Navajo-Churro Sheep & their Historical-Contemporary Significance Across the U.S.

Navajo Churro sheep are considered the first U.S. sheep, and have a deep-seated history. With origins dating back to the 16th century when they were first introduced by Spain to the southwestern US, to their cultural interconnection within the Navajo nation, and their near extinction due to governmental environmental concerns, Navajo Churro sheep populations are growing and carrying their historically significant narrative throughout the U.S. The sheep are hardy and resilient based on their acclimation to the southwestern desert environment. They are also dual-purpose meat and wool sheep, which provide opportunities for self-sufficient living. The historical and contemporary narrative of Navajo Churro sheep is critical to understand as Navajo Churro sheep populations are expanding throughout the U.S. and interest in U.S. wool is emerging.

I first learned about Navajo Churro sheep when I was reading Shear Spirit: Ten Fiber Farms, Twenty Patterns, and Miles of Yarn that featured Lazy J Diamond Ranch in Rocky Ridge Arizona. Jay Begay Jr’s farm is in the Black Mesa area of the Navajo Reservation. Navajo-Churro sheep are the foundation of his farm, and he also raises angora goats, horses, cattle, a llama, and many other animals. Sheep are culturally embedded in Navajo culture, and visually presented through patterns on woven textiles using Navajo Churro wool. In Shear Spirit, Jay Begay Jr. also indicates that hand-spinning is a metaphor for nature. As wool roving rotates on a dowel of a spindle, the rod of the spindle represents lightning, and wool symbolizes the soil and earth as it accumulates during the spinning process. Begay explains, “You spin towards yourself because each sheep has value, and you’re bringing the value toward yourself” p. 99. Traditionally, hand-spun naturally colored and dyed churro wool was used for women’s blanket dresses, shoulder blankets, tunic shirts, belts, and rugs.

Currently, Jay Begay Jr. is one of approximately 11 other Navajo-Churro sheep farms that are part of the Diné be’ iiná Sheep is Life Navajo Lifeway. When I talked to him a few years ago, he explained that the amount of churro sheep farms has declined over the past 20 years. He is trying to keep the culture of sheep alive by raising the sheep as part of his family tradition. He creates dresses and saddle blankets by blending his churro wool and mohair. He integrates motifs like hummingbirds and rain clouds. To reach a broader community, he participates in the annual Sheep is Life Celebration at Dine college. Workshops include everything from spinning wool to weaving, and knitting.

Ever since I learned about the Navajo Churro sheep I was eager to find their wool. I luckily saw some samples of Navajo Churro wool  when I went to the annual Fibershed symposium in 2014 where they showcased several varieties of Northern California wool from different sheep breeds. It was great to see the Navajo Churro wool displayed as a viable resource for local textile development. I also found woven textile products made with Northern California churro wool that shows how value is added to these special fibers as part of Fibershed’s initiative to foster a culture of sustainable clothing and textile development.

More recently, I found White Pine Farm, a 5-acre homestead with Navajo Churro sheep in Ithaca New York. The farm is two years old, Ron and Sara received the initial Navajo Churro sheep from another local farm Golden Grove Farm, approximately 14 miles south of Ithaca. On my visit to their farm, the flock of sheep emanated a sense of peaceful community as they herded together and grazed the early summer pastures and forest areas. Ron and Sara explained their efforts to raise the sheep based on their interests in self-sufficient living with food and fiber to reduce their carbon footprint. They also produce 97% of their energy with solar power generated directly in their home.

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Navajo Churro Sheep at White Pine Farm, 2017

Each sheep is individualized with a name such as Cinnamon and Brownie. In talking about their sheep, Ron and Sara also explained the historical origins of the Navajo Churro and their efforts to conserve them since they are still threatened to be endangered.  Finding this farm was a true gem and I was able to sort three of the fleeces for my fiber apprenticeship. I found fiber qualities ranging from Grade 5 through 7, strong fibers that can endure wear for outerwear, or home textiles.

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With Navajo Churro Sheep at White Pine Farm, 2017

Additional References

Kent, K. 1985. Navajo Weaving: Studies in American Indian Art. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

M’Closkey, K. 2002. Swept Under the Rug. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Reichard, G. 1936. Navajo Shepherd and Weaver. New York City: J.J Augustin Publisher.

Spragg-Braude, S. 2009. To Walk in Beauty: A Navajo Family’s Journey Home. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

Strawn, S. 2004a. “Restoring Navajo-Churro Sheep: Community-Based Influences on a Traditional Navajo Fiber Resource and Textile.” Doctor of Philosophy, Iowa State University.

Weisiger, M. 2009. Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo County. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

One Comment Add yours

  1. wspines says:

    Helen,
    Thanks for the wonderful history lesson. What wonderful rugs have been made with this wool. The pictures were wonderful.

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