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AN ANCIENT BREED

The Churro sheep are descendants of the Spanish Churra, an ancient Iberian breed. Although secondary to the Merino, the Churra (later corrupted to "Churro" by American frontiersmen) was prized by the Spanish for its vigor, adaptability and fertility.

Churro sheep were first brought to the New World from southern Spain in 1540 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. The first flocks here were used by the Spanish Conquistador as "meat on the hoof," to feed and clothe their soldiers.

During the 17th century, they were bred and raised by Spanish ranchers along the upper Rio Grande Valley. Native Indians acquired flocks of Churro for food and fiber through raids and trading. Within a century, herding and weaving had become a major economic asset for the Navajo.

The fleece of the Churro has always been admired for its luster, silky feel, variety of colors and durability. Through history, Navajo weavers have fashioned saddle blankets, blankets, rugs, horse cinches and purses from the wool.

DODGING EXTINCTION

Even though the Navajo-Churro breed still exists, it is considered a rare breed. Perhaps no other sheep population in the history of the world has survived such selective pressure with such dignity and spirit. Many consider them a living symbol of the resiliency of the Navajo people.

The Churro were brought to the edge of extinction in the last century. By 1977, experts estimated there were only about 200 to 400 animals left in North America.

The first blow for the breed came during the 1860s when Navajo villages were burned and livestock and people killed by U.S. soldiers, in an effort to drive them out of their homeland.

Under a federal mandate, during the "Long Walk" of 1864, about 8,000 Navajo were forced to march from their traditional lands to forced confinement at Fort Sumner, N.M. Before the march, some Navajo were able to release Churro into the hidden canyons near their homes.

TAKING MORE HITS

The Churro took another hit in the 1930s. During a drought, the federal government decided the Navajo were overgrazing their lands. Under stock reduction goals, more than 250,000 Navajo sheep, goats and horses were killed by federal agents.

To make matters worse, the government, believing other breeds were superior to the Navajo-Churro, introduced several different breeds, including the Rambouilett, which produced a fatter meat. The new breeds required more food and water.

These innovations produced sheep that required more food and water, had kinkier and greasier wool and fatter meat, which did help the Navajo diet and propensity to diabetes.

MAKING A COMEBACK

Since the early 1980s, the Churro have been making a comeback, largely through the efforts of the Navajo Sheep Project at the Utah State University and the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association in Ojo Caliente, N.M.

Today, there are about 2,000 registered Churro sheep, and another 2,000 unregistered sheep in the country.

Fortunately for breeders, a well-established network of registered stock is available, scattered throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The Navajo-Churro Sheep Association's annual meeting will be in Flagstaff from July 27 through July 30, at the Museum of Northern Arizona. There will be lectures, classes and sheep and wool shows. The meeting is timed to coincide with the 57th annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture at MNA.

For more information about Churro sheep, visit the association's Web site: www.navajo-churrosheep.com.

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