Navajo-Churro sheep are steeped in the history and culture of the Hispanic, Pueblo and Diné communities of the southwestern United States. They exemplify what we mean by the slippery term, heritage livestock; as Don Bixby (2005) has declared, The Navajo-Churro is the oldest North American farm animal breed. Almost extinct in the 1970s the breed has returned through the multi-cultural efforts of Native, Hispanic and Anglo shepherds around the US. They continue to remind us of traditional Native American and Hispanic shepherding, weaving and culinary traditions in the semi-arid Southwest, of a place-based heritage that has endured.”
For roughly four centuries, these sheep have been known as ganado menor churro by Hispanic herders in New Mexico and Arizona. Among the Diné or Navajo, they are called Tҡá Dibé the true/original/the Number One sheep or Dibe Ditsozi sheep with long hair.
For an animal that is considered in Dine tradition to be sacred, the Navajo-Churro sheep is also one regarded to be of great utilitarian value. It produces two distinct kinds of fiber, pelts, low-fat meat, milk, horns, and skulls. If carefully managed, it can also be used in brush control and fire risk reduction, and its manure can contribute to soil fertility renewal in fields, orchards and gardens. As Charles Towner and Edward Wentworth (1945) pointed out, these diverse products were what created a shepherds empire in the Southwest: From the Rio Grande to the Golden Gate, not a mission was started whose domestic economy was not founded upon the flock Of all of mans domestic animals, only sheep could provide the community with both food and clothing The back and belly of a living woolie could contribute to the weavers loom year after year the stuff wherewith to clothe soldier, citizen, savage [sic] and saint.
A seventy-two year old Diné elder from Smoke Signal, Arizona once said famously, Sheep is life. Who can live if their life is taken away? Indeed, as horrific as it seems, nearly all Navajo-Churro sheep were taken away from the Diné twice within the last century and a half. The first sheep holocaust was triggered by events in 1846 when US General Stephen Watts Kearny declared the Diné to be enemies of the United States. By the time the Navajo War ended with a treaty in 1868, and the Diné were allowed to return home, the US military had devastated Navajo-land, killing nearly all the Churro sheep and cutting down nearly all the Navajo peach trees they could find.
The second ovine holocaust began in 1933 during the Dust Bowl. The US federal government declared the Navajo grazing of Churros to be an ecological disaster and called for a forced reduction of all forms of livestock on the Navajo Reservation. Sheep numbers, which had been rebuilt, were reduced from 1.1 million to .06 million.
Background information on the Navajo-Churro is taken from The Return of Navajo-Churro Sheep to Loom & Table by Gary Paul Nabhan. To order copies call 718-260-8000.
Despite the tremendous obstacles to its survival, the Navajo-Churro has been championed (and revitalized) by many individuals and organizations over the last three decades, including Dr. Lyle McNeal of Utah State University, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, Diné Beina, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, and Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. Slow Food now joins a handful of these organizations and an esteemed group of shepherds to develop and support the marketing of Churro meat.
The Presidiums initial work with the breed takes place on the Navajo Nation. The Presidium organizes a directory of producers of registered Navajo-Churro sheep who have access to appropriate processing facilities and are willing to direct-market their surplus lambs to individuals, restaurants, markets, and CSAs in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. The Presidium will also produce a guide to a fair trade business plan based on 200 head per year being produced by a geographically cohesive cluster of shepherds. Lastly, the Presidium will develop promotional events, dinners, taste workshops, and agri-tourism visits, designed to give producers and chefs feedback on the qualities and limitations of Churros being produced as a multi-purpose animal.
Production Area: Navajo Nation lands in the far western part of the reservation and the Four Corners area of Arizona and New Mexico