History of the Navajo Sheep Project Organization
Navajo-Churro were the first sheep to come to the New World by way of the Spanish conquerors from Spain in the 1540's. The sheep thrived on the semi-arid Southwest and became an integral part of Navajo culture, tradition and religion. The sheep provided meat, milk, and wool for the Navajo people. The Navajo-Churro wool was the foundation of Navajo weaving and Hispanic Rio Grande textiles.
However, like the buffalo of the Plains Indians, the Navajo-Churro were systematically destroyed by federal soldiers and agents in an effort to subjugate the Navajo people. By 1950 Navajo sheep raising was considered to be on a sound basis for continuance, which meant at a dead level of production, and a marginal enterprise. The income for the majority of Navajo families was extremely low as compared with Anglos, and was the lowest of any Indian group in the Southwest. Income off sheep raising provides barely 1/3 of the tribes standard of living. By 1973 there were fewer than 450 Navajo-Churro among the more then 300,000 sheep on the reservation.
Birth of the Navajo Sheep Project
Planning began in 1977 by NSP founder, Dr. Lyle G.'Doc' McNeal, and various students, both Navajo and Anglo, recognized that a real need existed. This was for a typical outreach educational approach to assist traditional Navajo and Hispanic sheep growers and artisans weavers who lived on the land. As significant, the need to preserve the dying breed of the original Navajo-Churro and increase the genetic diversity was also a concern.
The Navajo Sheep Project nucleus flock was assembled in 1978 from a flock of 'old type' Navajo-Churro, 'Doc' McNeal found in 1972 which were being hunted for their 4-horn racks by Hollywood notables on a ranch in central California. Six ewes and two four horned rams were donated from the Buster Naegle flock of Gonzales, CA. This was for a research and preservation project located at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, CA. The donor traced his sheep back to the Old-Type Navajo-Churro from the U.S.D.A.'s Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory at Fort Wingate, NM (1934-1967).
Other specimens of Navajo-Churro sheep have been found in Navajo Mountain searches and with traditional families living in the most isolated areas of the Navajo Reservation and added to the flock. With the exception of the donation of the six ewes and two four-horned rams from the Ft. Wingate USDA Southwestern Sheep Laboratory, all Navajo-Churro seedstock throughout the history of the NSP were of Navajo Reservation historical stock and ancestry.
With the exception of the donation of the six ewes and two four-horned rams from the Ft. Wingate USDA Southwestern Sheep Laboratory, all Churro seedstock throughout the history of the NSP were of Navajo Reservation historical stock and ancestry.
Of the 300,000 sheep on the reservation in the 1970s, only 450 were considered Churros.
The Navajo Sheep Project nucleus flock and operations had to erect facilities and relocate to 13 different sites in 4 different States in it's first 25 years of existence! Over the years NSP moved to various locations. Seed stock to replenish flocks was developed by trading and placing sheep with Navajo, Hispanic, and Mexican Indian producers. This helped to revive the Navajo and Rio Grande weaving traditions. Reintroduction of the Navajo-Churro serves as the basis for economic, social, and cultural independence of the Navajo and Hispanic peoples in the region.
In 1997 the Project became a private non-profit organizations and moved the flock from USU campus to a site in Bloomfield, NM. In 2000, the flock was relocated to southwestern Wyoming for the next three years. It was then decided to sell or trade the majority of the flock to Navajo weavers and producers in the fall of 2002.
There are now more than 3000 sheep registered in the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association registry. The Navajo Sheep Project is still offering outreach education in sheep and grazing management, and the development of sheep and wool products throughout the Four Corners region of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.