Navajo Nation: Reviving Indigenous heritage, one sheep at a time

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

But the days of sheep camps and flocks roaming the arid plains and valleys here are long gone. On two separate occasions the churro came close to full extermination. From over 1 million head at one time, by 1977 there were fewer than 500 left in the world. After decades of efforts to repopulate the breed, scientists believe there are now over 8,000.

Why We Wrote This

In the Navajo Nation, a connection to the land is a connection to heritage and identity – ties that were lost when the US government nearly exterminated Navajo-Churro sheep in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, churro flocks are on the rebound, signaling hope and resilience on the reservation.

As the sheep rebound, they are filling a cultural and economic void that was left by a massive “livestock reduction” in the 1930s, when the US government ordered nearly all of the sheep killed.

“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 Alta Piechowski, a career psychologist for reservation schools. “This is another beginning for us.”

Near Toadlena, NM

Irene Bennalley steps out into the fierce afternoon sunlight wearing jeans and a maroon sweater, her long gray hair knotted in a braid.

Brandishing a long white stick as her crook, she picks her way across her parched desert farm toward the sheep pen. Answering their bleats with firm instructions in Navajo, she shepherds them out onto the dry, dusty range.

She doesn’t know exactly how many Navajo-Churro sheep she has, but she ballparks it at around 100 head. It’s bad luck to keep exact counts of your livestock, her father taught her. Don’t boast about your animals, he would say, or they’ll start dropping.

Why We Wrote This

In the Navajo Nation, a connection to the land is a connection to heritage and identity – ties that were lost when the US government nearly exterminated Navajo-Churro sheep in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, churro flocks are on the rebound, signaling hope and resilience on the reservation.

Out here, ranchers like Ms. Bennalley can’t afford to lose animals. The winters are cold and hard, and the summers are hot and relentless. Water is scarce and feed is expensive. It’s the main reason she has come to love the breed, known colloquially as churros, that she’d grown up only hearing about in stories.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Irene Bennalley chats about the Navajo-Churro sheep she raises on her ranch in the Navajo Nation. “The sheep have helped me,” she says. “The sheep is the one that’s providing for me.”

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

But the days of sheep camps and flocks roaming the arid plains and valleys here are long gone. On two separate occasions the churro came close to full extermination. From over 1 million head at one time, by 1977 there were fewer than 500 left in the world.

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