by Slow Food USA Biodiversity Intern Regina Fitzsimmons
Navajo-Churro sheep have sustained the Dine, Pueblo and Hispanic communities of the Southwest for over 400 years. In the late 1500s, Spanish explorers docked their boats on the Mexican/Texan coast and ventured into the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of the Southwest United States with flocks of sheep, brought from Spain.
Under the watchful, guiding eye of the native Dine and Pueblo people, the sheep adapted well to the semi-arid mesas and pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Colorado Plateau and desert canyons.
These sheep were valuable for their pelts, two distinct types of fiber, meat, milk, horns and wool. But despite their extraordinary value, they suffered two near-extinctions. The first came in 1863 when the Dine people were declared enemies of the United States. United States troops burned their crops and peach trees and slaughtered nearly all of the Churro sheep. A few clans escaped and small sheep populations survived. Several decades later, the Churro population made a comeback only to be pillaged again in the Dirty Thirties when stock-reductions of all grazing animals were ordered by the U.S. government (as a way of lessening ground exposure after grazing) in an effort to prevent more dust from billowing into blackening skies. By the 1970s, there were approximately 400 Churro sheep left, counted by a veterinarian on the reservation. Other sheep existed, but were scattered around the U.S. and not always identified for what they were.
Thanks to a loyal group of shepherds like Jay Begay Jr. from Hardrock, Arizona, restoration activists like Dr. Lyle McNeal professor of animal sciences and veterinary medicine at Utah State University, and the help from a few organizations (Navajo Churro Sheep Association) these sheep have started making a third comeback. Today there are over 5,000 registered sheep nationally and approximately 3,000 unregistered.
In 2006, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity recognized the Navajo-Churro Sheep as a breed of distinct cultural and biological importance and launched a Presidium to help market the meat, thus promoting the economic vitality of Dine shepherding traditions and preserving their rich cultural heritage while simultaneously reviving the breed.
In conjunction with the Presidium—a project of Slow Food Alta Arizona—a film was developed by Peter Blystone and Margaret Chanler over the course of two years. This movie, titled “A Gift from Talking God: the Story of the Navajo-Churro,” is now available for purchase by calling the Slow Food USA office (718-260-8000) and features Roy Kady, Jay Begay, Jr, Dr. Lyle McNeal, and Dr. Gary Nabhan. They explain the importance and traditions of the Navajo-Churro and speak of their stewardship to the sheep.