Navajo Help Save Unique Sheep From Extinction

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.

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