Navajo Churros

Our little Navajo Churros are descendants of a Spanish sheep, brought to the Americas over 400 years ago. The Spanish Churras, an ancient Iberian breed, were acquired by the Dine’ (the Navajo people) who nurtured and expanded their flocks:

As European settlers came west and the demand arose for fine wool in the American textile industry, the churros were “graded up” by crossing with Merino and English longwools. However, some churros remained in the remote Hispanic villages, among the isolated Navajos and on the West Coast. These isolated flocks eventually formed the landrace sheep, the Navajo-Churro, named to recognize Spanish and Navajo influence.

Because the Navajos resisted the settlers who were encroaching on Dine’ homelands, the U.S. government ordered military actions led by Kit Carson and John Carlton with instructions to destroy Navajo orchards and flocks. There was much bloodshed and in 1865 approximately 9,000 Navajos were forced on the Long Walk of 300 miles to an interment camp at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Terrible conditions here caused the death of many people and their livestock. Some Navajos escaped capture and hid with their sheep in remote canyons of New Mexico and Arizona. After three years, the Navajo were returned to their homeland and were issued two “native” sheep per person from Hispanic flocks.

The Navajo were such good weavers and shepherds that their mixed flocks grew to 574,821 sheep by 1930. The large number of sheep, goats, horses and cattle was problematic for the severe drought conditions of the 1930’s, so the U.S. government conducted a stock reduction. Some stock was purchased for $1-1.50 but the reduction progressed so slowly that roughly 30% of each household’s sheep, goats and horses were slaughtered by government agents and thrown into arroyos or burned. This terrifying Stock Reduction is still vivid in Navajo memory.[ii]

Navajo Churros are still an important part of the Navajo culture, and an annual celebration of Churros, “Dine’ Be’ iina’” (Sheep is Life), is held by the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico.[iii]

Navajo-Churros have been awarded the Slow Food Ark of Taste designation in recognition of their valuable traits: lean sweet meat, abundant milk and abundant dual fiber fleece. Slow Food has joined Dr. Lyle McNeal of Utah State University, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, Diné Be’ina, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, and Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University to develop and promote the marketing of Churro meat through the Slow Food Navajo Churro Presidium project.[iv]

[i] How sheep were formed, from the Blessingway as told by River Junction Curly, in Blessingway, Leland C. Wyman, editor, http://www.migrations.com/blackmesa/woolforsale.html
[ii] http://www.navajo-churrosheep.com/index.html
[iii] http://www.navajolifeway.org/

[iv] http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php

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