Know Your Fiber: Churro Wool

Posted on February 01 2018

Know Your Fiber:  Churro Wool
Navajo-Churro sheep, are direct descendants of the Churra sheep brought in two waves to North America by the Spanish, a very old breed of sheep from the Castile and León region of Spain. The sheep first arrived in 1493 on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, and then a second time in 1519 by Hernán Cortés. While primarily brought over by the conquistadors to provide food for their troops and settlers, the Churra sheep also provided them with a very durable wool.

As the Spanish continued to explore and colonize in North America, they brought their sheep with them. In 1598, the conquistador Juan de Oñate brought Spanish settlers to colonize the Southwest, bringing along 2900 sheep with them. The Spanish settlers to this area prospered and established large ranches with many thousands of sheep and other livestock. However, the success of these settlers was in stark contrast to the treatment of the indigenous people of the area, the Pueblo, who endured massacres and were enslaved to work for the settlers. Among the work they were made to do for the Spanish, the Pueblo were expected to tend the Spanish sheep herds and weave textiles.

During this period of Spanish colonization, the Navajo began to trade along the edges of Spanish settlements for Spanish goods and livestock, including some sheep. Spanish settlements in outlying areas were also a frequent targets of Navajo raids, by which even more sheep were acquired.

The indigenous people of the Southwest endured subjugation and not-infrequent violent confrontations with Spanish colonists, which eventually culminated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in what is today known as New Mexico. The Pueblos, accompanied by some Navajo and Apache, revolted against the Spanish settlers of Santa Fe, driving them into a retreat – at least for a time. The Spanish reconquered the area in 1692, and continued to bring immigrants and settlers there until Mexico gained its independence in 1821.

The sheep abandoned by the retreating settlers in 1680 were taken by the Pueblo, Navajo and Apache. While the Apache reportedly ate the sheep they captured, the Navajo added their newly acquired sheep to their flocks, to use for both meat and wool. Over the next couple centuries, finer and finer wool became more desirable in North American and Europe, and European and North American settler herders started breeding for sheep with finer wool. Many Churra sheep on larger ranches in the Southwest were bred with Merinos or English longwool sheep to improve the fineness of their wool, resulting in newer breeds of sheep. However, in the remote Navajo villages, their Churra sheep were not cross-bred with other breeds. These sheep became an integral part of the Navajo culture and economy.

The Navajo population lived in an enormous area that encompassed much of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, areas that were acquired by the United States of American in 1848 after the Mexican-American War. As increasing numbers of U.S. settlers moved into these areas in the 1800s, violent conflicts between the Navajo and the settlers grew. In 1864, United States of America forced the Navajo to leave their lands and their livestock, in what is now called the Long Walk of the Navajo. Over a series of 54 forced marches from 1886 to 1866, the Navajo were made to walk to an internment camp in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. It was a 300 mile journey led by frontiersman Kit Carson with the support of the U.S. military, with little or no preparation allowed and no support or provisions from the U.S. Government. Many died along the way.

As a part of Kit Carson’s campaign to eradicate the Navajo way of life, villages were burned, fields were destroyed, and livestock were killed off. Some Navajo were able to escape to remote areas with their Churro sheep and other livestock.

In 1868 the Navajo were allowed by the U.S. government to return to some of their original lands; 3.5 million acres of land were returned to them, which over time has increased to over 16 million acres. As a part of the agreement to return the Navajo to their land, each family was issued one male and one female sheep per person. It is not clear what type of sheep these were, although the fact that they were referred to as “native” sheep, may mean they were also Churra. Regardless, they almost certainly bred with the remaining Churra, which by then were popularly known as Churro. Reunited with their livestock, Churro sheep became more integral than ever to the Navajo people.

