Ark of Taste
Brought into New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley by the Spanish explorers in the 16th Century, the Navajo-Churro sheep breed is North America’s earliest domesticated farm animal. They are descendants of the ancient Iberian breed, the Churra.
Once numbering in the millions, the breed was nearly brought to extinction twice. First, in the 1860’s when the Navajo were declared enemies of the US government and Kit Carson was sent in 1863 to round up the Dine people, destroy their livestock, and burn their orchards and crops. The Dine were forced on “The Long Walk”, some 400 miles to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. When they were allowed to return to their homeland in 1868 there were few Churros left to rebuild the flocks. United States government livestock agents re-supplied the Navajo with other breeds such as Cotswold, Rambouillet, Suffolk, Lincoln and others, which supplied plenty of meat, but shorter staple, greasy fleece that was hard to clean and difficult to hand-weave. In the 1930’s a government-mandated livestock reduction program aimed at offsetting the effects of drought and over-grazing forced a massive reduction of all livestock, and especially the slaughter of Churros. By the 1970s, only 450 Navajo-Churro sheep were left in the United States.
The Navajo-Churro sheep boasts many valuable traits. The meat is lean with a distinctive, sweet flavor. In addition to quality meat production, these sheep provide abundant milk and have a highly desirable dual fiber fleece. The sheep is hardy, living lightly on the land and requiring less water and forage than other sheep. The sheep is long legged with a narrow body and fine bones. The coat is prized by weavers for its variant array of natural colors.
Despite the tremendous obstacles to its survival, the Navajo-Churro has been championed (and revitalized) by many individuals and organizations over the last three decades, including Dr. Lyle McNeal of Utah State University, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, Diné Be’ina (Navajo Lifeways), Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, and Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. Slow Food has joined a handful of these organizations and an esteemed group of shepherds to develop and support the marketing of Churro meat through the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium.