The Real Sheep

Hard Rocks, AZ – HOST INTRO:

This weekend, the return of the Navajo-Churro sheep will be celebrated at a series of events in Flagstaff and Winslow. The breed was brought here by the Spanish in the late 1500s, the first domestic sheep in North America. By the 1930s the Navajo Churro was nearly wiped out. But now, they've made a comeback. In an updated version of a story that ran last summer on KNAU, the Indian Country News Bureau's Daniel Kraker has their remarkable survival story.

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Behind Jay Begay's small house on Black Mesa, dozens of angora goats and churro sheep are crowded into a makeshift corral of pallets, plywood and fencing. There's not another house in sight. Sagebrush, pinon and junipers occupy the landscape for miles in every direction.

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Begay opens the gate and wades into the mass of hooves and horns.

AX1: Every time you come to the sheep corral, you're supposed to have good thoughts, and good feelings, and whatever you're feeling the sheep will know.

He expertly snags a sheep with his shepherd's cane.

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Outside the corral, Begay gently lays the sheep on the earth. He ties the ewe's legs together. And slowly scissors its long, lustrous wool.

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Done, Begay straightens his large frame, his face tucked under a straw hat. He's a bit of an anomaly a young man in his twenties who still herds sheep and who hand weaves the wool into traditional Navajo rugs.

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He's tended sheep here with his mother since he could walk, always including a handful of Navajo-churro.

AX2: The Navajo-Churro sheep was the original sheep of the Navajos, the stories in our culture say that the Navajo churro sheep were placed here by the gods and the holy people for us.

Now they raise exclusively churro. Begay says the breed is perfectly suited to the Navajo, for several reasons.

AX3: First is the wool, it's very easy to spin and work with, it's the best wool and ideal for weavings. They're well adapted for this kind of environment where we don't have as much grass and water. They're a small breed, they don't consume as much feed as the other commercial breeds.

Despite their hardiness, by the early 1970s there were only about 400 left. That's compared to about 240 thousand of the so-called white-face sheep, like rambouillet and merino. Utah State University animal scientist Lyle McNeal says the churros were the chief victim of the government's livestock reduction program in the 1930s. At the time the Bureau of Reclamation blamed the huge sheep population here for eating the vegetation that kept sediment from running into the Colorado River. They worried that would shorten the life of Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. The solution, says McNeal, was to slaughter about 800 thousand sheep.

AX4: To me it's always been an American holocaust because of the spiritual nature of these animals and the sacredness to the people.

McNeal says government agents targeted churros because they were considered inferior.

AX5: It was a sheep that was considered a scrub, unimproved, and was worthless in terms of the eastern textile trade. It's not a machine processed wool, so they wanted to push, and push, and push for the merino and rambouillet type breed, which is not the most suitable breed for hand spinning and weaving in the Navajo way.

McNeal first stumbled upon a handful of Navajo-churros at a California ranch in the early 1970s. But the owners weren't raising the sheep for their wool. Instead hunters paid top dollar to shoot the rare, four horned rams. So McNeal began trekking into remote canyons on the Navajo reservation.

AX6: And it was a journey I'll never forget. Many years, traveling in remote areas and visiting with wonderful families, particularly some of the sahnees, the elders as they call them, in areas where in the 1930s and 1940s the federal government agents weren't able to get to wipe out some of these old remnants.

McNeal speaks fondly of his mission now. But it wasn't an easy journey. His colleagues ridiculed him for not focusing his research on new and improved breeds. He even contracted hantavirus, and the disease killed one of his research partners. McNeal says he would travel often for weeks before spotting a single churro.

AX7: We would take our bedrolls, sometimes we lived on old Navajo trader food, velveta cheese, Vienna sausage and water. But I remember in those trips,l finding bones, piles of bones in some of the canyons where during the reduction they had been asked to bring their flocks, and they were just shot on sight. I can still see those points in the canyons where they shot the sheep and goats. They weren't remunerated either. Some of them never got their one or two dollar a head payback.

Slowly, McNeal pieced together a breeding herd. He founded a nonprofit called the Navajo Sheep Project. In 1982 he began returning rams to Navajo herders.

AX8: If I was stopping to get food or gas or stop at a trading post, other people there would come out and see them. The elders, they would bring their grandchildren, you know, and tears would come. These are the true sheep, these are the real sheep, where have these come from?' And questions, Can we get some?' The interest was just overwhelming.

Over the years other groups dedicated to the breed have cropped up. This summer the Navajo Churro Sheep association is celebrating its 20th anniversary. And Dine Beiina, or Navajo lifeway, is now 15 years old. There are nearly six thousand Navajo churros now in the U.S.

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Back at Jay Begay's, the young weaver says he's proud to be part of the Navajo-churro breed's revival. But he worries the larger sheepherding tradition could disappear.

AX9: I remember 10, 15 years ago, where just about every house had sheep, and now about 20 percent of those people only have sheep, just looking ahead, 15 to 20 years it's going to be a lot less, it will probably be rare to see people raising sheep and herding sheep.

That could change, though, as more and more Navajo shepherds find creative ways to profit from their flocks. Navajo churro meat is now featured on the menus of several southwestern restaurants. And earlier this year Pendleton released a blanket woven exclusively from Navajo churro wool.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker