Reviving the Navajo Identity, One Sheep at a Time


Irene Bennalley steps out into the fierce afternoon light, dressed in jeans and a brown sweater, her long gray hair tied in a braid.

Brandishing a long white staff like her trickster, she makes her way through her parched desert farm toward the sheepfold. Responding to their bleats with firm instructions in Navajo, she guides them to the dry, dusty beach.

She doesn’t know exactly how many Navajo-Churro sheep she owns, but she estimates it at around 100 head. It’s bad luck to count his cattle exactly, his father taught him. Don’t brag about your animals, he said, or they’ll start to fall.

Here, farmers like Ms. Bennalley cannot afford to lose animals. The winters are cold and harsh, and the summers are hot and relentless. Water is scarce and fodder is expensive. This was the main reason she came to love the breed, colloquially known as churros, which she had only grown up hearing about in stories.

The Navajo, who refer to themselves as Diné, have long been a pastoral society. Sheep feature prominently in their creation myths, and after Spanish settlers first introduced the churro sheep to the Southwest, the hardy and adaptable breed became, over the centuries, the heart of a self-sufficient economy and a vibrant Diné culture.

But the days of sheep camps and herds roaming the arid plains and valleys are long gone. Twice the churro came close to complete extermination. From more than a million heads at a time, in 1977 there were less than 500 left in the world.

Efforts have gained momentum in recent years to rebuild the breed and return the herds to the Navajo Nation. Decades of painstaking, sometimes dangerous work by a handful of dedicated breeders and animal handlers helped restore the population to over 8,000.

Today, Navajo Nation people are working to bring the herds back to the reservation, in an attempt to fill the economic and cultural void left by their near extinction.

“We’re back in a place of reevaluating our way of life,” says Alta Piechowski, whose family has been involved in restoring the Navajo-Churro for decades.

“When you walk the earth [with the sheep], there is another kind of healing,” she adds. “It heals your heart, and when it heals your heart, you will want other people’s hearts to be healed as well.”

Identity links

The Navajo-Churro is a striking breed, almost perfectly designed for the dry, hardy Navajo nation.

An “unimproved” breed – that is, a breed that has not been selectively bred for the market – churros are long and lean, with a thick, double-layered coat (coarse outer coat and an undercoat). fine hair) which comes in a range of natural colours. Both rams and ewes can grow horns – up to four at a time. They are resistant to most diseases and have adapted over centuries to thrive in the dry, forage-poor climate of the southwest.

For the Navajo people, the churro was a sort of panacea. They provided a healthy and sustainable source of food and income; their multicolored batting is ideal for weaving the iconic Navajo blankets. And culturally, sheep have always held an important place in Navajo spiritual traditions. One of the six sacred mountains that bound the Navajo Nation, Dibé Nitsaa translates to Big Sheep Mountain.

But for most of a century, Navajo-Churros were hard to find on the reservation.

The official term used by the US government in the 1930s was “cattle reduction”. The Midwest was in the grip of the Dust Bowl, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, headed by Commissioner John Collier, concluded that too much livestock was causing erosion and degradation of the land.

The policy resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of churros, often on the reservation, and sometimes on the properties of their owners.

And that came after the Navajo people spent more than 70 years steadily rebuilding their churro herds. The U.S. military killed swathes of cattle in a scorched earth campaign against the Navajos in the 1860s. In 1868, part of a treaty that saw the Navajo people return to their sacred lands gave each family two sheep to start herding again.

Nearly a century after the inventory reduction, the collective memory is still raw. Mrs Bennalley speaks sadly of what she calls “the John Collier era”. For a long time no one talked about it at all.

“Some people have never really recovered from losing their sheep this way,” says Ms Bennalley. “My family, my dad, nobody really talked about it, because it wasn’t something to be proud of.”

Although there is evidence that Mr. Collier and others genuinely thought they were helping the tribe, many Navajo see little difference between what the US government did in the 1930s and what the US military did. made in the 1860s: an attempt at forced assimilation.

“That connection to the sheep is the connection to the land, which is the connection to the culture, which is the connection to the spirituality of the Diné people,” says Dr. Piechowski, a career psychologist for the reserve schools.

“If you exterminate the sheep, you pretty much eliminate [those] connections,” she adds. “That way we were an easy target.”

Herds for the future

The churro never disappeared from the reserve, but the few that remained remained hidden in some of the more remote corners of the reserve – so remote that the man who led the first efforts to bring the churro to the edge of extinction almost died trying.

In the early 1970s, Lyle McNeal saw his first churro: magnificent four-horned rams on a ranch in the Salinas Valley. He convinced the breeder to give him six breeding ewes and two four-horned rams (one black and one white). Thus, the Navajo Sheep Project was born. Dr. McNeal and his students trained and maintained a “core herd” of churros in California, and beginning in 1977 he began visiting the Navajo Nation to seek out more. He estimates that only a few hundred remained on a reservation the size of West Virginia.

With the help of Navajo students, they tracked down families with churros. To build trust, he offered to buy a sheep, then bring back two after they bred – surviving the perilous snowy mesas and flash floods to rescue them. Dr. McNeal now believes there are as many as 9,000 Navajo-Churro nationwide.

Many of them are on the Navajo Nation itself, but they are still far from the economic and cultural presence they used to be. At a time when there are easier ways to make a living on the reservation than raising cattle, the churro may never again be a central part of Navajo society.

Ms. Bennalley grew up on her ranch with Dibé Nitsaa a fixture on the northern horizon. Her father taught her to raise and care for their animals, and not to cry when you lose one, because you always win soon after. (It was a difficult lesson for her at first.)

And he told her about the churro, after she saw his first – a banging four horn – on the side of a road. She got hers a few years later: a ram she rented from the Navajo Sheep Project, named Dibé Nitsaa, for the sacred mountain.

It relaxes her to be here on the beach with the sheep. Spinning and weaving with their wool also soothes him. But more than anything, she says, churros have made her a living.

“I don’t have to depend on the government, on alms or any kind of help,” she says.

“The sheep helped me,” she adds. “The sheep is the one who feeds me.”

Dr. Piechowski says rebuilding the churro population can do that, and more, for the Navajo.

Her father grew up with churros, and now she’s helping establish the Hozho Center, a non-profit organization that will be based on 2,000 acres of private land with the overall goal of revitalizing the traditional Diné economy and culture. The center will house a permanent herd of Navajo-Churros, to help repopulate the breed on the reservation and restore culture around them.

Physical and psychological benefits could also combine with economic and cultural benefits, Dr. Piechowski believes. More churro meat in the Navajo diet could help combat high rates of diabetes and food insecurity on the reservation, for example. The churro can be “a healing tool,” she says.

The Hozho Center is something of a retirement project for her, after 35 years of working with school children.

“We have been traumatized many times. … You see it in the schools. You see young people carry a lot of trauma,” she says. “We no longer know how to live together.

“We can’t totally turn back the clock, but we can try to have a more positive relationship with our Earth and a more positive relationship with others,” she adds. “It’s another start for us.”

Related stories

Read this story on

Become a member of the Monitor community


Comments are closed.