In order to know what type of sheep the Navajo first acquired, we must go to Spain. The sheep brought by the Spanish to the New World were almost certainly churros, not merinos, although the churros probably had a great deal of merino blood. The churros were perfectly suited to sparse, lowland country and the climate of the southwest, which was similar to that of Spain. Their rather fine, long stapled wool was also well suited to the Navajo hand spindle.
Navajo-Churro sheep are descended from the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed. Although secondary to the Merino, the Churra, later corrupted to ‘Churro’ by American frontiersmen, was prized by the Spanish for its remarkable hardiness, adaptability and fruitfulness. The Churra was the very first breed of domesticated sheep in the New World. Its importation to New Spain by the Spanish dates back to the 16th century where it was used to feed and clothe the armies of the conquistadors and Spanish settlers.
By the 17th century the Churro had become the mainstay of Spanish ranches and villages along the upper Rio Grande Valley. Native Indians acquired flocks of Churro for food and fiber through raids and trading. Within a century, herding and weaving had become a major economic asset for the Navajo. It was from Churro wool that the early Rio Grande, Pueblo, and Navajo textiles were woven, a fleece admired by collectors for its luster, silky hand, variety of natural color and durability.
As early as 1789, the Spanish controlled the export of ewes from the provinces of New Mexico to maintain breeding stock. But in the 1850’s thousands of Churro were trailed west to supply the California Gold Rush. Most of the remaining Churro of the Hispanic ranches were crossed with fine wool rams to supply the demand of garment wool caused by the increased population and the Civil War. Concurrently, in 1863, the U.S. Army decimated the Navajo flocks in retribution for continued Indian depredations. In the 1900’s further improvements and stock reductions were imposed by U.S. agencies upon the Navajo flocks. True Churro survivors were to be found only in isolated villages in Northern New Mexico and in remote canyons of the Navajo Indian Reservation.
In the 1970’s several individuals began acquiring Churro phenotypes with the purpose of preserving the breed and revitalizing Navajo and Hispanic flocks. Criteria for the breed had been established from data collected for three decades, 1936 – 1966, by the Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. Several flocks have developed, and the Navajo Sheep Project has introduced cooperative breeding programs in some Navajo and Hispanic flocks.
Navajo-Churro sheep, with their long staple of protective top coat and soft undercoat, are well suited to extremes of climate. Some rams have four fully developed horns, a trait shared by few other breeds of the world. The Navajo-Churro is highly resistant to disease, and although it responds to individual attention, it needs no pampering to survive and prosper. The ewes lamb easily and are fiercely protective. Twins and triplets are not uncommon. The flavor of the meat is uncomparably superior, with a surprisingly low fat content.
In the late 1970’s renewed interest in this old-type sheep occurred under the leadership of Dr. Lyle McNeal, then a professor at California Polytechnic State University. At that time there were probably fewer than 500 fairly pure old-type sheep left, scattered in remote areas of the Navajo reservation. With six ewes and 2 four-horned rams, McNeal started his breeding program. Wool from his herds are sold to Navajo weavers, and educational programs were provided on sheepraising, breeding and weaving techniques. McNeal has stated that the purpose of the reintroduction program was to “study and preserve this unique animal and protect it from further losses”. By 2002, the Navajo Sheep Project maintained a breeding flock of 300 ewes and rams in Wyoming. The project has placed many breeding stock with Navajo families, and began deploying this prime breeding stock to Navajo pastoralists for flock improvement and sustainable economic development.
The Navajo tribe became involved in the marketing of processed wool during the 1970’s. This project, known as the Navajo Wool Marketing Industry, continues to operate successfully, processing native wool, and marketing both Navajo handspun wool and commercial yarn. This commercial yarn is processed from high quality, long staple wool. In the late 1970’s, the single-ply processed wool yarn became available in a new range of more delicate chemical dyes producing more subtle colors, remarkable similar in hue and intensity to the vegetal dyes. The number of available shades has rapidly multiplied.
Many weavers still card and spin the native wool by hand, and some of the accomplished weavers use the commercial yarn but respin it.