There are some stories in history that just make you want to scream! This is one of those type stories, a really stupid, short sighted, government disaster.
The Churro Sheep was first introduced by the Spanish in the mid 1600′s in the area of Diné Bikéyah which was Navajo Land.
Sometimes, when a new species is introduced in an area, it can have a tragic impact on the surroundings. Not in this case. This was the perfect animal for the area.
The climate and surroundings of desert and high wooded mountains allowed the Churro to thrive. Because of the characteristics of the wool, being low in lanolin, it did not require washing with water and easily accepted dyes. The wool had natural colors, including apricot, grey, black, brown, beige, and white, In addition, the wool fiber was highly desired as the best for wool hand-spinners.
To this day, the Navajo wool blankets are considered art beyond compare. To give example, here is a clip of a person that casually walked in to a “Antiques Roadshow” with a pristine Navajo wool blanket. You expect the appraiser to need life support at any moment by his reaction.
Genetically resistant to many sheep diseases, Churros can withstand austere conditions and have excellently flavored meat. The Navajo developed a special spiritual relationship with the Churro and it was a major part of Navajo life energy. Ceremonies, spiritual songs, and techniques were passed down, generation after generation, giving thanks to this “gift” that was given to them.
Every part was used. The wool for blankets, the sinew for thread, the meat for nourishment. The Churro was the perfect symbiotic relationship and was respected like a family member or part of the tribe.
The Navajo became absolute experts in sheep herding and care, increasing the numbers to almost 500,000 in the 1920′s. Navajo have even evolved the Navajo-Churro genotype, a breed recognized by the American Sheep Industry.
In 1931, when the US government started the Hoover Dam project, the amount of Churro sheep that the Navajo were grazing was thought to be a potential silt problem for the hydro-electric generators and operation of the dam.
So the government started a Churro livestock reduction campaign in 1932 to deplete in huge numbers the amount of Churro sheep. Government employees often would just arrive and shoot the sheep on the spot, in front of the Navajo that raise them from birth, worshiped them, used them for supplying the needs of their very existence. The goal for the government was eradication of 80 percent of the Churro population and cross breed the remaining Churro with other breeds to produce in the government’s eyes, “a more fit beast for use”.
By the late 1960′s the eradication program had reduced the Churro Sheep population to just 450. The species and way of life was going to be completely eradicated, driven into extinction, if not for the efforts of one man.
In the mid-1970s, animal scientist Dr. Lyle McNeal recognized the genetic and cultural significance of the Navajo-Churro. In 1977, Dr. and Mrs. McNeal founded the Navajo Sheep Project, which currently maintains a breeding flock near Bloomfield, New Mexico.They have been successful in bringing this fine animal and way of life back to some of the Navajo.
Thanks to the care of an animal scientist that recognized the importance of culture and web of interaction between man and animal, the conclusion of this disgraceful moment in history might, just might, have a better future. Today, even with all the new varieties of wool and synthetics available today, the Churro wool is still the most desired for traditional Navajo weavings.
(This post was originally written by me for the MadMikesAmerica blog on June 14, 2010. I apologize for any confusion that might have occurred by not mentioning this. It was not intentional and I alone take responsibility for this etiquette mistake.)