The sheep flocks of the Navajo grew significantly over the next 60 years and provided essential fiber for weaving clothing and rugs, as well as meat. Navajo rugs and blankets were much in demand by tourists, and many families were able to support themselves or supplement their income with money brought in from their woven goods and from raw wool. However, Churro sheep began to decline during the early 1900s; the government had decided that alternate breeds would be better for the reservation, and established programs to breed the Churros with other types of sheep. In this manner, the Churros began to very gradually disappear, although the Navajo sheep herds in general began to grow significantly thanks to the skilled Navajo sheep herders.

By 1930, there were over 574,000 sheep on the Navajo reservation. However, the 1930 brought drought to the area, and it was noted that increasing herds of livestock created erosion in parts of the Navajo lands. Studies were done on the impact of the livestock and in area, and it was determined that that the Navajo livestock numbers need to be reduced. The U.S. government decided to step in.

John Collier, the head of what is now known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, led a program to purchase and destroy half the livestock of the Navajo, including the sheep. Although it started as a voluntary program, few Navajo willingly participated; their spiritual and cultural ties to their livestock were very strong, and this was not understood by the U. S. government. What started as a voluntary program soon became a forced program in 1935 when it became clear that most Navajo people did not want to participate. When the tribe tried to organize opposition to the program, Collier had the people involved arrested. Giving up their livestock was mandatory, and the government made it clear the Navajo people had no option but to comply. The animals were either sent to be sold, or were simply slaughtered on the reservation. This destructive event was soon called the Second Long Walk by the Navajo, and had a devastating impact on both the Navajo economy and culture. Likewise it had a devastating impact on Churro sheep, whose numbers were even further reduced. To this day, there is some disagreement over whether the studies the government used to justify the livestock reduction were actually valid, or if information that would have prevented the government from stepping in was suppressed.

Already on the way to becoming endangered, this destruction of livestock put the Churro perilously close to extinction. Even so, some of the Navajo people managed to preserve the Churro breed in isolated areas. However, by the early 1970s, their Churro sheep numbers had dwindled to only about 400.

Dr. Lyle McNeal, a sheep specialist, first encountered Churro sheep in 1972. They were being used as game animals being kept by ranchers for their clients to shoot for sport. A few years later he encountered them again on Navajo lands. Intrigued by the small sheep, he soon discovered that the breed was nearly extinct, and decided to try and reverse it. Starting with just 6 ewes and 2 rams, he soon built a small flock. By the time he accepted a position at Utah State University, his flock had grown to 30. Utah State University encouraged Dr. McNeal to continue his work with Churro sheep, and even paid for the flock to be relocated to Utah. This was the start of the Navajo Sheep Project. Over the next several years, Dr. McNeal would make many visits to the Navajo, looking to buy Churro sheep to add to his flock. Sheep farmers, including many Navajo, have all benefitted from his work. Since the start of the Navajo Sheep Project, over 2000 Navajo-Churro sheep have been returned to Navajo lands from the program, and at least as many have been sent to other sheep ranchers in the United States. Additionally, the Tarahumara tribe of Copper Canyon in Mexico received some Navajo-Churro sheep to broaden the genetic base of their Churro sheep.

By the late 1990s, the Navajo Sheep Project became a non-profit organization, separate from Utah State University. By the early 2000s, the Navajo Sheep Project was facing financial difficulties; the decision was made to sell or trade most of the flock to the Navajo in 2002. Today, the Navajo Sheep Project manages the Navajo-Churro Sheep Registry, and offers outreach education throughout the southwestern United States. Thanks to the Navajo, other sheep breeders, and the efforts of the Navajo Sheep Project, there are over 3000 registered Navajo-Churro sheep in the United Stated today.

Churro wool is typically classified as a coarse wool. It has remarkable durability, and is mainly used for weaving rugs and blankets, although some fiber artists have also used it for outerwear. The fiber of inner coat of the sheep ranges from 10-35 microns in width, while the outer coat usually exceeds 35 microns. Churro wool has a range of natural colors, including white, black, reddish brown, and a variety of browns and grays.

Here are Northwest Yarns, we have Churro yarn ready and available! Stop by our brick-and-mortar store to check it out, and stock up for your next project.

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