Navajo Help Save Unique Sheep From Extinction

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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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