Navajo-Churro History

"Doc McNeal calls this eradication the “Navajo Holocaust” because as much as the sheep were a monetary asset, the Navajo also consider the sheep sacred members of their peoples’ family. Scattered in remote canyons on the Navajo Nation, however, were Navajo-Churro survivors, but when Dr. McNeal was teaching in the Animal Science Department at Cal Poly Tech in the early 1970s, he was unaware that any of the breed still existed."

The Formation of a Desert Southwest Landrace

Navajo-Churro sheep have some outstanding traits that need to be preserved. These include a strong maternal instinct, abundant milk production, hardiness, lamb survival, parasite and contagious foot rot resistance and the ability to survive on marginal feed resources. Those lambs that aren't desirable as breeding stock produce exceptionally lowfat meat and their woolly hides are tanned to provide long lavish pelts.

The History and Near Extinction of the Navajo-Churro

The Sacred Sheep~ Mother Earth, Father Sky and the Dine' (Navajo People)

In 1538 Hernando Cortez, brought the first Spanish Merino sheep, as well as the Navajo-Churro sheep to his hacienda at Cuernavaca, near Mexico City. He later distributed them among the missions in Mexico.
In 1540 Coronado in his search for the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola brought the first Navajo-Churro Sheep to North America from Spain. These were the first sheep to come to the New World by way of the Spanish conquerors.  When he gave up his search for gold in 1542, he left some of the sheep at Pecos Pueblo in Northern New Mexico with a priest named Fray Luis de Escalera, who stayed behind to teach the Holy Faith to the Indians. No other accounts were given on these sheep and it was assumed they all perished with the zealous Escalera.

The effects of the initial introduction of the sheep on the people of the southwest could be called revolutionary.

Half a century later, in 1598, Juan de Onate, a.k.a San Juan Bastista de Onate, a colonizer from Mexico and originally from the Pyrennes Mountains in Spain, brought with him large flocks of Navajo-Churro and Merinos to the Rio Grande Valley.  Today's Navajo-Churro in the remote areas of the Southwest are descendants of this ancient genotype. The Navajo-Churro thrived in the Southwest of the United States on the virgin ranges of what are now the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah pushing all other classes of livestock far into the background.

Before long, nomadic Navajos acquired these unique sheep from the Spanish settlers. It is possible they obtained their first flocks from the Spanish settlers in Sonora or Chihuahua, Mexico. However, the Navajo lore says that they already had sheep in the sixteenth century.  The sheep provided meat, milk, and wool fiber which was used for the famous classic Navajo blankets and rugs.

The effects of the initial introduction of the sheep on the people in the Southwest could be called 'revolutionary'. Hispanic settlers relied on the Navajo-Churros for food and fiber and developed the renown Rio Grande weaving style. The impact of the more nomadic people, such as the Navajos, continued to build up slowly for nearly 150 years after the first Spanish entradas. Steadily the size and number of Navajo flocks of sheep increased. By the 1800's herding had assumed a place in Navajo lives at least equal in importance with farming. This resulted in the 'churra' being the dominant genotype in Navajo flocks.


Warning - Some of the following images may be difficult for some viewers

The beginning of the Near Extinction...

In 1863 Colonel Kit Carson, under General James H. Carleton along with 700 troops, marched into the heart of Navajo country. Carson began a systematic campaign of destroying all Navajo means of livelihood. They tore up cornfields, burned peach orchards, killed horses and sadly slaughtered thousands of sheep leaving them to rot with most being Navajo-Churro. Canyon del Muerto consisting of 8,000+ Navajos were the last to resist Carson's campaign. Eventually they were starved into surrendering and sent into captivity at Fort Sumner, NM or Bosque Redondo. The Navajo way of life was altered from pastoral herders to sedentary prisoners.

For the next four years, the Navajos were thrown together into a single and undesirably treated group. They were expected to farm and follow the ways established by the goverment. The sedentary agriculture-based lifestyle was a failure. In 1868, a treaty was signed, and a reservation was established within a portion of Navajo Country (Dine'tah).  Many remember those four hard years as the "Long Walk" an event with as much significance to the Navajos as the American Civil War.

In 1868 after their imprisonment at Fort Sumner, NM (Bosque Redondo) they were issued sheep at Fort Defiance, AZ on their return to the reservation. Over 15,000 head was distributed with most of the sheep being Navajo-Churro. They were encouraged by Bureau Agents to increase their flocks and Federal Government Agents in 1882 deployed "improved" Merino sheep breeding stock to the Navajos to develop the lamb and wool markets in the Eastern US. This policy forced on to the Navajos continued in effect through the 1950's.

As trading increased through the 1920's so did the Navajo population and it became apparent to agents of the Indian Bureau and others that Navajo livestock was, like that of the Anglo stockman in NW New Mexico, increasing at a rate which the range could not stand. According to Federal Agents there was a steady decline in the amount of forage, as the number of sheep, goats, and horses increased. By 1930's, the Indian Bureau and another government bureau, The Soil Conservation Service, instituted a program for soil and range conservation on the Navajo Reservation. This was put into effect with federal money and with no participation by the Navajos in the planning. It involved a heavy reduction in the existing herds and flocks, which few understood the meaning.


The animal holocaust...

Tragically the Navajo-Churro nearly became extinct during the past century through federal management policies during the 'Stock Reduction' era which was covered up for decades and unknown only to those who lived though it. Whole flocks where called to various locations and exterminated by gun fire. The government promised payments for livestock losses, however they have never been fully compensated to this day. The Navajo-Churro was targeted for extermination as they were considered a "scrub" and "unimproved" sheep and needed to be terminated by the agents. No thought was given to the value of their wool for cultural weaving or their proven adaptability to the harsh environment. Slightly over 1 million sheep and goats were killed during this era. You can still find remains of all those livestock exterminated. By 1972 there were less then 450 head of Navajo-Churro left compared to the thousands that roamed before.