Navajo philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving. Sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. Before the Navajo acquired sheep on this continent, they held the idea of Sheep in their genetic memory from thousands of years ago.
In the mid-1600s, Navajo acquisition of the Churro sheep from their Spanish neighbors inspired a radical lifestyle change from hunting and gathering to pastoralism and farming. In the high deserts and wooded mountains of Diné Bikéyah, Navajo Land, the Churro thrived under the spiritual and pastoral care of their new companions, resuming their central role in the People's psychology, creativity, and religious life.
With songs, prayers, and techniques taught to them by Spider Woman and looms first built by Spider Man, traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Churro fibers. Unlike wool from modern commercial breeds, wool from primitive carpet-wool sheep such as Churro is low in lanolin, so it does not require valuable water for washing nor time-consuming carding. It can be shorn, hand cleaned, then spun into tightly twisted yarn that readily absorbs indigo and native vegetal dyes, from which the Navajo artists create weavings famous for their exceptional luster, fine texture, and durability. The wool can be easily felted for a variety of uses. The distinctive long-haired pelts are highly valued for many uses.
Carpet-wool sheep have two lengths of wool. When shorn, the resulting fleece has very long fibers as well as an undercoat of shorter fibers. Yarn spun from this type of wool is extremely strong and durable, making it excellent for the Navajo rugs and Spanish jerga. (Wool fragments that have endured for thousands of years in the Middle East are from a related breed of sheep.) As the Navajo managed their flocks for over 300 years, they evolved the Navajo-Churro genotype, a breed recognized by the American Sheep Industry.
The Churro can usually be shorn twice a year, rather than the conventional practice of annual shearing. The wool comes in natural colors, including apricot, grey, black, brown, beige, and white, which are highly-prized by hand-spinners. Genetically resistant to many sheep diseases, Churros can withstand austere conditions and have excellently flavored meat.
A series of federal government actions, beginning with the forced Navajo relocation to Bosque Redondo in 1863, led to the almost total eradication of the Churro, negatively impacting Navajo culture, weaving, traditional lifestyle, and self-sufficiency. In the early 1900s, market forces, ignorance, and misguided attempts to "improve" Navajo wool, depressed the economic value of Navajo-Churro sheep and led to their almost complete disappearance from their homeland.
At the same time, traditional summer grazing lands in the mountains were appropriated by the U.S. government. The lack of access to appropriate grazing lands and their nutritious plants caused a number of problems, including inferior quality wool, lower lambing rates, poor meat production, and most tragically, devastation of the already fragile reservation lands.
During the drought of the 1930s, Navajos were forced to radically reduce their herds - the wellspring of their Good Life. Government agents went from hogan to hogan, shooting a specified percentage of the sheep in front of their horrified owners, who love their sheep and regard them as family members. First to be shot were the Churro, because the agents thought this hardy breed was "scruffy and unfit." Today, elders tearfully recall that time and can describe in detail each sheep that was killed.
At the same time, the federal agricultural agents discouraged raising the Churro and, under the auspices of the Fort Wingate program, encouraged cross-breeding with other genotypes. Unfortunately, these new breeds require more resources such as grass and water, and more herd management. Their shorter wool fibers break easily when hand spun using traditional Navajo methods and do not take the native, natural dyes very well. Navajo weavers became discouraged with trying to process this new wool by traditional means, and many began buying commercially produced and dyed yarns.
While beautiful weavings have been created with commercial yarns, their use has contributed to breaking the traditional tie between sheep, wool, land, and weaving. Weavings made with commercial yarns are not as durable and the texture and quality are not the same as those created with Navajo-Churro wool. Among today's informed collectors, weavings from Churro wool command premium prices.
Sheep are owned almost exclusively by women, and fiber arts are primarily a woman's occupation. The men support the infrastructure and interface with outside economic factors. Young people are often involved in traditional life through activities related to sheep and fiber arts. As a result, women, children, and family stability have experienced the negative effects of displacing the Navajo-Churro breed.
In addition, Churro meat is very lean in comparison to the meat of other modern, contemporary breeds. The disappearance of the Churro has adversely affected the Navajos' health, as well as economic opportunities for specialized niche markets for meat and wool.
By the 1970s, only about 450 of the old type Navajo-Churro existed on the entire Navajo Nation, and only a few specimens were preserved in other locations. The conventional wisdom of the time was "the breed is not useful - let it die out," an attitude often directed towards the traditional cultures, themselves.
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. The project has placed many breeding stock with Navajo families and helped form the nucleus of Ganados del Valle flocks in Los Ojos. In 1998, NSP elected Navajo businessman Art Allison as Chair of the Board of Trustees, ushering in a focus on creating stable and culturally-relevant economic development. Diné bí' íína' (Navajo Lifeways) has been instrumental in the development and growth of NSP programs, and is the liaison with the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Sheep and Goat Producers.
The annual Sheep is Life Celebration and year-round educational programs are a collaboration between Navajo Sheep Project, Diné bí' íína', the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, and Recursos de Santa Fe. Sheep is Life develops programs and provides services to traditional and indigenous cultures to: 1) increase recognition of the importance of sheep to cultures and lifeways; 2) improve the quality of all sheep and wool resources; 3) improve marketing of wool and lamb products; 4) educate the public and regulatory agencies about the importance of sheep to the lifeways of native and traditional peoples; and, 5) promote economic development that is culturally relevant among some of the poorest communities in the United States.