Navajo-Churro sheep are the result of selective breeding by Native American and Hispanic people using pastoral practices, with varied environmental influences in the semi-arid mesas, valleys, and mountain landscapes of the Colorado Plateau and surrounding region. Many geo-political, cultural, and economic influences have contributed today’s Navajo-Churro sheep, considered the first domesticated sheep breed developed in North America.
Navajo-Churro sheep are descended from the Spanish—and quite possibly Portuguese—Churra sheep, which consisted of several Iberian breeds brought to North America in the 1540’s by Spanish conquerors and colonizers. During this period of Spanish colonization, people indigenous to the Americas were either enslaved or hired to herd livestock and weave textiles. The Spanish exploited the skills of indigenous weavers who had been using cotton, feathers, and other fibers for centuries in the Southwest. Through the work of the exploited labor, Spanish colonists were able develop a robust textile industry.
Many Diné, as the Navajo people call themselves, lived on the edge of Spanish occupations—acquiring Spanish sheep and goats through trading and raids. Following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against Spanish oppression, the Diné expanded their flocks on their vast traditional homeland where the sheep thrived on excellent forage.
Navajo-Churro sheep are commonly known to the Diné as Dibé dits’ozí, meaning “long fleeced sheep.” Traditional Diné refer to Navajo-Churro as T’áá Dibé, “the first sheep,” as Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined. Diné culture reflects the ebb and flow of traditional shepherding and weaving practices. The sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. For centuries their pastoral lifeway with sheep and goats provided economic self-sufficiency through fiber, milk, and meat products they developed and traded with other Indigenous Nations, the Spanish and subsequently American and Mexican traders. Conservation of the Navajo-Churro sheep is essential to the continuance of Navajo pastoral lifeway.
Navajo-Churro fleece is double coated. The inner coat fiber is fine to medium and is protected by a long outer coat that is medium to coarse. Kemp hair, as well as medullated fibers in small amounts is normal, whereas there should be little to no defined crimp. The highly lustrous wool is low in lanolin and may be spun directly from the raw fleece—eliminating resource consuming washing and carding. The sheep exhibit a wide range of natural colors that are highly prized by hand-spinners and weavers alike. The yarn is lustrous, strong and durable, making it excellent for weaving blankets, rugs, horse implements such as saddle blankets and cinches, upholstery items, belts, vests and other outer garments. The wool is easily felted for crafts, hats, and outer garments. The long-stapled pelts are highly valued for use as bedding, decor and padding on horse saddles. The meat is lean with a distinctly light flavor appreciated by chefs. Navajo-Churro Sheep produce milk with a high cream percentage, making it excellent for a range of dairy and soap products.
Navajo-Churro ewes have excellent mothering instincts, lambing with little assistance, producing singles, twins and the occasional set of triplets. They are highly attuned and vigilant animals, with a strong flocking instinct, which allows them to better guard their lambs. Their “clean,” wool-less legs, bellies, and faces, as well as slender bodies with long, fine boned legs allow them to navigate through shrubs, rocky terrain, and woodlands to evade predators. Their smaller size makes them easier to handle and allows for higher stocking numbers. Each sheep has distinct personalities and with proper handling are adaptable to any grazing situation, performing well on both grass pasture and rangeland forage with minimal supplementation.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.