The Navajo/Churro Sheep Tragedy

This story is for Oso. His storytelling generated an interest in a part of history I was completely clueless in. Ignorant but I am learning…

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.)

Navajo Sheep Project


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  1. Stimpson says:

    What a sad story. So sad that the subjugation of a people would even include destroying its preferred type of sheep.
    Thank you, Krell, for such an interesting post.

    • Krell says:

      Thank you, Mike.

      Fortunately, this is one of those stories that seems to have a better outlook thanks to Dr. Lyle McNeal and others.

  2. You have made me cry Krell. It takes a lot to do that. I am also so disgusted i could spit nails.

    This is a beautifully-written, but horribly sad story. 😥

    • Krell says:

      Ahh, so the Cat with the aluminum foil hat has a soft spot. LOL! I cannot imagine the emotions that must have been felt during those “shooting galleries” by the government agents. Breaks the heart…

  3. osori says:

    I’d never heard of this, Krell. Thank you for this, and for your kind words.

    And as to the govt employees who chose to shoot the churros, and who thought the idea up, may God damn them to hell.

  4. Such good work! Brother Krell! What a wonderful education.

    • Krell says:

      Thanks, Gwen. I liked that Antique Roadshow Clip.
      It looks like the guy that had the blanket was going to need some CPR anytime.

      I know I would have crapped my “not so wool” like pants if I suddenly realized I had such a treasure. It would be priceless. Can you imagine the history
      and the journey that blanket had traveled throughout its lifetime??

  5. Krell says:

    DarkReign or Mad Mike.. whomever you go by. I wrote that story for your site along with several other posts. I have copies of all the stories stored on my computer.

    In fact, the recent story that you placed on your MadMikesAmerica site was one of mine that YOU did not credit. “Crops in Crisis: Genetically Modified Crops and SuperWeeds”

    I feel that I have been really flexible in allowing you to reprint my stuff.

    I wrote for your site, then started this site. It’s a completely different blog going down a different path. I have never meant any harm to you or your group of writers, it’s just a different way we took.

    But I cannot allow you to claim that the work that I did for you is not my own, nor call this site unethical. SHAME ON YOU, SIR.. SHAME ON YOU!!!!

  6. Stimpson says:

    How brave of someone to use a phony email address to accuse a blogger of theft. To make that accusation without doing a little research is embarrassing to the accuser, Darkreign. To make the accusation knowing the true background (as I suspect is the case with you) is downright dishonest and shameful. So, which one is the case here? Embarrassing mistake or shameful dishonesty? Maybe a bit of both.

  7. Integrity, speaking truth to power even when it no longer even cares what you are saying, seeking out the real issues and putting them into the a proper light…. this is what Mr. Olbermann has called ‘citizen journalism’. Revamping (very little) HuffPo and Not yet the News … sensationalizing and lacking a creative instinct for informing, failing to inspire or support a community (no matter how large or small) … that’s not anything but tabloid blogging and not too original at that. Checking the stats for the Mad Mike’s America site it’s no surprise to discover that the overwhelming demographic is over 55, male, slightly educated and retired. This is truly self absorption, in the two fellows running that board. The folks who stand out in front of the crowd and exclaim; “Hey now People! We can’t let this happen! We have to do something about it!~” The folks who dare to risk being eschewed by the majority…. these have always been the heroes writing the new myth. You’ll find that kind of dreamer here at RT7. You’ll find honest, talented, hopeful folks who are committed to making a positive change in their community. People respected in a larger community of online publishing.

    BULLSHIT ….. there is no way authorship isn’t right there! Look at the comments! Or do you think Mike and Holte are that fucking stupid? *excuse… I am annoyed*

  8. Kelly Thompson Turk says:

    so did the desertification of a lot of the reservation land in New Mexico that’s being blamed on sheep happening because the Navajo now have ‘regular’ sheep rather than the sheep they had before (and maybe they didn’t crop the vegetation down to the point where it wouldn’t grow back)? That makes sense to me – that one sort of sheep that was bred to live in a high-desert-y sort of environment would have a different habit of eating, since it evolved to live in that environment – if so, how sad and how short-sighted.

    • Krell says:

      Good question Kelly. The Soil Conservation eradication program, a program that killed a huge amount of sheep over a couple of decades, was just one the latest of methods to subjugate the Navajo.

      The Navajo had develop most of their culture around the Churro, ever since it was introduced by the Spaniards around 1700. To claim that desertification was suddenly occurring after the amount of caring for and integrating the Churro in their culture was ludicrous. It would seem that an environment, if it was being destroyed by vegetation damage, would not be able to support this ecology that had developed between the Navajo and the Churro, especially since this system had been in place for around 200 years. Nature had determined it’s success.

      The official statement for the program was desertification caused by the sheep with concern for damage by silt in the generators and machinery at the Hoover Dam. The result of that policy was mass extermination of over 1 million sheep. Some of the mass graves filled with bones still can be seen today.