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Putting Navajo Sheep Back on Map

Charles Hillinger's America

September 02, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

KINLICHEE, Ariz. — You can't separate the Navajo from the sheep. Navajo are the sheep. The sheep are the Navajo.

--Old Navajo Indian saying

The Utah State University sheep expert was on one of his four-times-a-year, two-week-long visits to remote areas of the vast Navajo Reservation tending to the health and well-being of America's oldest and rarest breed of sheep--the Navajo churro.

Prof. Lyle McNeal, 48, was at Mae Jim Curtis' place in Kinlichee, a tiny settlement of a few scattered, modest homes and sheep corrals among the pinion, juniper and sagebrush.

But Curtis, the renowned Navajo rug weaver who once had her picture taken with the Queen of England, wasn't home. She was in the hospital recovering from an illness.

McNeal wasn't able to call ahead to let Curtis know he was on the way because there are no telephones, electricity or indoor plumbing in most of Navajo country, where 80% of the roads are dirt trails requiring four-wheel-drive vehicles.

So, Curtis' grandson, Brenton Curtis, 9, rounded up the two four-horned Navajo churro rams and a dozen ewes in his grandmother's herd for the professor to examine.

Women, mostly older women, grandmothers like Mae Jim Curtis, own and care for the sheep on the 24,000-square-mile reservation with the help of young boys, like Brenton, and young girls, who lead the animals to forage and water by casting pebbles to the right and left of the leader sheep.

Navajos butcher the animals for meat. They shear the wool to hand-spin and weave rugs and blankets. There are about 20,000 Navajo women weavers on this, America's largest Indian reservation, population 187,000. Income from the sale of the traditional rugs and blankets provides many families with their only earnings.

For the 12 years since he founded the Navajo Sheep Project, McNeal, the project's director, has been trying to preserve and breed back the rare Navajo churro sheep from the brink of extinction.

These sheep are so far ahead of today's pampered popular sheep in terms of adaptability, stamina and ability to survive and provide wool production for the Navajo's unique rug-weaving craft that it would be unthinkable to let the ancient sheep simply vanish, McNeal says.

He has heard stories about the legendary sheep most of his life. The Navajo churro are descendants of 4,000 to 5,000 sheep brought from Spain in 1598 by ships, then herded from the east coast of Mexico hundreds of miles north to present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Juan Onate headed up the party of 129 soldier-colonists and 10 Franciscan priests who herded the sheep.

The Navajo churro sheep thrived on the semiarid lands of the Navajo for nearly 400 years. The sheep have been an integral part of the Navajo culture, tradition and religion since the 17th Century. Then in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, the government introduced new breeds, like the Rambouillet and Lincoln, on the reservation to replace the historic sheep.

By the 1970s, fewer than 400 mostly mixed-blood Navajo churros were left of the more than 200,000 sheep on the reservation. The "old" Navajo churros were owned by Navajos living in the most isolated areas of the reservation.

McNeal made numerous trips to Navajo country to find remnants of the old Navajo churro sheep. In 1977, he launched the Navajo Sheep Project, a purebred breeding program, with two four-horned rams and six ewes at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He was professor of sheep and wool science at the school, the same position he has held since 1979 at Utah State University in Logan.

(While at Cal Poly, McNeal co-developed a new breed of sheep called Polypay. There are now more than 12,000 of the prolific line throughout the United States, and McNeal is recognized as one of the leading sheep authorities in the nation.)

The Navajo Sheep Project now has 350 purebred "old" Navajo churros at the Utah State University farm, animals that eventually will be distributed to Navajo Indians.

Thanks to the Navajo Sheep Project, about 700 purebred Navajo churros are on the reservation. Another 500 are being raised by sheep growers in New Mexico, Colorado and in other parts of the country.

Two years ago, McNeal was awarded one of 10 annual Charles A. Lindbergh grants in a worldwide competition for supporting the famed pilot's philosophy for achieving a balance between nature and technology. Each grant is for $10,800, the original cost of the Spirit of St. Louis airplane.

"The government's idea was to introduce modern sheep and phase out the Navajo churros. It was a bad plan. It has had serious ramifications not only on the Navajo economy, but on the tribe's religion, culture and traditions," McNeal said.

He told how Navajos have always considered four-horned sheep sacred and have bred the churros to achieve the anomaly as often as possible. Only in a few other places in the world--Iceland, China and Africa--are there other rare breeds with this distinction.

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