Wednesday, July 20, 2011
A step into history of the ~ ~ Navajo Churro sheep
America’s first domestic sheep arrived over 400 years ago by the Spanish explorers and settlers. The history of the churra importation and distribution is fascinating and complex. Archives indicate that Merinos were too valuable to export from Spain, so the common sheep such as: Churra, Manchega, Castellana and Lacha were sent to the New World. The term “Churro” is translated to mean “common” and now refers loosely to all the breeds mentioned. Navajo-Churro, derived from the original Spanish stock, are now widely distributed in the U.S. with numbers approximately 6,000. Navajo-Churro are considered a landrace breed that reproduces with high predictably.
Livestock, including sheep, came in 1494 when Spain established colonies in the Caribbean and then in Mexico. Colonization expanded gradually into Nuevo España which is now the Southwest of the United States. In 1540, following the initial expedition of Cortez in 1538, Coronado searched for the Cities of Gold expending 5,000 head of sheep on the journey. The few left in New Mexico were not heard of again. Don Juan de Oñate, in 1598, brought settlers and 2,900 sheep that formed the initial colonization of the Southwest. Spanish ranches prospered in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona with flocks numbering in the thousands. Many sheep were trailed back to Mexico to feed mining towns and they supplied the growing population of the Southwest. In 1849 when gold was discovered in California, churros were trailed west to feed the Gold Fever.
During this period of Spanish colonization, Pueblo Indians were hired and enslaved to herd livestock and to weave textiles. The Dine’ (the Navajo people), living on the edge of Spanish occupation, acquired a few sheep and horses by trades and by raids on outlying settlements. Following the turmoil of 1680 when the Pueblos revolted against Spanish oppression, the Navajos acquired more sheep, as did the Apaches. The Apaches ate the sheep they took but the Navajos nurtured their acquisitions and expanded their flocks.
As European settlers came west and the demand arose for fine wool in the American textile industry, the churros were “graded up” by crossing with Merino and English longwools. However, some churros remained in the remote Hispanic villages, among the isolated Navajos and on the West Coast. These isolated flocks eventually formed the landrace sheep, the Navajo-Churro, named to recognize Spanish and Navajo influence.
Because the Navajos resisted the settlers who were encroaching on Dine’ homelands, the U.S. government ordered military actions led by Kit Carson and John Carlton with instructions to destroy Navajo orchards and flocks. There was much bloodshed and in 1865 approximately 9,000 Navajos were forced on the Long Walk of 300 miles to an interment camp at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Terrible conditions here caused the death of many people and their livestock. Some Navajos escaped capture and hid with their sheep in remote canyons of New Mexico and Arizona. After three years, the Navajo were returned to their homeland and were issued two “native” sheep per person from Hispanic.flocks.
The Navajo were such good weavers and shepherds that their mixed flocks grew to 574,821 sheep by l930. The large number of sheep, goats, horses and cattle was problematic for the severe drought conditions of the 1930’s, so the U.S. government conducted a stock reduction. Some stock was purchased for $1-1.50 but the reduction progressed so slowly that roughly 30% of each household’s sheep, goats and horses were slaughtered by government agents and thrown into arroyos or burned. This terrifying Stock Reduction is still vivid in Navajo memory.
The Dine’ were initially responsible for saving the “old type” sheep from extinction. Navajos successfully maintained original flocks in isolated areas where no other sheep breeds were introduced. Sheep meat, milk for yogurt and wool for textiles sustained the Dine’ for centuries. Even today, “Sheep is life,” is a strong belief in traditional Navajos.
In 1934 the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory at Ft. Wingate, New Mexico to determine what sheep might thrive in that region. They assembled some “original old-type” Navajo sheep from local flocks and for 30 years introduced fine wool breeds and long wool breeds. They concluded that the best wool for the weavers and the sheep most suitable for the high desert were the “old type”.
By 1977, the “old type” Navajo sheep had dwindled to less than 500 head so Dr. Lyle McNeal formed the Navajo Sheep Project to revitalize this breed and keep it from further depletion. Through the efforts of individuals such as Ingrid Painter, Dr. McNeal, Antonio Manzanares, Maria Varela, Goldtooth Begay, Dr. Annie Dodge Wauneka, Milton Bluehouse and Connie Taylor with the assistance of conservancies such as the CS Fund and American Livestock Breed Conservancy and Ganados del Valle, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association was formed in 1986. There are currently over 4,500 sheep registered with the N-CSA, an estimated 1,500 on the Navajo Reservation and several hundred undocumented sheep in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Breed standards were developed for conformation and wool characteristics using historic records, oral descriptions from Navajo Elders, the contemporary Spanish churra and research from the Ft.Wingate project. This included objective measurements by USDA scientists and subjective observations of the samplers woven and dyed by Navajo weavers employed at Ft. Wingate. Individual breeders located sheep sifted from the remnant flocks of the Southwest and West Coast and a few sheep still existed at UC Davis in California. “Wanted Posters” were used by Dr. McNeal’s Navajo Sheep Project to increase awareness of the breed and to locate old type sheep for a revitalization of the nearly extinct breed. Historic standards were applied to the existing nucleus of all the “old type” sheep that were located.
In 1986, the N-CSA began registering Navajo-Churro based on phenotype. The registry process is vital to maintaining standards and providing breeders a network of pedigree information. Even though standards are used, there is an attempt to maintain the diversity within this landrace population. Each sheep registered must be “seen” and approved by on site inspection or by mail in photos and fleece samples. All progeny must be inspected for registration, even if parents are registered. The inspectors must have competence in sheep and wool. Several on the team are university professors or County Extension Agents who specialize in sheep. Description
The Navajo-Churro sheep is a small, long tailed sheep with a double coat of wool (80%) and hair (20%). The locks are long, tapered and open. Rams weigh about 120-175 lbs. and ewes may weigh 90-120 lbs. Legs and faces of adults are clean. Polled Scurs Two Horns Four Horns
The sheep have strong flocking instincts and are very intelligent.The fleece consisting of both wool and hair is highly variable. Fleeces weigh from 4-8 lbs. and yield 67-72%. Hair can range from 6-8 inches while the wool is 3-6 inches. Many breeders shear twice a year to avoid overly long fibers if they intend to commercially process the wool. The fiber diameter has an extreme range of fine wool at 18-30µ to hair at 30-47µ. Kemp fibers composing 2-5% of the fleece is common and can be 60µ. Due to fiber migration, this primitive fleece can cott if not shorn before hot summer weather.
Wool color is spectacular in the breed
Because the Navajo-Churro is so colorful, so adaptable and produces superb carpet wool, the limited population is highly prized by U.S. sheep breeders and by artisans. The yarn is extremely durable for use in rugs, saddle blankets, carrying bags and outer garments.