Churro sheep were first introduced to the Navajo people by the Spanish and the Dine quickly discovered the sheep made a big difference in their diets. The Dine developed the Navajo-Churro, sheep that could adapt to harsh desert conditions found where the Navajo sheep grazed. Their wool is very good for spinning and used to make clothing, blankets and carpets (sheepusa.org 2012).
Sheep have played a central role in the Navajo culture since the 1700s and the Navajo herds became huge. With the arrival of Anglos, their Navajo grazing land became threatened and treaties were developed, broken and eventually in 1884, the government decided to relocated (actually imprison) the Navajo people to a small reservation, thinking they could make them into farmers by domesticating them into good Christians; their livestock (sheep, horses, goats) were shot . Four years later the government realized this experiment wasn’t working and freed the Navajos (4000 of them died while imprisoned), promising them livestock, seeds, farming tools and food. As usual, the government failed in producing any of the promised goods except livestock – they gave them 15,000 sheep and 500 head of cattle. In twelve years the Navajo‘s original 15,000 sheep at grown to 700,000 and their grazing lands were expanded to meet the demands of their sheep herds. By 1891, their livestock had grown dramatically to include 1.5 million sheep – Navajo wealth was/is counted in sheep.
After years of starvation at the hands of the government, the Navajos not only view sheep as their family but as a guarantee that their people would never starve again. In the 1930s the government was very concerned about the 1.1 million head of Navajo sheep grazing and they felt, destroying the topsoil. The Navajo disagreed saying the drought was destroying the grasslands, not their sheep. The US Soil Conservation Service (SCS) demanded that the sheep herds must be reduced in order to not only preserve the grazing land but to improve the quality of wool – “improve the herd by weeding out the old sheep – the gunner s and shells which pull up the grass by the roots” (Hall 1994). The plan was the Federal government would purchase all of the old sheep, they would be slaughtered and would help feed hungry people suffering from the Great Depression; they also promised”…more land, soil conservation programs, water development programs, more schools and job…”(Sheridan and Parezo 1996:26). As expect, the government failed to produce what they promised and sheep and goats were taken and killed. The SCS people really didn’t know what they were doing and were told over and over again “Be sure you don’t by lambs – buy shells and gunners but not lambs. No one told the SCS that the Navajos would much rather sell a young sheep;, which had yet to become a member of the family, than a beloved old aunty whose sides were caving in, nor would they have believe it if the Navajo had said as much” (Hall 1994). The year after the sheep reduction program, a geneticist employed by the Department of Agriculture came up with a new idea to increase revenue on the reservation. He wanted to develop a breed of sheep that would survive the poor grazing land and produce a high quality wool fiber. This herd was started but WWII prevented it from taking off.
While sheep provided income and food for the Navajo, they represented much more. Sheep are family to the Dine and this relationship is developed early on with children bonding with individual sheep and the herd at an early age. Just as children are valued in the Dine community, so are sheep and a family’ status in the community was /is defined by the size and well-being of their herd and everyone in the family is involved in taking care of the sheep. The Navajo do not see sheep as a product to be sold, but instead, recognize their individual sheep as a part of the family similar to a pet and the sheep recognize them as their owners. They don’t value money – they value their sheep (Hall 1994).
The Dine value being productive and not lazy, being dependable and helpful and cooperating with everyone in the community and taking care of sheep and other livestock is the physical act in which these values are played out each day teaching these values to the younger generation. Anglos, let alone the Federal Government did not recognize this and thinking toward what might be in the future, was not the Dine’s concern – they thought in present tense.
American Sheep Industry Association
2012 Minor Breeds: Navajo-Churro. Electronic Document.
http://www.sheepusa.org/get_page/pageID/77. Accessed 11 May 2012.
Hall, Edward T.
1994 West of the Thirties. Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi. New York:
Sheridan, Thomas and Nancy Parezo
1996 Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico. The
Dine (Navajos) Sheep is life. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. Print.