The Churro sheep have been a mainstay of the Navajo survival, and may soon return to that important role again, thanks to the diligence of some concerned people.
These unique sheep, whose wool are used in the beautiful Navajo blankets, have been slaughtered in attempts at genocide, but a new heart toward the Navajo has brought their re-establishment. There is good news: the Churro are going to make it.
Our first article about the Navajo Churro Sheep was in the June 1997 issue of Four Corners Postcard. We have included it below to give you a good background and have added new information since then.
According to history Francisco Vasquez de Coronado brought the Churro sheep from Southern Spain in 1540. In 1598 Juan de Onate brought 5,000 more sheep, with many black among them.
The Navajo say that the goddess White Bead gave them sheep for the prosperity of the Dine'. I see no conflict there. Before this most weaving was from cotton.
The Navajo indeed used their blessing; weavings from the Churro wool actually glisten and are of a high quality. To preserve this uniqueness the Navajo did not allow crossing of their sheep with the merino of Mexico.
At the peak there were about two million sheep in New Mexico, but this was not to be allowed.
Kit Carson was in charge of an exuberant crusade in the 1860's to subjugate the Navajo and left them with few sheep. (I would like to insert here that some reports say that Kit Carson did this "reluctantly.") But it was done, and then came the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in 1863-64, but before being forced to leave some of the Navajo hid their sheep.
The Treaty of 1868 provided over 35,000 sheep - probably Kentucky Cotswalds - to the Navajo, but in the early 1900's Federal grazing policies called for the killing of two-thirds of the Navajo Churros.
During the 1930's a government that couldn't help itself decided to help the Navajo again; a decision to fix something that was beginning to recover.
In 1932 a prize Dorset ram was brought in to improve the Navajo flocks, then in 1934 a type of French merino sheep, the Rambouilett, was tried because of its hardiness. The results were poor quality weaving caused by tight curls, knots, and the greasiness of the fleece.
Many strains were tried: Corriedale, Hampshire black-face, and Lincoln among the attempts. There were experiments with Angora goat hair. The conclusion was that the unimproved old stock was the best.
Though Churro is Spanish for coarse, the fleece is long, fine, and low in oil. The fleece, which is actually hair rather than wool, has two layers and the inside layer is finer. Many flocks are shorn twice a year. The meat is very lowfat and has an excellent flavor.
McNeal acquired six ewes and two rams from the USDA's Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory in Fort Wingate, a project that had been established in 1934. To build the flock, McNeal searched the canyons for the descendants of the sheep the Navajo had released back in 1863.
A project of the Colorado State University put Churro on graze at Hesperus, CO, which is 50 miles north of Farmington. The area had been overgrown with oak brush and the sheep grazed the brush to the extent that the grasses grew again.
Ben Hatch, a student of McNeal at Utah State University from 1983-85, became interested in McNeal's work in sustainable agriculture. As chairman of the board of the Navajo Sheep Project, Hatch is working toward the goal of helping the Navajo keep their values and culture. This has become a three state project: Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.
Some of the people on the Advisory Council of the project for the reestablishment of the Churro are: Robert Redford; Ronald Malouf, president and CEO of Malouf Co., Inc.; Reeve Lindbergh-Tripp, daughter of Charles Lindbergh; and John Ernst, president and CEO of Bloomingdale Properties in New York. Mr. Redford also raises Churros.
Two interesting side notes to this is that some of the world's best chocolate is made from sheep's milk, and that llamas are used to guard the sheep, because they are afraid of dogs.
© Copyright 1998 by L. Michael Smith.