The Sheep of the Gods

If only the livestock breed genetics were conserved, it would just be a museum piece. But the cultures of the Southwest wanted more than that: Navajo and Hispanic communities developed their own markets for specialty dyed wools, for grass-fed mutton and lamb, drawing upon technical support for many organizations, including American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Slow Food.  And so it has gone from being a museum piece to being part of the cultures and cuisines again.
Gary Paul Nabhan, scientist and writer

As long as you have sheep, you’ll never go hungry, you’ll never go poor, which is why the sheep was placed here for us by the gods.

Jay Begay Jr., Navajo-Churro sheep farmer

Navajo-Churro sheep have sustained the Hispanic, Pueblo and Diné people of the southwest United States for centuries. To the Diné people, the sacred animal provides all the necessities of life and no part goes to waste.
Grazing freely on seasonal herbs and grasses, the animal’s lean meat has a distinctive regional flavor, and the sheep’s low-maintenance, multi-colored fleece is ideal for weaving. Navajo-Churro is the oldest breed of sheep in North America and has survived over 400 years despite twice coming to the brink of extinction. “Sheep is life.” So says Jay Begay Jr., who raises Navajo-Churro sheep traditionally on a western Navajo reservation, having learned the trade from his grandmother. Roy Kady, a shepherd, educator and master weaver in the T’iis Nazbas (Teec Nos Pos) community, learned to raise sheep from his mother, Mary Clah, who did not attend school so as to protect and continue her family’s herding tradition. Shepherds like Jay and Roy are among those dedicated to continuing and honoring the rare breed through traditional practices passed down to them through generations. The Navajo-Churro sheep breed’s legendary resilience is regarded as a great source of spiritual guidance to the Navajo. It is believed that the ancestors of the Navajo pushed into the Southwest in search of new animals to hunt, including the Big Horn sheep. According to mythology, the Big Horn was sent to earth for the gods, who promised the people that their descendants would inherit a domesticated version. When, during Spanish colonization, explorer Don Juan de Onate introduced the Churro to America in the late 16th century, it seemed as though the prophecy had been fulfilled. Under the care of the Navajo, the sheep adapted well to Colorado’s semi-arid mesas and rocky canyons. Disaster struck when, in 1863, the Navajo people were declared enemies of the United States and the government sent Colonel Kit Carson to conquer the tribe. Crops were burned and thousands of sheep slaughtered, though some clans managed to escape to remote canyons with the few remaining sheep. 

Kit Carson and catastrophe

Then, in the 1930s, stock reductions were ordered in an attempt to reduce the erosion of the Dust Bowl era. The Churro was replaced with faster-growing (but more vulnerable) breeds whose short, greasy fleeces were not suited to weaving. Many years later, the United States Department of Agriculture recognized the breed’s suitability for arid environments, but its cultural significance had been lost and the Churro was used only for cross-breeding, until research stopped and the breed became dispersed. In the 1970s, a young professor named Lyle McNeal began restoring the breed by gathering Navajo-Churro sheep from remote ranches and areas in California and the Navajo reservation. Today, with over 5,000 registered Navajo-Churros across the United States, both the breed and the Hispano and Pueblo traditions associated with it are supported by McNeal’s Navajo Sheep Project and other organizations like Tierra Wools, Cerra Mojino Woolworks, Diné be’ iină and Los Ganados del Valle. In 2006, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity formally recognized the Navajo-Churro meat as a distinctive food of deep cultural value, and with partner organizations set up a Presidium project with the goal of developing a market
for Churro meat and educating the public about the breed’s importance to the Navajo people. Since its inception, the Presidium included several shepherds who had successfully sold their meat to local chefs. Through direct-marketing strategies, particularly targeting chefs and caterers interested in using the entire animal, the Presidium began to market the lamb as a culinary resource with a premium price. The Presidium set specific protocols that incorporate the traditional Diné ways of raising sheep, ensuring that the animals receive no antibiotics, are grazed on open ranges and are not fed any corn. The Presidium is also seeking funding to support market development and land grazing improvement. With Slow Food Northern Arizona, the Presidium also organizes dinners, Taste Workshops and agri-tourism visits, introducing the lamb to the public and giving producers and chefs feedback on the qualities and limitations of the Navajo-Churro. In 2007, Gay Chanler co-produced a short film entitled A Gift from Talking God: The Story of the Navajo Churro. Film screenings, festivals and DVD sales are helping spread the word about this unique, rare breed. 

Article first published in Slow Food Almanac 2010 


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