Rare breed: Churro sheep are critically linked to Navajo culture

Dorothy Charlie learns how to use a felting machine from Ron Garnanez, president of Diné Be’ Iina’. Charlie traveled with her family from Sunflower Butte, Dilkon Chapter, to attend the Spin Off in Colorado.  Photo by Sonja Horoshko

Dorothy Charlie learns how to use a felting machine from Ron Garnanez, president of Diné Be’ Iina’. Charlie traveled with her family from Sunflower Butte, Dilkon Chapter, to attend the Spin Off in Colorado. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

In September, a group of regional Navajo- Churro shepherds gathered for “Spin Off,” a sheep seminar at Arriola Sunshine Farms, in Lewis, north of Cortez, Colo.

The name refers to the wool processes, the spinning of fiber before it can be knitted or used for weaving – and knowledge spun together to increase the productivity and value of the Churro sheep culture.

It’s a culture that is critically linked to the history and lives of the Diné, but it – and the breed itself – barely escaped extinction a few decades ago.

Thus, Spin Off was not just an opportunity to share information about flock and shepherding strategies and value-added market mentoring. It was a social gathering that brought together members of Diné Be’ Iina’ (Navajo Lifeway), the Four Corners Navajo- Churro Sheep Producers Association and holistic land-management practitioners all seeking to maintain the Churro link in Diné culture and life.

And it was a celebration of the survival of a rare breed that has become integrally linked with sustainability and tradition on the Navajo Nation.

Today, the population of the Navajo- Churro sheep breed is growing at a steady pace, on and off the Navajo reservation. As a result it has been removed from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s “endangered” designation, bumped up a notch to “threatened” status.

“They can be found throughout the continent,” said Cindy Dvergsten, co-owner with her husband, Mike Rich, of the Arriola Sunshine Farms, where they shepherd a large flock of pure Churro sheep. “There are breeders in the Northeast, Northwest and quite a few in northern California, but the numbers are still only 5,000 head and that isn’t enough to save the breed.”

A livestock holocaust

Indigenous sheep cultures exist throughout the world.

The Churros are related to sheep in Morocco, North Africa. according to Lyle G. McNeal, Carnegie professor at the Utah State University School of Veterinary Medicine, Utah State University. He is a sheep, wool and range specialist and founder of the Navajo Sheep Project.

“In fact, the Berber shepherds still have sheep today that resemble them,” said Mc- Neal.

The Churros moved across the Mediterranean Sea with the Moors when they conquered Spain. From there they eventually made their way to the Americas. By the early 1600s the Spanish colonists had introduced the breed to the Navajo people, who embraced them as a satisfactory fit to the environment and the needs of their people.

Wool from Churro sheep contains low levels of lanolin wax, making it easy to card and to wash, thus using less water, which is critical in the arid Navajo environment.

Classified as a double-coated fiber – short and fine underneath, long and coarse on the top – the fleece makes extremely strong, durable wool suitable for carpets, rugs and ropes rather than just clothing – all necessary, functional items in the Navajo culture.

Introduction of the Churro sheep caused a gradual but radical lifestyle change that added livestock-grazing to their already flourishing agricultural skills.

Their culture prospered, and by the 1850s Churro sheep culture had become systemically embedded in the Navajo Lifeway.

But it also put the sheep in the crosshairs of the U.S. government. To control the food is to control the people, said Dvergsten. The Diné’s most valuable source of material security became the most vulnerable target of aggressive eradication policy.

After thousands of the sheep were rounded up and sent to California to stave off a Gold Rush-related food shortage in the late 1850s, Kit Carson, under the command of General James H. Carleton, carried out a scorch-and-burn campaign that included slaughtering the Navajo-Churro sheep. That contributed to widespread starvation, the eventual capture of the Navajo people and their subsequent forced 450-mile Long Walk to incarceration at Fort Sumner in 1862.


Roy Kady, master fiber artist and mentor, demonstrates how to felt Navajo- Churro wool to Spin Off participants from Arizona and Colorado attending the workshop hosted at Arriola Sunshine Farms. Later he turned the blonde fiber product into a playful wig. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

When the Diné were finally released, the U.S. government issued them Merino and Rambouillet sheep, breeds unsuitable for the reservation terrain that now, because of the new boundaries, limited traditional stewardship and grazing patterns. In addition, the wool the Merinos and Rambouillets produced was heavy with lanolin, requiring large amount of water to wash and clean and unseemly amounts of time and effort to prepare, and it had a “foreign” flavor. The meat was not the sweet Churro meat that the Navajo elders knew and loved.

