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Navajo-Churro Sheep - Slow Food Presidia

Navajo-Churro Sheep

United States

The churra sheep breed, a variety noted for its hardiness and multi-colored fleece, was brought by the Spaniards to Mexico in 1540. 50 years later, it had already spread overland to New Mexico. Over four hundred years, this multi-purpose breed, now called the Navajo-Churro sheep, adapted well to the arid plateaus and canyons of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, living in a desert-like area dotted with sagebrush and a few areas of pine and juniper woodland.
Grazing on the native forage of the Colorado Plateau, the sheep provided lean, healthy “sage-fed” lamb and mutton to Diné (Navajo), Hispanic and Pueblo Indian people. Its carpet-quality wool, perfect for hand spinning and weaving, has been used to produce world-renowned rugs, saddle blankets, coats and vests. The sheep was central not only to their sustenance but to spirituality and religious ceremonies as well.
However the breed has risked extinction two times. The first instance occurred in 1863 when the Navajo were declared enemies of the United States. Kit Carson was sent to subdue them. Before their forced march known as “The Long Walk” his troops burned crops, fruit trees and slaughtered countless sheep. Later, in the 1890’s and again in the 1930s, government stock reduction programs nearly eradicated the breed. Although livestock officials recognized the value of the Churro as the most suitable for the arid conditions of the southwest, they wanted it only for cross-breeding purposes.Other breeds were introduced, whick they believed would produce more meat, but they were less hardy, and had greasy, short-staple fleece. By the 1970’s the number of remaining Navajo Churro was less than four hundreds. Then, in the 1980s, an effort to restore the breed was started. A number of grassroots organizations joined forces to revive the spinning and weaving traditions associated with the Churro, and created a market for its unique products. By 2005, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association had registered more than 5000 individuals.
Navajo-Churro lambs produced in Navajo country are range-fed, antibiotic-free, and parasite-free. Because the fat of this breed is typically concentrated around the organs rather than being spread throughout the body, even the meat from animals reaching fourteen to sixteen months of age does not suffer from the musky, “muttony” smell that afflicts other breeds. Instead, it retains a light, herbal fragrance and a complex, grassy flavor reflecting the unique terroir. The meat is highly valued by Navajo people, traditional cooks, food connoisseurs and celebrity chefs.

In the summer of 2006, several non-profit organizations joined forces with Slow Food USA to establish a Presidium to promote Navajo-Churro lamb meat and to foster its sustainable production. The Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium was organized to initially benefit a loose collective of Diné sheepherders, hand-spinners and weavers, who live on western and northern “chapters” of the Navajo Indian reservation. The project is developing direct-marketing strategies within the region, particularly targeting chefs, organic buying cooperatives (CSA’s) as well as trading posts and food markets on the reservation. Now, for the first time, the lamb is featured in regional restaurants.
The Presidium was initially formed through the collaboration of Slow Food USA with Diné Be’iina, the Navajo Churro-Sheep Association, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and the Center for Sustainable Environments, and Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Slow Food Northern Arizona, the Institute for Integrated Rural Development at Diné College, the Navajo Sheep Project, and Heifer International have also played important supporting roles in Navajo and Hispanic lands in New Mexico. The hope is that, once the marketing model in the western Navajo area has been proven a success, a similar initiative can be undertaken in the eastern Navajo region and the hispanic areas of New Mexico.

Production area
Colorado Plateau Region, within Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah
Roy Kady, Diné Woven
Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

Jay Begay Jr.
PO Box 1232
Tuba City, Arizona 86045

Colleen Biakeddy
Hardrock (Kayenta), Arizona
tel. + 1 5204919860

Irene Bennelley
PO Box 8054
Newcomb, NM 87455

Ella Decker
PO Box 3112
Kykotsmovi, AZ 86039

Leon Tsosie
Pinyon, Arizona
tel. + 1 9282213578

Jimmy Jake
HCR 6100 Box 815
Teec Nos Pos, AZ 86514
Presidium coordinator
Margaret Gay Chanler
tel. +1 9282262891


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