A Prairie Companion
What started as a trip down an internet wormholefor All Roads Studio’s Janelle Pietrzak ended with a deep reverence for a people’s ongoing devotion to a certain breed of sheep.
BY JANELLE PIETRZAK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MINESH BACRANIA AND NIKYLE BEGAY
Like many things these days, I learned about Navajo-Churro sheep through social media: I befriended a woman named Jessica Carhart, who has a small flock of her own at her Seven Bridges Road Ranch in Bend, Oregon. She told me about the breed and their history, which she had initially learned about through a Fibershed event in California. Jessica raises Churro sheep as part of a conservation effort around the breed, so she educated me on the history of the breed and their essential role in Navajo culture.
Churro sheep were brought here by Spanish settlers and were the first domesticated sheep on this continent. Through trading and raiding, the Diné (Navajo people) began to keep the sheep and over many years, they developed a new phenotype, the breed now known as Navajo-Churro. With a beautiful luster, a wide variety of natural colors (reds, browns, blacks, creams), and great durability, the fiber is perfect for Navajo staples like rugs and saddle blankets. The animals themselves are very low maintenance, resistant to disease, adaptable to extreme climates and their meat is considered to be superior tasting, although the breed is primarily used for wool. The sheep occupy a place of major cultural significance for the Diné people; the phrase “Sheep is Life” serves as a defining motto.
“Navajo believe that long ago, we had an animal that was like a primitive sheep and along the way, the gods felt that we didn't deserve them anymore, so they took them away,” Navajo shepherd and weaver Nikyle Begay explained to me over the phone from her ranch, Where The Sun Rises, on the reservation in Arizona. Nikyle’s grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great grandmother were all weavers; she started learning at three and had several churros at age five. Today she raises about twenty-five, although she tells me Navajo consider it greedy to count their sheep. “We prayed and sang songs that one day they’d be reunited with us. So, when the Spanish brought in the sheep, the Navajo were the first to take it up of all the other tribes. When the sheep returned, the prayers and songs they used to sing turned into honorary songs. Now if you sit in what we call beauty way or Hozhojí ceremonies, you'll hear songs telling the story of the creation of sheep and then losing the sheep and then the return of the sheep. We love, value, respect and honor our sheep. They have put a deep, deep root into our culture.”
In 1865, the Diné were forced on a 300-mile, 18-day journey on foot, known as The Long Walk. Many Diné died and a considerable amount of livestock, including Churro, were killed. After several years, the Navajo were allowed back to their land, and then they were able to increase their sheep numbers. Then, in the 1930s, the Navajo-Churro faced another unfortunate reduction. Due to the drought, the U.S. government imposed the slaughter of sheep, goats and horses in all households, threatening the breed with extinction.
Efforts to revive the breed started in the 1970s and in 1986 the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association was formed. “It's been absolutely fascinating just to watch people’s love for churro grow,” remarked Teresa Loveless of Weaving Southwest. I spoke to her over the phone from her home in Arroyo Seco in New Mexico. Teresa’s grandmother Rachel Brown was a fiber artist, founder of Weaving Southwest and the author of an essential fiber read, The Weaving, Dyeing and Spinning Book. Together with Connie Taylor, a founding member of the Navajo-Churro Foundation, Rachel developed a softer churro yarn with a cozier hand than usual. Teresa now operates Weaving Southwest and in 2016, she began the Churro Club, a monthly churro yarn subscription collected from local sheep and hand-dyed by Teresa and her husband, Joe. Growing out of the success of the club, Weaving Southwest formed a Facebook group called Weaving Southwest’s Mutual Admiration Society, where weavers share their work. “It’s created this community all across the board, from beginners to professional weavers,” says Teresa. “I’m so inspired by that group, they’re incredible. A huge part of it is people actually feeling like they're making a difference in the community it's not just the sheep, it's the ranchers, it’s the spinning mills.”
It’s a fragile balance to navigate, but Navajo-Churro fiber does seem to be gaining a wider audience. And despite farmer’s different reasons for raising them, Nikyle says, “I like to call them a truly all-American breed.”I spoke to Kelli Dunaj of Spring Coyote Ranch on the central coast of California. She and her husband both formerly worked in corporate settings in the San Francisco and about four years ago, they bought a 200-acre coastal ranch in Point Reyes. Kelli chose to raise Churro sheep for a number of reasons, but the uniqueness of the breed is what sticks. “I'm crazy about them,” she told me, “They’re so beautiful, they're so smart and they're so wise.” No matter who I ended up speaking to for this story—whether new to the breed, or to farming, or descending from a long line of Navajo-Churro husbandry—everyone seems compelled by a common passion for their preservation and a feeling of stewardship for the animal.
For more information on Navajo-Churro, visit navajo-churrosheep.com.