Navajo Help Save Unique Sheep From Extinction

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 30, 2005
A unique breed of sheep is again woven into the fabric of Navajo life,
thanks to a veterinary scientist and Navajo and Hispanic shepherds who
rescued the breed from extinction.

The breed, Navajo-Churro, was introduced to North America in the 16th century by Spanish colonists. The Navajo, also known as the Diné, quickly adopted the breed, considering it a gift from the spirits.

"The story told to us orally was, the sheep would come to us when we were ready for them. That happened when the Spanish brought us the Churr[o] sheep," said Roy Kady, director of the nonprofit Dibé-Diné bé iiná or The Sheep is Life project, in Window Rock, Arizona.

The arrival of the Churro transformed the Navajo culture from hunting and gathering to shepherding. They used every part of the sheep, eating the meat and weaving the wool into clothing and blankets, Kady said.

Kady, who is an accomplished weaver, added that the Navajo especially prize Churro wool because it's easy to work with and is not greasy. This means it requires much less of the desert's scarce water to prepare it for weaving than the wool of more common breeds such as Merinos.

Despite the importance of the sheep to the Navajo, the breed was "basically wiped out twice by the U.S. government," said Lyle McNeal, a veterinary scientist at Utah State University in Logan.

Road to Extinction

According to McNeal, the Churro first approached extinction in 1863 when Colonel Kit Carson led a cavalry unit against the Navajo in an attempt to relocate them to a camp in New Mexico Territory.

In addition to attacking the Navajo people, Carson's unit attacked the Navajos' livestock, crops, and orchards. The only sheep to survive the slaughter were in the remote areas of what is now the Utah portion of the Navajo reservation, McNeal said.

In 1868, the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. The government gave each Navajo two Churro to help them reestablish independence.

The program was a success: The Navajo were self-sufficient until the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. During this time the U.S. government began "undertaking a project on the Colorado [River] to build a dam called Hoover," McNeal said.

According to McNeal, the government was concerned that overgrazing by Navajo sheep and goats would expose loose soil and cause the new dam to become blocked with silt.

To prevent the silting, the government launched a livestock reduction program.

Government agents asked the Navajo to report with their sheep and goat flocks. In return they would be paid one U.S. dollar per head and the animals would be shipped to slaughterhouses.

But instead, many of the sheep were shot on sight, their carcasses left to rot, and the Navajo were never paid, McNeal said. In total, an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 sheep and goats were killed, most of them Churro sheep.

Saving Sheep

When McNeal first became interested in the breed in the early 1970s, less than 450 head remained. As he studied the breed, he learned of its importance to the Navajo and the unique traits of its wool.

"I said to myself, You know, we've saved endangered snails, we've saved endangered fish, we've saved endangered wild animals. Why don't we focus on saving the original domesticated animals that brought food and fiber to our developing nation?" he said.

In 1977, McNeal started the Navajo Sheep Project, a program to search for, save, and develop a core genetic flock of Churro to return to the Navajo.

Together with his students and volunteers, he found Churro in the remote canyons and mesas of the Navajo Nation. The group began deploying new stock to Navajo herders in 1982, and the program continues today.

The Navajo Sheep Project also helped establish Diné bé iiná, or The Navajo Lifeway, a nonprofit organization formed to oversee deployment of the sheep and to encourage the art of weaving and the use of Churro wool in Navajo textiles.

Along the way, McNeal has also collaborated with Navajo on and off the reservation, including Kady and his The Sheep is Life project. As well, McNeal helped reintroduce Churro to the Tarahumara Indians in northern Mexico.

Today there are upwards of 8,500 Churro in the U.S. "We saved the sheep," McNeal said.

According to Kady, McNeal's Navajo Sheep Project has not only restored the breed but also ensured a healthy relationship between the Navajo and the land, as the nation was instructed by the Navajo Creator.

"He [the Creator] said if you were to ever get rid of these sheep that would be the day when all human existence will be diminished," Kady said. "And so he strongly expressed [that] you must hold on to the sheep, must always continue to take care of the sheep."

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