Native Village
Youth and Education news
October 2010 Volume 1

Sacred Sheep Revive Navajo Tradition, For Now

Condensed by Native Village

The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia and about 175,000 people live there. For as long as anyone can remember, Churro sheep have been central to their life and spirituality

"Sometimes ... I just want to sit in the corral with them," said Roy Kady, a Navajo weaver.  "Just find a corner and I sit there. They motivate me, even just to see them; it's that strong to me.

He calls his flock "din'e bi iina:" the Navajo lifeway.

"Din'e" is the preferred name for the Navajo, and "bi iina" means "lifeway."

For centuries, the Churro enabled the Navajo to survive in the stark desert. Churro gave them meat as food, wool to weave into clothes and blankets, and sinew for thread.

"Sheep is a very important part of this whole cosmology to us," Kady explains. "You know, there are songs to where it refers to 'the first thing I see is the white sheep to the East when I wake up to make my offering. It stands at my doorway.  [Sheep are] very sacred to us. Sheep is your backbone. It's your survival. It's your lifeline."

Churro sheep are smaller than most breeds. Their fleece is long, wavy, and shiny. They arrived in the Southwest with Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s and became the first domesticated sheep in the New World.

For over 300 years, churro sheep and the Navajo wove their lives together in balance and harmony.  However, by the 1860s, the U.S. government wanted the  Navajos' land.  Kit Carson and his troops were ordered to relocate the tribe and destroy their livestock.

"The eradication of this particular sheep breed — because we are connected to it with songs and prayers and ceremonies — when it was taken from us, that part of our life was also destroyed," Kady says.

Eventually the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral lands and rebuild their herds. That is, until government agents returned in 1934 with orders to eliminate the Churro.

"The U.S. government thought that they had too many sheep — and the wrong sheep," says Lyle McNeal from Utah State University. The government said the Churro  'were causing premature siltation on a new dam being built on the Colorado called Hoover,'" McNeal says. "They felt that the runoff and the overgrazing would make that dam worthless in a few years."

Killing off the Churro nearly ruined the Navajo economy. The government realized the tribe needed sheep to survive, so they gave them standard breeds more uniform to market demand.

Until 1972, most thought the all Churro had been killed. But in 1972, when McNeal stopped at a Salinas Valley ranch,  he noticed some strange-looking woolly creatures.

"At that stop is where I really first saw a living Churro. I'd read about them before then, but I had never seen one up close," he says. The discovery spurred his 30-year mission to bring the Churro back from the brink of extinction.

McNeal and his supporters scoured hidden canyons for surviving Churro and  found enough to begin a breeding program. This began the Navajo Sheep Project, which is dedicated to bringing back the Churro.

"When I had sheep in the truck and we were making deliveries down there and I'd stop to get some gas, some of the elders would be attracted to the truck," McNeal says. "They would say, 'These are the real sheep. Where did you get them?'

"That's when I started getting the signal that these are more than just a sheep, so it added a dimension to the Navajo Sheep Project effort that I hadn't expected."

Churro weaver Tahnibah Natani is married to Anderson Hoske, a medicine man. Both share their gratitude to the Churro in the traditional ways. 

Hoske first drops local plants into the fire to create a thick aromatic smoke  "The smoke is like a flu shot to them," he says. "It's all about chasing away the sickness spirits, different sicknesses."

Hoske chants, and then sings an ancient prayer. Natani fills a sacred pipe and blows smoke into the face of each sheep. Both give traditional thanks each time they take an animal for food.

The family shears their own sheep, clean the wools, and spins it into yarn for the loom where it is woven into a work of art for both heaven and earth.

"So when you are weaving, actually you're doing a prayer because the warp is considered a representation of rain," Natani says. "The tension cord is lightening. The top of the beam of the loom, the very top, represents the sky, Father Sky. And the bottom bar represents Mother Earth. Everything on the loom has a special song for it."

"So it becomes a prayer."

Natani and Hoske are among a large group of herders, weavers and others keeping their ancestors' traditions alive in a modern world. All are dedicated to the Churro. While the breed is only a small minority of the sheep on the Navajo reservation — there are just over 4,000 of them — they are no longer considered endangered.

But while the Churro thrive, the traditions disappear. Like most Americans, Navajo live in a paycheck economy, and the new generation is mesmerized by technology.

"I think we are at the point where, yeah, it could die out — tomorrow," Roy Cady said. "But coming from my heart is that ‘Wait a minute, hold on — you know, this is good and has to be continued.'

"You oftentimes hear the phrase, 'Oh, the youth are tomorrow, they are our future,' that sort of thing. But I always say, 'No. They're now. It has to happen now.'

"We as teachers need to stop and say, 'Let's get with it and teach them before it's forgotten.'"

Navajo Sheep Project
Bringing back the Churro Sheep and Navajo Traditions

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