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Tomorrow in Saley(ph), Arizona in the Navajo Nation, the traditions of sheep herders and fiber arts will be honored at the Sheep is Life celebration. For as long as anyone can remember, Churro sheep have been central to Navajo life and spirituality. The animal was all but exterminated in modern times. Outside forces deemed it an inferior breed.

Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center went the Navajo reservation of northern Arizona and New Mexico to discover how the Churro has been shepherded back to health.

HAL CANNON: The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia. And at last count, 175,000 people live here. Most people are spread out in small clusters that you see off in the distance from the highway. Amongst modern prefab houses and hogans - the multisided traditional homes of the Navajo - are often corralled with small bands of sheep grazing nearby.

(Soundbite of bells)

Mr. ROY KADY (Weaver, Chapter President, Teec Nos Pos): Sometimes you find me and I just want to sit in the corral with them. You know, I just find a corner and I sit there. They motivate me, even just to see them. You know, it's that strong to me.

Mr. CANNON: Churro sheep are smaller than most breeds and have a long, lustrous fleece, which is valued by Navajo weavers like Roy Kady. He lives near Teec Nos Pos, where he's chapter president sort of like being the town's mayor. For him, this flock is part of something larger, something he calls...

Mr. KADY: Din'e bi iina.

CANNON: The Navajo lifeway. Din'e, the preferred name for the Navajo, and bi iina means lifeway.

Mr. KADY: Sheep is your backbone. It's your survival. It's your lifeline.

CANNON: For centuries, the Churro was all these things, providing the Navajo with what they needed to survive in the stark desert: meat for sustenance, wool for weaving clothing and blankets, sinew for thread. It's no wonder the Navajo are grateful, even reverential, when it comes to the Churro.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. KADY: Sheep, you know, is a very important part of this whole cosmology to us. You know, there's songs to where it refers to the first thing I see is the white sheep to the east when I wake up to make my offering. You know, it stands at my doorway. You know, and that's how we know that the sheep is something that's very sacred to us.

CANNON: The Churro were the first domesticated sheep in the New World and, by most historical accounts, were brought to the Southwest by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. Over the next three centuries, Churro sheep and the Navajo wove a life together in a balance of nature. But by the 1860s, America's westward expansion collided with Navajo resistance. And in a tragic move, Kit Carson and his troops were ordered to relocate the tribe and destroy their livestock.

Mr. KADY: The eradication of this particular sheep breed because we're connected to it with songs, prayers and ceremonies when it was taken from us, that part of our life was also destroyed.

(Soundbite of singing)

CANNON: Eventually, the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral lands, where they built their herds back. That is, until government agents returned in the 1930s with orders to eliminate the Churro.

Professor LYLE MCNEAL (Animal Science, Utah State University): The U.S. government thought that they had too many sheep and the wrong sheep.

CANNON: Lyle McNeal is a professor of animal science at Utah State University.

Prof. MCNEAL: And they were causing premature siltation of a new dam being built on the Colorado called Hoover. And they felt that the runoff and the overgrazing would make that dam worthless in a few years. So, in '34, they started the famous stock reduction.

CANNON: Killing off the Churro sent the Navajo economy into a tailspin. Realizing that the tribe could not survive without their herds, the federal government introduced standard breeds, whose meat and wool were more uniform to market demand.

For decades, most people thought the Churro had been decimated. Then in 1972, when McNeal was teaching in California, he took his students on a field trip to the Salinas Valley. There he noticed some strange-looking woolly creatures as they stopped to visit a local rancher.

Prof. MCNEAL: And at that stop is where I really first saw a living Churro. I had read about them before then, but I'd never seen one up close, personal touch. And so, my light - bells rang, whatever. I got a shot of adrenaline.

CANNON: And so began a personal and professional calling, a 30-year mission to save the Churro from extinction.

McNeal and his supporters scoured hidden canyons on the reservation for surviving Churro and eventually found enough animals to begin a breeding program. This led to the establishment of the Navajo Sheep Project, which is dedicated to bringing back the Churro.

Prof. MCNEAL: When I had sheep in the truck and we were making deliveries down there and I'd stop to get some gas, some of the elders would be attracted to the truck if they were at the trading post or something. And I saw more tears. They would say, these are the real sheep. Where did you get them?

And that's when I started getting the signal, you know, that these are more than just a sheep. So it added a dimension to the Navajo Sheep Project effort that I hadn't expected.

(Soundbite of sheep)

Ms. TAHNIBAH NATANI (Weaver): You know, this morning, honey, I saw the sheep. They were sleeping, like this, like a train. They were all just enjoying the sun's ray as it came up and...

CANNON: We're now in a corral with a few dozen Churro. The road between Gallop and Shiprock, New Mexico is in back of us. And in front is a sheer sandstone cliff. Tahnibah Natani is an award-winning weaver who is gathering her ewes and rams as her husband prepares for a ceremony to bless and protect the sheep.

Mr. ANDERSON HOSKE: (Foreign language spoken)

CANNON: Anderson Hoske is a medicine man. He's lit up a mix of local plants, making sure that all the sheep breathe in the thick aromatic smoke from the smoldering fire.

Mr. HOSKE: You know, the smoke is like, kind of like a flu shot to them. It's all about chasing away the sickness spirits, different sicknesses. The more they inhale the smoke, it's better. So, we're going to get it kind of closer to them. (Singing in foreign language)

CANNON: Anderson sings an ancient prayer, then Tahnibah fills a sacred pipe and blows smoke into the face of each sheep.

This is a family who shows their gratitude for the gift of life that is given each time they take an animal for food. This is a family who will shear these sheep, clean the wool, spin it into yarn, which then goes to the loom to be woven, not just as a work of art, but a visual representation of heaven on earth.

Ms. NATANI: So, when you're weaving, actually you're doing a prayer because the warp is considered a representation of rain. The tension cord is lightening. The top of the beam of the loom, the very top, represents the sky, Father Sky. And the bottom bar represents Mother Earth. Everything on the loom, there's a special song for it. So, it becomes a prayer.

CANNON: Tahnibah and Anderson are committed to keeping the traditions of their ancestors alive in a modern world. They're active in a region-wide community of herders, weavers and restaurateurs who are dedicated to the Churro. Even though the breed is a small minority of the sheep on the reservation just over 4,000 it's no longer considered endangered.

But while the Churro are thriving, it may be that this weaver and medicine man are becoming the rare breed, even within their tribe. Like most Americans, Navajo have become tied to a paycheck economy and a new generation is growing up mesmerized by what's beamed in on the satellite dish.

Mr. KADY: (Foreign language spoken)

CANNON: Pink sand, golden brush and a pewter gray sky, Churro rancher and traditional weaver Roy Kady and his mother enter their remote hogan to get in from the cold. They occasionally trade words in Navajo, but otherwise she sits expressionless in her long skirt and bright scarf as her son reveals a deep worry for the survival of his tribe's traditions.

Mr. KADY: I think we are at the point where, yeah, it could die out tomorrow. But coming from my heart is that, hold on, wait a minute, hold on, you know, this is good and it has to be continued. You know, oftentimes you hear the phrase, oh, the youth are tomorrow, they are our future and, you know, that sort of thing. But I always say, no, they're now. It has to happen now. We as teachers need to stop and say, let's get with it and teach them before it's forgotten.

CANNON: This started out as a story about saving an endangered breed of sheep from extinction. But in the end, it's about more than that. It's about an endangered culture struggling for survival in a shrink-wrapped world.

For NPR News, I'm Hal Cannon.

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