According to McNeal, the wool from the newer breeds fulfilled the needs of the East Coast manufacturing industry. But those breeds overgrazed the land, which then provided an excuse for the government to practice livestock reduction in 1932, killing the Diné’s flocks and manipulating the people through threats of annihilation of the few remaining Churro sheep.

According to the Churro Sheep Association website, the agrarian way of life declined and so did the health of the land. Many elders said when the sheep left, the water went away, the grass died and the people left. “The U.S. government visited a livestock holocaust on this breed,” added McNeal.

“When I was looking for them on the reservation in the 1970s, some elders took me to the canyons, showed me the places where I could still see the bones piled up from the government agents who shot their sheep in the 1932 reduction program.

“I have dedicated my projects to breed genetics and the return of the Navajo Churro sheep to the people. The elders would cry when I brought a Churro sheep back to the reservation.”

Trophy-hunting targets

McNeal launched the Navajo Sheep Project in 1977 after he became interested in the rare breed.

According to McNeal, the Navajo tribal veterinarian conducted a census in 1972 at the USDA Sheep Breeding and Wool Lab in Fort Wingate, N.M. The tally showed only 435 Churros sprinkled throughout the Navajo reservation.

In 1977 McNeal found records indicating that 700 sheep, a mixture of breeds, were auctioned from the Fort Wingate facility in 1967 and among them were 165 Churros bought by a rancher in California who was using them for trophy-hunting targets because the multiple sets of horns Churros sometimes grow are valued by hunters.

The census that year involved counting numbers of the old breed in the Four Corners region. “I was looking for them throughout the reservation, but only found one or two at a time. The dominant white business culture didn’t want the Navajos raising Churros because the long fibers in the wool didn’t work in the East Coast industrial fashion processes.

“They preferred instead the softer, shorter wool from the Merino sheep which could be used in the clothing-manufacturing industry back in Boston.”

Even though he had no money to buy the rancher’s sheep, McNeal had already started the non-profit Navajo-Churro Sheep Project and could offer the rancher an opportunity to donate six to eight ewes and two rams.

“He accepted, and that was how I started my nucleus flock,” McNeal said. “I moved them to California Polytechnic Institute in San Luis Obispo until Utah University offered me a faculty position. I told them I would accept only if they let me bring my flock of Churros.”

They did and since that time they have served as the flock that can help replenish the Churro culture on the reservation.

Breeding true

Ironically, the blending of Navajo-Churro sheep into the non-Navajo agricultural landscape may be the greatest risk to the breed, according to McNeal.

“If they don’t stay true to the genetics, then that is the greatest risk to the Churro sheep,” he said. “My mission is to breed Churros true to their culture.”

Most non-Navajos don’t know the cultural consequences of cross-breeding, he explained. They have interpreted association guidelines to support their own purposes, which could be breeding them to grow more meat on the body, or to produce different wool qualities.

“Navajo people know better how to create a Churro sheep culture,” McNeal said. “It is a genetically pure Southwestern breed of sheep. It belongs in the Southwest climate and cultures.

“If they take ownership of it, the breed may survive.”

Making a living

Before becoming the director of Diné Be’ Iina’ (DBI), TahNibaa Naataanii was a full-time weaver. She talked by phone with the Free Press while tending her 79 head of Churros in a grass range south of Shiprock, N.M. The family brought the flock down from the Chuska mountains after the recent “male rains” (hard, violent downpours), which she said saturated the earth, putting the sheep at risk.

“I am living proof that you can make a living from the Churro sheep,” she said. “You just have to learn how to manage the sheep, the wool, the fiber products and the daily work of them.

“Like right now, I am in the range 15 miles from Shiprock, sitting in the sunshine with my laptop open sending emails to board members and talking on my cell phone while I care for my sheep. It is what I had to do this afternoon.”

The organization is operating under four grants this year, she said. One of them, the First Nations Grant, will help her focus on capacity-building. She is attending the First Nations Grant conference with Dvergsten, also a DBI board member.

“It is the tool that will help us merge and weave together the benefits from all of the grants, help us develop board skills,” explained Naataanii, “and in the long run strengthen our outreach approaches and sustainability.”

The Spin Off events are part of the DBI outreach program, but are no longer hosted by the group. USDA Risk Management Agency funding supported the start-up of new Spin Off groups in 2010-2012 through DBI, but the program’s future now depends on community members.

DBI has helped encourage independent Spin Off groups such as the one held at Dvergsten’s farm, and others at Teec Nos Pos, Table Mesa and Kayenta, all in Arizona, and soon in Dilkon, Ariz., on the western reservation. Board members, fiber artists and shepherds associated with DBI participate and build capacity at the Spin Offs by providing the professional mentoring in fiber arts, materials and equipment displays at the events that are now hosted by other groups and communities.

