Wanted Posters,” which showed the sheep, were used by the NSP to increase awareness of the breed in the Southwest and to locate old-type sheep to help with the revitalization of the breed.

“We formed a national breed association in 1986, and we have close to 5,500 registered and non-registered Churro sheep,” McNeal says.

In 2002, most of the now-thriving nucleus flock was sold or traded to Navajo weavers and producers. The NSP established non-profit “mentor flocks” in northern Utah near Utah State University, where McNeal teaches and conducts outreach.

The NSP still offers education in sheep and grazing management and the development of sheep and wool products throughout the Four Corners region, an area where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet.

Traits That Need Preserving

Teams spent years scouring every remote land form to find surviving Navajo-Churro flocks.

There is a region-wide community of herders, weavers and restaurateurs dedicated to the Navajo-Churro. The breed, while still rare, no longer is considered endangered.

McNeal says the numbers are enough to provide a gene pool to maintain the breed type with the diversity of available unrelated lines.

A well-established network of registered stock is available, scattered throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.

“One thing that I’ve tried to instill over the last number of years is that the Navajo-Churro sheep is a “heritage” genotype/breed and is not to be classified as a ‘primitive’ breed,” McNeal says.

Because the Navajo-Churro is listed as a rare breed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has collected germplasm from rams to cryopreserve in the national seed bank.

McNeal says Navajo-Churro have many outstanding traits that needed to be preserved. These include a strong maternal instinct, abundant milk production, lamb survival, parasite and contagious foot root resistance and the ability to survive on marginal feed resources.

Even with all the new varieties of wool and synthetics available today, the Churro wool is still the most desired for traditional Navajo weavings. Many weavers raise their own Churro sheep flocks and process their own wool for traditional weavings. Their wooly hides are tanned to provide long, lavish pelts.

Slow Food, an international group dedicated to preserving traditional heritage-breed foods of exceptional flavor, has recognized the Navajo-Churro for its delicate taste.

Sheep can be slaughtered for meat at any age, but lamb from six months to nearly a year is considered optimum. At eight to nine months, the hanging carcass weight is generally 47-52 lbs.

Navajo Mountain

Protective Registry

Off the Navajo reservation, the non-Indian breeders are registering their sheep and joining the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association (N-CSA).

The bulk of the unregistered sheep are on the Navajo Nation and in the Four Corners region.

“The N-CSA and its members are actively trying to reach out to the Navajos and Hispanic producers for service in the association and keeping breeding records along with registration involvement,” McNeal says.

The number of individual Navajo-Churro flocks is dynamic, particularly in the present economy and the price of supplemental feeds for small-flock producers.

“If you account for the registered flocks and unregistered flocks, I’m confident we have between 350 and 550 flocks that contain two or more Navajo-Churro breeding sheep,” McNeal says.

The size of a Navajo-Churro flock is dependent on an owner’s land area, access to seedstock, degree of involvement with the sheep’s salable products and size and availability of local markets.

“I’d estimate the average flock would be 20-30 head of breeding ewes,” McNeal says. “I know many U.S. non-Indian breeders that have eight to 15 head, while some non-Indians have more than a hundred head.

“Navajo flock sizes depend on access to grazing land and the tribal politics of Navajo Nation grazing committee procedures. Our NSP nucleus flock up until 2002 numbered more than 540 head of breeding sheep.”

McNeal says he doesn’t know who owns the largest flock, because this is considered personal and a protected number, especially in the Navajo culture.

The breed is distributed around the U.S. “Many states have nice flocks, and I’ve even seen them in Alaska many years ago,” he says. “…New Mexico would likely be the state with the largest numbers of Navajo-Churros, due to the higher number of registered and non-registered Navajo, Hispanic and ‘Anglo’ breeders.”

(Continued next issue)

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