by Hal Cannon
Vermont Public Radio
13 June 2010
For as long as
anyone can remember, Churro sheep have been central to Navajo
life and spirituality, yet the animal was nearly exterminated in
modern times by outside forces who deemed it an inferior breed.
Now, on a Navajo reservation of northern Arizona and New Mexico,
the Churro is being shepherded back to health.
Nation is the size of West Virginia, and at last count, 175,000
people live here. Most people are spread out in small clusters
that you see off in the distance from the highway. Amongst
modern prefab houses and Hogans, the multisided traditional
homes of the Navajo, are often corrals with small bands of sheep
find me, and I just want to sit in the corral with them," Navajo
weaver Roy Kady says. "Just find a corner and I sit there. They
motivate me, even just to see them; it's that strong to me."
Churro sheep are
smaller than most breeds and have a long, wavy lustrous fleece
that is valued by Navajo weavers like Kady. He lives near Teec
Nos Pos, where he's chapter president -- sort of like being the
town's mayor. For him, this flock is part of something larger,
something he calls "din'e bi iina," the Navajo lifeway. "Din'e"
is the preferred name for the Navajo, and "bi iina" means "lifeway."
"Sheep is your
backbone," Kady says. "It's your survival. It's your lifeline."
the Churro was all these things, providing the Navajo with what
they needed to survive in the stark desert: meat for sustenance,
wool for weaving clothing and blankets, sinew for thread. It's
no wonder the Navajo are grateful, even reverential when it
comes to the Churro.
"Sheep is a very
important part of this whole cosmology to us," Kady explains.
"You know, there are songs to where it refers to 'the first
thing I see is the white sheep to the East when I wake up to
make my offering. It stands at my doorway.' And that's how we
know that the sheep is something that's very sacred to us."
Where The Churro
Went The Churro were the first domesticated sheep in the New
World, and, by most historical accounts, were brought to the
Southwest by Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. Over the next
three centuries, Churro sheep and the Navajo wove a life
together in a balance of nature. However, by the 1860s,
America's westward expansion collided with Navajo resistance. In
a tragic move, Kit Carson and his troops were ordered to
relocate the tribe and destroy their livestock.
of this particular sheep breed -- because we are connected to it
with songs and prayers and ceremonies -- when it was taken from
us, that part of our life was also destroyed," Kady says.
Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral lands, where
they built their herds back. That is, until government agents
returned in the 1930s -- with orders to eliminate the Churro.
government thought that they had too many sheep -- and the wrong
sheep," says Lyle McNeal, a professor of animal science at Utah
State University. He says the reason the government gave was
The Churro "were
causing premature siltation on a new dam being built on the
Colorado called Hoover," McNeal says. "They felt that the runoff
and the overgrazing would make that dam worthless in a few
years." In 1934, the federal government started a stock
Killing off the
Churro sent the Navajo economy into a tailspin. Realizing the
tribe could not survive without their herds, the government
introduced standard breeds, whose meat and wool were more
uniform to market demand.
Rediscovering The Churro
most people thought the Churro had been decimated. But in 1972,
when McNeal was teaching in California, he took his students on
a field trip to the Salinas Valley where he noticed some
strange-looking woolly creatures as they stopped to visit a
"At that stop is
where I really first saw a living Churro. I'd read about them
before then, but I had never seen one up close," he says. The
discovery spurred what can best be described as a personal and
professional calling -- a 30-year mission to bring the Churro
back from the brink of extinction.
McNeal and his
supporters scoured hidden canyons on the reservation for
surviving Churro, and eventually found enough animals to begin a
breeding program. This led to the establishment of the Navajo
Sheep Project, which is dedicated to bringing back the Churro.
"When I had
sheep in the truck and we were making deliveries down there and
I'd stop to get some gas, some of the elders would be attracted
to the truck," McNeal says. "They would say, 'These are the real
sheep. Where did you get them?'"
"That's when I
started getting the signal that these are more than just a
sheep, so it added a dimension to the Navajo Sheep Project
effort that I hadn't expected."
A Blessing Of Sheep
The road between
Gallop and Shiprock, N.M., leads toward a sheer sandstone cliff.
In a corral with a few dozen Churro, weaver Tahnibah Natani
gathers her ewes and rams as her husband prepares for a ceremony
to bless and protect the sheep.
is a medicine man. He's lit up a mix of local plants, making
sure all the sheep breathe in the thick aromatic smoke from the
"The smoke is
like a flu shot to them," he says. "It's all about chasing away
the sickness spirits, different sicknesses."
Hoske begins to
chant. He sings an ancient prayer, then Natani fills a sacred
pipe and blows smoke into the face of each sheep.
This is a family
that shows its gratitude for the gift of life that is given each
time it takes an animal for food. This is a family that will
shear these sheep, clean the wool, spin it into yarn -- which
then goes to the loom to be woven, not just as a work of art,
but a visual representation of heaven on earth.
"So when you are
weaving, actually you're doing a prayer because the warp is
considered a representation of rain," Natani says. "The tension
cord is lightening. The top of the beam of the loom, the very
top, represents the sky, Father Sky. And the bottom bar
represents Mother Earth. Everything on the loom has a special
song for it."
"So it becomes a prayer."
A Tradition Endangered
Natani and Hoske
are committed to keeping the traditions of their ancestors alive
in a modern world. They're active in a region-wide community of
herders, weavers and restaurateurs who are dedicated to the
Churro. Even though the breed is a small minority of the sheep
on the reservation -- there are just over 4,000 of them -- it's
no longer considered endangered.
But while the
Churro are thriving, it may be that this weaver and medicine man
are becoming the rare breed, even within their tribe. Like most
Americans, Navajo have become tied to a paycheck economy and a
new generation is growing up mesmerized by what's beamed in on
the satellite dish.
On a background
of pink sand, golden brush and a pewter gray sky, Kady and his
mother enter their remote hogan to escape the cold. They
occasionally trade words in Navajo, but otherwise she sits
expressionless in her long skirt and bright scarf as her son
reveals a deep worry for the survival of his tribe's traditions.
"I think we are
at the point where, yeah, it could die out -- tomorrow," he
says. "But coming from my heart is that ‘Wait a minute, hold on
-- you know, this is good and has to be continued.' You
oftentimes hear the phrase, 'Oh, the youth are tomorrow, they
are our future,' that sort of thing. But I always say, 'No.
They're now. It has to happen now.' We as teachers need to stop
and say, 'Let's get with it and teach them before it's
This started out
as a story about saving an endangered breed of sheep from
extinction, but in the end, it's about more than that. It's
about an endangered culture struggling for survival in a