In fact, this year DBI received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to provide one-on-one training and mentoring to upcoming fiber artists.

“Through arts funding we are able to improve the artists’ ability to market and sell their products,” Naataaniib said. “We are hoping it will influence the demand for the artists’ work, and therefore the value of the breed, and increase the number of Navajo flocks.”

Singing loom

Ron Garnanez, president of the DBI board of directors, and one of the mentors at Spin Offs, explained that when they convene now it is like the old days, when separate families would get together and plan how they could help each other during shearing season, or move flocks up the mountains to summer pastures, or teach each other methods of doing fiber arts related to sheep culture. He hopes the younger generation will accept the responsibility of shepherding the churros.

“I say to my children, ‘We will carry it for a while and then you will carry it.’ Maybe you were better off when you didn’t know [about sheep culture] but now you know. You can’t go back to not knowing.”

Garnanez is also a weaver. When his daughter was young he would weave late into the night while she slept upstairs above his loom. One morning she came down and described that she fell asleep the night before listening to his loom singing.

That same daughter, now grown, offered a marketing suggestion after working the sheep and wool fairs with her father. She observed how many clients want to buy small quantities of wool.

“She taught me that some clientele are looking for small amounts to felt, weave or knit,” he said, which started the internet trade they do now in sizes as small as twoounce skeins. That suggestion has increased the value of the wool. Although they sell the wool in large quantities too, it adds more profit when the same amount is sold in smaller portions.

Becoming sustainable

DBI is currently enjoying success if its projects are measured by the achievement of the participants. The NEA mentorship program is blooming. It has enrolled eight fiber artists from across the reservation who are being mentored by the master weavers.

In addition, the emerging artists are also learning holistic sheep and land-management practices from Dvergsten and Rich. With a lifetime of family farming experience, a degree in resource management, and 23 years of experience working with farmers and ranchers, much of it on the reservation, Dvergsten provides the training and mentoring that builds sustainable capacity with the fiber arts produced from the churro wool. She is steeped in the Navajo culture and respected by the Navajo people for her work and efforts to help sustain the Churro breed.

Jeanie Salt sat at the sunny table at the Spin Off. She tells the group how she learned through the mentoring DBI offered her.

“I decided to retire early from my librarian job in Kayenta. I felt like I hadn’t lived my Navajo life yet,” she said. “Now, it is time for me to do what a Navajo lady is supposed to do, and so because my family still had some sheep, some of them Churro, I said I’d just take care of them.”

Soon there was a lot of wool from her flock. Even so, she wasn’t making a livelihood from the sheep because the raw wool at that time was only worth 25 cents a pound.

“I had to learn how to manage my resources,” she told the Spin Off group. “I made up my mind to make the move and that’s when I went to DBI. That was right at the beginning of the Spin Offs. I kept it up, learned how to add value to my work with the flock, learned how to felt, and now I can host spin-offs in my community. I am becoming sustainable.”

Sheep growers are up against a lot of odds, said Tahnibaa. “The sheep are a lot of hard everyday work. They are not like cows. You have to tend to them every day.

“But the sheep provide for us in all aspects of our lives. They too are honored to feed us. They get to smoke with us in ceremonies. They are here to sustain us.”

At the Spin Off, Roy Kady, master and world-renowned weaver from Teec Nos Pos, touched the white wool the group had just washed. It had been drying in the sun on a table. He commented on how white the wool is. Brilliant, he said, “like the clouds, which is what the gods made the sheep from. They gathered the clouds that shed water and put them on the earth in the form of sheep with wool that sheds water. Then they added willow sticks for legs, put rainbows in the horns and hooves and set rock crystals in their eyes so that they could see. It is in the creation story.”

The sheep are a big source of security to Navajo families, added Garnanez. “Jobs come and go but a sheep will always be there for you. Hence, Sheep is Life,” he said, referring to the name of the popular festival the sheep producers and DBI put on at the Tsaile Diné College campus every summer.

Vendors from all over the reservation demonstrate and participate by sharing their knowledge of sheep culture. It is a large, outdoor week-long event attended by Navajo and non-Native people. It is also a time to tell sheep stories and share history.

McNeil, a founder of the Sheep is Life event, described the sheep as “a living culture. I want them to live into perpetuity. I want the Navajo great-grandchildren to have access to that living culture.”

Naataanii agreed. “Whenever we go to a meeting to share our sheep stories we find the Navajo people still miss the connection to the land that came with the sheep. Even the elders still miss the sheep, which remind them of being with their grandparents, and relatives, or spinning and carding wool, or shearing and butchering.

“Navajo people miss the family influence of the sheep. Those memories are not completely forgotten,” said Naataanii. “The story is the connection.”

From October 2013.