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The Churro Sheep of the southwest deserts has been an integral part of the people of the desert for 550 years. The Spanish, Pueblo, Tarahumara as well as the Navajos raised Churros, but it is the story of the Navajo and their special relationship to them that is most interesting.
"Navajos believe the sheep have always been with them as it is portrayed in their creation myths. The physical form of the sheep arrived in the American Southwest with the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500s. The Navajo took to them immediately, gathering thousands in their flocks over the centuries, using their wool for warmth, mutton and milk for food. The Churro thrived in the harsh extremes where other domestic sheep would die of cold, wind, heat and starvation. Their fleece, an earthy combination of a coarse, durable, near greaseless outer layer and a lustrous inner layer soft to the touch gave the Navajos wool that was stronger and had more luster than any of the other domestic breeds of sheep."
Again they developed their flocks but by the 1930's, drought, dust storms and mass erosion hit the country and parts of the Navajo land with intense ferocity.
This was the dust bowl.
In an effort to curtail overgrazing and protect the newly constructed Hoover dam, the federal governmnet undertook a livestock reduction program starting in 1934 that reduced the Churro herds by 80 percent.
When the Navajo lost their sheep, they lost their way of life.
The devastating economic disaster of losing their sheep forced the Navajo into a bare subsistence economy. By the 1950's, Navajo children were ordered by the government to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking Navajo and taught to assimilate. Since schools were often far from home, the children missed ceremonies vital to Navajo culture. They no longer herded sheep with their grandparents, where they heard stories of their people and lived their culture. Meanwhile in the 1970's, there were less than 450 Churros remaining. The sheep were on the verge of extinction and so was the Navajo tradition with the sheep.
In 1972, a professor of Animal Science at Utah State University just happened upon some strange looking wooly creatures on a ranch in Salinas valley. The sheep were being hunted by big game hunters for their unique four horn racks. He immediately realized that these were the "Old Type" sheep that use to be on the Navajo reservation. He immediately recognized their cultural value and started scouring the reservation and found the occasional descendent of the Churro that Navajo families had hidden away in remote canyons during the "Long Walk." In these sheep were the power to heal an ailing race of people thus launching the Navajo Sheep Project.
Today the Original Churro is a keystone livestock species which is a species that has a large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. This makes them significant to restorative rangeland ecology because unique to the Churro, their foraging, movement habits, endurance and small agile size are comparable to native wild species, which over millennium, have adaptions that help protect fragile desert ecosystems. We have started a foundation to protect the last remaining genetics. It's called Rio Milagro Foundation.
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