Sheep is life
January 17, 2019 12:28 AM   Subscribe

Sheepfilter, part 3: Churros were the first sheep to come to the New World by way of the Spanish conquerors from Spain in the 1540's. The sheep thrived on the semi-arid Southwest and became an integral part of Navajo culture, tradition and religion. But by 1973, there were fewer than 450 "old style" Churro sheep remaining on the Navajo Reservation. A few individuals took an interest in preserving the rare breed, and--after many twists and turns over the course of a few decades--today the Navajo-Churro Sheep is back from the brink of extinction and once again playing a role in the Navajo economy and way of life (video).

These sheep with their long staple of protective top coat and soft undercoat are well suited to extremes of climate (photo). Some rams have two, four or even six or more fully developed horns (photos) (photo), a trait shared by few other breeds of the world. Ewes sometimes have horns as well (photos). The Navajo-Churro is highly resistant to disease, and although it responds to individual attention, it needs no pampering to survive and prosper. The ewes lamb easily and are fiercely protective (photos). Twins and triplets are not uncommon (photo). The flavor of the meat is incomparably superior, with a surprisingly low fat content.

For centuries after introduction by the Spaniards, the sheep provided meat, milk, and wool for the Navajo people, becoming an integral part of Navajo culture (video) and creating economic self-sufficiency.

However, like the buffalo of the Plains Indians, the Churro were systematically destroyed by federal soldiers and agents in the late 1800s in an effort to subjugate the Navajo people. This was part of the same campaign that destroyed over 3000 Navajo-cultivated peach trees and led to the infamous Navajo Long Walk.

Then in the 1930s and 40s, a U.S. government program of soil and range conservation in the desert Southwest ended in the forced removal and slaughter of tens of thousands of Navajo sheep. Further reductions in herd size and--even more devastating for the Navajo-Churro sheep, replacement of heritage breeds with standard American breeds, led to the near elimination of the Navajo Churro sheep by the 1970s.

Just a few survived in widely-scattered research herds and in the very most remote and inaccessible areas of the Navajo reservation.

Today the Navajo-Churro breed has made a considerable comeback and is considered a "rare breed". The gene pool is presently large enough to maintain the breed type with the diversity of available unrelated lines. Fortunately for breeders, a well established network of registered stock is available, concentrated on the Navajo reservation but also scattered farms and ranches throughout the US and Canada.

Interview with Jay Begay, talking about the cultural connection between Navajo-Churro sheep and the Navajo people and the role sheep continue to play on the reservation (video).

Post text adapted from the Navajo Sheep Project, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, Diné be’ iiná, Inc. - The Navajo Lifeway, and Churro Sheep (Hubbell Trading Post, National Park Service). Inspired by recent Metafilter posts on the St Kilda Soay Sheep Project and urban shepherding in Paris.
posted by flug (15 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
One of my relatives worked with Lyle McNeal (bio, newspaper profile about his work with Navajo sheep) an animal science professor at Cal Poly State University and later Utah State University, who is one of the key "individuals" mentioned above who worked to assemble and preserve the Navajo Churro sheep herds starting in the mid 1970s. If you read the chronology of the Navajo Sheep Project--founded by McNeal--you'll see the project was far from smooth sailing, with more than its fair share of head-butting (literal and figurative), conflict, setbacks, and lawsuits.

Reading our recent sheepfilter posts got me to wondering whatever happened to those Navajo sheep my relative used to moan and groan about back in the 70s. The post above is what I found out.

FWIW, my relative's opinion at the time, as I remember it, was that saving the scrawny, scraggly, ill-tempered beasts was a waste of time, and foisting them back on the Navajo was doing them a dis-service, when modern breeds are better and more productive in every way.

But--he was the guy who had to take care of their daily feeding and care, shearing, herding, manure-shoveling, lambing, and so on. Generally speaking, far more shit-shoveling than award-getting from his perspective. So his outlook just MIGHT have been colored by that--plus the fact that Navajo sheep are, by all indications, somewhat ornery beasts.
posted by flug at 1:04 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]

the scrawny, scraggly, ill-tempered beasts was a waste of time, and foisting them back on the Navajo was doing them a dis-service, when modern breeds are better and more productive in every way.
Sorry to hear your relative found them a pain, flug. I can see how someone could have that viewpoint. From a spinner's perspective, Churro wool is beautifully unique to work with. I have sampled near to 100 different breeds of wool, and there are other breeds with double coats, but I haven't come across any so extreme as Navajo Churro. The outer coat is long and coarse, like horse hair, and the inner coat is fluffy and soft. On top of that, the diversity of colours that they have... Drool. I love naturally coloured wool.

