The History and Near Extinction of the Churro
The History of the Navajo Sheep Project
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What is a Churro???

The Navajo Churro is a breed of sheep that lacks the meaty conformation of most of the "improved" breeds such as the Suffolk. Picture of a Navajo ChurroThey are long legged, upstanding, narrow bodied and fine boned. The sheep exibit a variety of color patterns and although most are solid white, some have brown and black spots on the ears and face and around the eyes. Colored feet and legs are also common. There are solid color variations of black, brown or gray. Both polled and horned rams are common and an occasional ram has 4 horns. It is also not uncommon to have a ewe with horns. The rams average about 160 pounds and mature ewes about 80 to 100 pounds in weight.

Picture of  two  Navajo Churros Navajo Churro sheep have some outstanding traits that need to be preserved. These include a strong maternal instinct, abundant milk production, hardiness, lamb survival, parasite and contagious foot root resistance and the ability to survive on marginal feed resources. Those lambs that aren't desirable as breeding stock produce exceptionally lowfat meat and their wooly hides are tanned to provide long lavish pelts.

The History and Near Extinction of the Churro

The Sacred Sheep~ Mother Earth, Father Sky and the Dine' (Navajo People)

In 1538 Hernando Cortez, brought the first Spanish Merino sheep, as well as the Churro sheep to his hacienda at Cuernavaca, near Mexico City. He later distributed them among the missions in Mexico.
In 1540 Coronado in his search for the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola he brought the first Churro Sheep to North America from Spain.These were the first sheep to come to the New World by way of the Spanish conquerors. When he gave up his search for gold in 1542 he left some of the sheep at Pecos Pueblo in Northern New Mexico with a priest named Fray Luis de Escalera, who stayed behind to teach the Holy Faith to the Indians. No other accounts were given on these sheep and it was assumed they all perished with the zealous Escalera.

Half a century later, in 1598, Juan de Onate a.k.a San Juan Bastista de Onate, a colonizer from Mexico originally from the Pyrennes Mountains in Spain, brought with him large flocks of Churros and Merinos to the Rio Grande Valley. Today's Navajo Churro in the remote areas of the Southwest are descendents of this ancient genotype. The Churro thrived in the Southwest of the United States on the virgin ranges of what are now the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah pushing all other classes of livestock far into the background.

Before long, nomadic Navajos acquired these unique sheep from the Spanish settlers. It is possible they obtained their first flocks from the Spanish settlers in Sonora or Chihuahua, Mexico. However, the Navajos do claim that they already had sheep in the sixteenth century. The sheep provided meat, milk, and wool fiber used for the famous classic Navajo blankets and rugs.

 Navajo woman shearing some Churros The effects of the initial introduction of the sheep on the people in the Southwest could be called 'revolutionary'. Hispanic settlers relied on the Churros for food and fiber and developed the renown Rio Grande weaving style. The impact of the more nomadic people, such as the Navajos, continued to build up slowly for nearly 150 years after the first Spanish entradas. Steadily the size and number of Navajo flocks of sheep increased. By the 1800's herding had assumed a place in Navajo lives at least equal importance with farming. Resulting in the 'churra' being the dominant genotype in Navajo flocks.

The beginning of the Near Extinction...

In 1863 Colonel Kit Carson, under General James H. Carleton along with 700 troops, marched into the heart of Navajo country. Carson began a systematic campaign of destroying all Navajo means of livelihood. They tore up cornfields, burned peach orchards,killed horses,and sadly slaughtered thousands of sheep leaving them to rot with most being Churros. Canon del Muerto consisting of 8,000+ Navajos were the last to resist Carson's campaign. Eventually they were starved into surrendering and sent into captivity at Fort Sumner, NMT or Bosque Redondo. The Navajo way of life was altered from pastoral herders to sedentary prisoners.
For the next four years, the Navajos were thrown together into a single and undesirably treated group. They were expected to farm and follow the ways established by the goverment. The sedentary agriculture-based lifestyle was a failure. 1868 a treaty was signed, and a reservation was established within a portion of Navajo Country (Dine'tah). Many remember those 4 hard years as the "Long Walk" an event with as much significance to the Navajos as the American Civil War.

In 1868 after their imprisonment at Fort Sumner, NMT (Bosque Redondo) they were issued sheep at Fort Defiance, AZT on their return to the reservation. Over 15,000 head was distributed with most of the sheep being Churros.They were encouraged by Bureau Agents to increase their flocks and Federal Government Agents in 1882 deployed "improved" Merino sheep breeding stock to the Navajos to develop the lamb and wool markets in the Eastern U.S. This policy forced on to the Navajos continued in effect through the 1950's.

Picture of a herd of Churros near a cliff As trading increased through the 1920's so did the Navajo population and it became apparent to agents of the Indian Bureau and others that Navajo livestock was, like that of the Anglo stockman in NW New Mexico, increasing at a rate which the range could not stand. According to Federal Agents there was a steady decline in the amount of forage, as the number of sheep, goats, and horses increased. By 1930's the Indian Bureau and another government bureau, The Soil Conservation Service, instituted a program for soil and range conservation on the Navajo Reservation.This was put into effect with federal money and with no participation by the Navajos in the planning. It involved a heavy reduction in the existing herds and flocks,which few understood the meaning.

The animal holocaust...

Picture of a remains still found today of Churros exterminated during the stock reduction eraTragically the Navajo-Churro nearly became extinct during the past century through federal management policies during the 'Stock Reduction' era which was covered up for decades and unknown only to those who lived though it. Whole flocks where called to various locations and exterminated by gun fire. The government promised payments for livestock losses, however they have never been fully compensated to this day. The Churro was targeted for extermination as they were considered a "scrub" and "unimproved" sheep and needed to be terminated by the agents. No thought was given to the value of their wool for cultural weaving or their proven adaptability to the harsh environment. Slighty over 1 million sheep and goats were killed during this era. You can still find remains of all those livestock exterminated. By 1972 there were less then 450 head of Navajo Churros left compared to the thousands that roamed before.

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