It's the kind of wool that doesn't suit industrial yarn production at all - inconsistent length, inconsistent colour, not the obedient medium length and sparkling white that works best with spinning mills and dyes. But it's a real treat for a handspinner, because it gives you so many options to work with - separate out the coats or spin them together, take your pick of white or cream or grey or black or brown or cinnamon. Endless possibilities.
posted by Gordafarin at 2:39 AM on January 17 [11 favorites]

One of the postdocs in our lab has done some work with hair sheep genomics that shows the path of migration of the Spanish Churra into the Caribbean and onto the Yucatán, with later migration to the American Southwest. The Navajo Churro remains very genetically similar to its Iberian ancestors (the linked paper is Open Access and should not require special access to read in its entirety). They’re interesting sheep.
posted by wintermind at 6:05 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]

These sheep look fantastic and their horns are absolutely bad ass. Love the spinner and genetic researcher chiming in here. Sheep are cool.
posted by latkes at 6:58 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]

Yay sheep!

Although sheep were at least partially responsible for the defoliation of a lot of the southwest, so maybe not entirely yay - they can be pretty hard on the landscape.

It's really too bad pronghorns don't have useful fur.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:02 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]

Yeah the iconic pastoral look of say New Zealand is basically sheep-caused de-forestation.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:15 AM on January 17

I recently worked with Churro yarn to knit a Christmas gift for a close friend who also knits. I ordered it directly from the woman who raised and tends the flock that the wool came from. It’s a real pleasure to work with, the stuff I got was stiff but pliable and soft. Highly recommend tracking some down if you’re into fiber work.
posted by Snacks at 9:05 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]

Great to read more about sheep and breed preservation. Thanks for posting this!
posted by readinghippo at 9:09 AM on January 17

turtlegirl and I raised Navajo-Churro sheep for a few years in an effort to help the breed. While we were trying to sell the wool in various forms to help off-set our hay bills, it was a challenge because other than spinners many people find the wool coarse. We didn't stop raising them for that reason; we just found it overwhelming to be doing a breeding program and work or 9-5 jobs, especially around lambing season.

We still have one wonderful churro in our small spinner's flock, and her name is Camissa. She was a difficult birth which I assisted with; and her mother tried to reject her. But we were able to latch her back on, and she thrived. Unfortunately her first pregnancy was a challenge and I am still haunted to this day at have to put her lamb down right after it was born... (fuck, crying again). She ended up having lovely twins the next year, which was the last year we did a breeding program.

While the other 3 sheep we have (1 Shetland, and 2 amazingly-friendly Finns), Camissa was born here and will stay here forever.

Navajo-Churro sheep are so wonderful, and we love them. Thanks for the post!
posted by terrapin at 9:48 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]

FWIW, my relative's opinion at the time, as I remember it, was that saving the scrawny, scraggly, ill-tempered beasts was a waste of time, and foisting them back on the Navajo was doing them a dis-service, when modern breeds are better and more productive in every way.

The American government felt similar and tried to push Merinos on the Navajo people -- by murdering their flocks first -- not really considering that Merino has MUCH more lanolin which means more washing -- for a people living in a desert.

Churros are a great breed because the wool, milk and meat are excellent, and the low lanolin levels make it easier to wash.

... plus the fact that Navajo sheep are, by all indications, somewhat ornery beasts.

As someone who raised them I respectfully disagree with this. They are very easy going, and personable. I only had challenges with one ram, but that was the fault of the shepherd from whom we purchased him. The dimwit had the ram isolated form any other animals! Flock animals will go mad if left in those conditions. The ram butted my truck's cab window and shattered it when I tried to get him out after a 6 hour drive, band he once butted me on the bum, but again, that's not his fault.

Reminds me of people who blame dogs as being bad or ill-tempered. That's the humans' fault, not the animals.
posted by terrapin at 9:52 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]

Found some photos of various Churros that graced our lives on my Flickr account.
posted by terrapin at 10:03 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]

My folks raised (non-churro) sheep up to my high school years, and since none of us really knit or spun, apparently the wool was just sent out to spinneries and was lost. I have a big spindle of rough spun wool that apparently came from our flock, but it's old, itchy, has a lot of slubs, and I'm not sure what to do with it.

If anyone has a connection or suggestion to Navajo-produced churro wool sellers (any weight/color), I'd love to support them! I found the Weaving Southwest website, and apparently there is yarn from a Navajo-produced group called "Thunderbird Lodge", but it appears that native sellers aren't doing selling much online.
Thanks for the post! (edit: fixed a typo in the Weaving Southwest name)
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 10:15 AM on January 17

Hermeowne, I am asking turtlegirl if we still know anyone producing churro fiber, but another suggestion is to look at the Navajo-Churro Association members site.

I will comment again if I think of other sources.
posted by terrapin at 10:21 AM on January 17

There were churro sheep at Monument Valley High School, they were part of the curriculum. Jack Seltzer ran the project and grew peach trees, and a huge garden. They are wonderful to look at. The rugs from the Navajo weavers are wonderful too.
posted by Oyéah at 11:08 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]

« Older BBC follows the Bishan Otters   |   Perhaps the blood of MeFites would be better? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments